A young hero trying to protect their identity is one of the oldest, most endearing narratives in superhero comics. From a literary standpoint, it’s the equivalent of rescuing a princess from a dragon. Young heroes, especially, endure this narrative more than most. Typically, they have a lot more to lose and a lot more to manage. Fighting a dragon is hard enough. Fighting it with the knowledge that there’s a history exam the next morning makes it even harder.
While Peter Parker has been the poster child for protecting a secret identity for nearly half-a-century, Kamala Khan is very much the new gold standard for young heroes with a lot to lose. Like Peter Parker before her, she struggles to manage being a superhero with being an ordinary teenager, who also happens to be a minority in a society that isn’t that supportive of minorities. These struggles embody the heart and spirit of a young hero trying to juggle having a real life and a superhero life. Kamala, being a minority, has to juggle more than most.
Since Kamala’s superhero life as Ms. Marvel began, G. Willow Wilson has gone out of her way to make her story feel relevant and modern. Ms. Marvel isn’t the kind of hero who still takes Polaroid pictures or uses a phone booth to change into her costume. She’s a teenager who knows how to use a smartphone, is active on social media, and plays online video games. That means the narrative surrounding a young hero protecting their identity needs an update too and that’s exactly what Ms. Marvel #17 brings to the table.
Kamala’s life as a superhero is on the line. A digital enemy named Doc.X is threatening to expose her double life to her friends, family, and everyone with an internet connection. In many respects, that’s far more dangerous than J. Jonah Jameson publishing photos of Spider-Man without his mask. At least with a newspaper, there’s less chance of a compromising photo becoming an internet meme.
The danger Kamala faces has been escalating for several issues now and Ms. Marvel #17 acts as a last ditch effort, of sorts. Since Doc.X isn’t a killer robot she can punch, she has to get creative. In this case, being an overly-idealistic teenager who spends a lot of her free time playing video games actually works in her favor. Those looking for Captain America to punch a Nazi or Iron Man to blow something up may be disappointed, but those looking for something different will find it here.
Wilson continues the tradition of creating non-traditional threats for Ms. Marvel. These threats aren’t always just criminals looking to swipe a wad of bills from an open cash register. They’re a different kind of threat that younger generations understand more than those whose primary fear was being mugged in a dark alley. A threat like Doc.X is even scarier than that for most millennials because it threatens both their digital life and their real life. Insurance can cover a stolen car. It can’t cover the cost of exposing someone’s darkest secrets.
Ms. Marvel knows this because Doc.X already exposed the secrets of one of her friends, Zoey. It’s not a trivial secret either. Zoey was a closeted lesbian until Doc.X comes along. Wilson shows just how devastating this kind of exposure can be. It acts as a dire warning of sorts to Kamala because if that’s what it can do to someone just trying to hide their schoolyard crushes, then there’s no telling what it can do for a superhero trying to maintain a closet identity.
The stakes are very personal. Some of Kamala’s friends are already suffering because of it. The emotional undertones are there for Ms. Marvel. When it comes to fighting Doc.X though, the story does somewhat falter. That’s not to say it falls flat, but it doesn’t exactly hit with the same epic overtones that come with fighting the Red Skull and an army of Nazi Hulks.
It helps that Ms. Marvel adapts her tactics, enlisting the help of fellow gamers and flipping the script on Doc.X. However, the way those tactics play out is lacking in substance and requires that a lot of other things happen off-panel. Some of those off-panel happenings are more intriguing than anything Ms. Marvel does, but it’s never shown how that plays out. It’s only shown that it works just enough to get Doc.X out in the open.
Eventually, there is a final boss battle of sorts. Kamala does get a chance to punch Doc.X. However, it’s a battle that is over way too quickly and never gets a chance to generate much excitement. For a story that sets up such high emotional stakes, which is the cornerstone of Ms. Marvel’s appeal, it makes for a rushed and unsatisfying conclusion. Beyond the emotional backdrops, Ms. Marvel #17 doesn’t just deliver the kind of impact that gives the overall story a sense of weight.
There are still some wholly relevant themes, both for the traditional superhero narrative and a younger generation whose concerns are more likely to emphasize WiFi speeds over petty crime. Ms. Marvel still has that appeal. G. Willow Wilson makes Ms. Marvel a uniquely appealing hero by blending these narratives. For this particular story involving Doc.X, the blend just isn’t there.
Ms. Marvel is still a character that plays into the sensibilities of the millennial crowd, much more so than traditional heroes like Spider-Man and Captain America. It does make her distinct. It makes her stories distinct as well. For those who just want to see the Hulk smash things, those stories aren’t going to carry the same weight. They will, however, offer something different.
That’s the most Ms. Marvel #17 accomplishes. It’s different. It’s relevant. It’s a story with problems that can’t be solved with punching, smashing, or one of Tony Stark’s fancy gizmos. Even if that’s all it accomplishes, it still ensures that Ms. Marvel will resonate with a new generation that fears more than just killer robots.