How ‘Ms. Marvel’ And ‘Turning Red’ Have Helped To Shape A Modern Archetype – Sitting down to watch Turning Red, you could be forgiven for not knowing too much about the film before the first frame flickers to life. Pixar’s track record for animated feature films is so consistently stellar that it just isn’t necessary to see a string of trailers or catch up on the promotional material, before deciding whether or not to watch the latest release. With offerings like Up and Wall-E, the studio has perfected a formula that strikes mature, complex emotional chords, while keeping younger audiences entertained. The films spend their time captivating children (and more than a few adults) sitting in cinemas, before drifting over to a streaming service and slotting into a pantheon of animated classics.
And yet, Turning Red has still managed to be one of the biggest cultural surprises of 2022. Partly, this is thanks to the film’s specificity. Like so many Pixar features before it, it tackles broad themes about the challenges and turbulence of transitioning into adolescence, and the loneliness and isolation that come too commonly with feeling different. But it’s also more. Turning Red is ostensibly about the daughter of a family of Chinese immigrants experiencing her first period, entering the throes of adolescence while coming into conflict with her parents for the first time. Like the red panda at the centre of the film, Turning Red’s heart is big enough to fill a room, and it shines as one of 2022’s most memorable features. Now, less than six months later, the MCU’s latest Disney+ series Ms. Marvel is hot on its heels.
The Rise Of Ms. Marvel
After a slew of unimpressive (though eminently watchable) MCU series, audiences can’t be blamed for not having any expectations for Ms. Marvel. The series isn’t a spin-off for an already established, popular character like Loki. It doesn’t have the star power of Moonknight, which was fronted by Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. The central character, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), doesn’t have a long-established backstory, with endless chronicles of lore and a legion of staunch fans. Instead, it’s a show adapted from a character who was created in 2013, and who would only go on to have her own solo comic series in 2014. So it’s little surprise that Ms. Marvel’s premiere is the least watched opening episode for an MCU series since the franchise’s Disney+ era began.
That’s a travesty. Without any doubt, Ms. Marvel is the strongest MCU series since WandaVision. It stands head and shoulders above mediocre, uninspired offerings like Hawkeye, with the sheer amount of passion that sits at the core of its filmmaking. It’s filled with flair and intentional creative decisions, and it combines that style with substance. But beneath the flashiness, it’s this substance that is Ms. Marvel’s true strength.
Like Turning Red, Ms. Marvel is a celebration of growing up with friends, young creativity, and the burgeoning capacity for responsibility, freedom, and self-discovery. And again, like Turning Red, Ms. Marvel sets itself apart by being unashamed of its specificity. Because of this specificity, the series feels more human and grounded than any of the Disney+ MCU series that have preceded it.
Ms. Marvel explores Kamala Khan’s story, navigating adolescence as her desires become increasingly at odds with what is expected from her by her parents. The character is the daughter of first-generation Asian immigrants and has grown up being taught the importance of her family’s religious beliefs and responsibilities. She comes into possession of superhuman powers unlocked by her heritage and intrinsically linked to her culture.
A New Archetype
If Ms. Marvel had come out two, or three years after the release of Turning Red, some eyebrows might be raised at the overt similarities. They might have different (though not radically different) settings, and they both explore the same themes, same conflicts, and same arcs with a set of characters whose likenesses are obvious. But the truth is, the similarities between the film and the series aren’t explained by a coincidence or a sudden lack of originality. Just as so many classic stories, across cinema, television, literature, and all other media follow the path of the archetypal hero’s journey, the links between Turning Red and Ms. Marvel are explained by the increasing salience of a modern archetype.
This modern archetype follows a young creative child of first-generation immigrants as their burgeoning aspirations come into conflict with the expectations placed upon them. Turning Red’s Mae Ling, and Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan both spend their time doodling and daydreaming as they meet their academic, cultural, and familial responsibilities. The conflict between the two characters and their respective parents is triggered by their determination to attend a gig, in Mae Ling’s case, and a party, in Kamala Khan’s case. In both instances, the events fall outside of what their parents believe to be appropriate, and the young teens form secretive plans with their friends to attend regardless.
This archetype is being brought into the spotlight by women with a family history of immigration. Both Bisha K. Ali, the head writer of Ms. Marvel, and Domee Shi, the director of Turning Red, have their own links to the lives of immigrants and first-generation immigrants. Both have shared how their own experiences are reflected in their creations, and why the onscreen representation of those experiences is so important. But you don’t have to be the child of a first-generation immigrant to relate to the stories of Mae Ling and Kamala Khan. Even a quick glance online shows that the response to both pieces of media has been overwhelming. Elements of this archetype connect with people from a broad spectrum of childhood experiences.
Even for people without their own connections to this modern archetype, the strength of its message is clear to see. Connecting the tales of the spectacular to the lives of real people grounds them in a reality that makes them so much more compelling and emotionally resonant than the distant story of a billionaire scientist becoming a superhero. Whether they can turn into a giant panda, or create solid platforms of glistening light, the stories of heroes don’t have to be divorced from reality.
As the children of immigrants take up positions of authority and influence in the entertainment industry, they bring their stories, and this modern archetype, into the mainstream. Within the space of six months, both Turning Red, and Ms. Marvel helped to define an archetype, and push it towards the front of today’s cultural consciousness. They’ve shed light on the experiences of the first-generation immigrants, and the challenges (and joys) of their children who live dual lives, balancing their commitments to their heritage with the demands of their social lives and aspirations.
For the sake of more diverse stories, that’s a great thing.