She-Hulk: Attorney at Law

5 out of 5

Created by: Jennifer Gao

covers season 1

Are there problems with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law? Sure. It’s not the nigh-flawless work of some other series I’ll avoid naming so as not to elicit eye rolls from those who are sick of hearing about them (It’s Two and a Half Men, obviously), and there’s much here that I actually hope doesn’t date well – meaning I hope we get to a point where much of the heavy audience-winking is no longer necessary – but it is such a great step forward in the MCU (alongside Ms. Marvel and Werewolf By Night), along with being a generally good step forward for serialized TV, along with being a legitimately funny, smart, and interesting series… that I’m giving it some wiggle room.

What requires no such room is appreciation of the casting. While it’s perhaps cute to cast Tatiana Maslany in another dual role, she’s also perfect as Jennifer Walters, Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) sister, infected by his toxic blood and genetically gifted to also go hulky and thus (regrettably, in a funny ongoing gag) deemed She-Hulk; it’s also not the same kind of Orphan Black multiplicity, despite the obvious surface differences – Jen’s personality is much the same as She-Hulk, she’s just big, strong, and green – and makes for one of the show’s most unique within-the-context-of-superhero-media conceits: Jennifer Walters doesn’t really want to be a superhero, and she’d rather get back to her job as a lawyer. We get so many versions of “Bruce Wayne is the secret identity” deep-dives, or, more regularly, examinations of how hero life combines with regular life, but creator Jessica Gao and her writers use this wrinkle on that concept to explore much more interesting fare, such as how this stuff actually can mess with self-perception, and how it makes others see you differently, which is explored, in part, in the most up-front take on gender roles in the MCU to this point. And thanks to Jen’s ability to break the fourth wall and talk to the viewer, the show also gets to comment on… well, the show, and some of the tired structure of these things, and audience expectations. Disney / Marvel hasn’t avoided poking fun at themselves previously, but it’s been very much in a self-serving way; while it’s not like She-Hulk is tearing down the MCU, the commentary here is surprising at times, and because the show itself is bucking the formula in many ways, it doesn’t feel toothless. All of this really only works as well as it does, though, because of Maslany, backed up by a very fun set of side characters: Ginger Gonzaga as Jen’s friend Nikki; Josh Segarra as workmate and friend “Pug” – Segarra has a sort of one-note doofus character bit he does, but he does it well; and some occasionally indulgent inclusions from the larger MCU who are, nonetheless, an amazing joy to see on screen when wrapped in the elevated dialogue and scenarios of the series.

Jen’s She-Hulk origin is covered within minutes; the “plot” involving some mysterious figures trying to steal her powers is backgrounded. This is purposeful: while one might wish that She-Hulk: Attorney At Law had more lawyering in it – the ‘hook’ is that she’s hired at a law firm as She-Hulk, and not Jen, and takes on cases involving powers – that’s only because those bits are silly and enjoyable; the majority of the show is really about Jen’s exploration of her identity, but that’s not as easy of a pitch, so in comes the fourth wall stuff (which is inherited from the comics) to poke fun at that as well.

The tone here is where the writing can stumble somewhat. Jen is an adult, but occasionally she processes things as though she’s never, say, had a relationship before, because it makes for a better joke. The show also goes out of its way to make sure we know Jen / She-Hulk is having naked sexy times with various folk, and that’s where I mention hoping that we evolve past this at some point – not because these bits aren’t funny, or entertaining, or important, rather that maybe in the future, it won’t be such an abnormality for a female lead to be able to have healthy sexual relationships that aren’t seen through a male gaze. So on the one hand: I love that the MCU went there; on the other hand, it’s a reminder of how dumb our standards can be. As to the former complaint, again, it makes for funny jokes in some scenes – Jen’s an adult, but boys are so confusing! – and I’d note that the episode that’s the worst offender on this front was, eh, written by a male.

Much conversation, prior to the show’s premiere, was criticizing the effects. Full CG characters are always a gamble; Hulk kinda sorta got away with it because he’s normally interacting with other folks in hero suits, or in CG landscapes. Jen can control her transformation into She-Hulk, though, and is doing so while at the office, or in the courtroom. Yeah, she gets into some tussles here and there, but the majority of what we see is her in regular environs, so it makes it easier to spot a disconnect. Personally, I was never taken out of a scene by the effects. However Maslany was translated into the character maintained all of her personality, which allows her acting to carry us past any visual hiccups, and even without that, I felt like the mingling was a lot of fun. When it comes to the fantastical depictions in other Marvel shows, you just kind of turn logic off completely; I found it more enjoyable to be able to actually be able to imagine this character typing at her office computer and etcetera, and while there’s (for now) always going to be that gap between stuff on-set and stuff generated via technology, it looks great, and the above other-mentioned aspects further endeared me to it. So if you just want to squint and criticize the effects, I’m sure there’s stuff to note, but within the context of my enjoyment, I wasn’t negatively affected in the least.

Early on in the MCU, without much to compare to, it was easier to say when something was just, y’know, good, on its own. As things went on, you inevitably start to compare to what came before, and then three phases in, you had other movies / shows trying to do the MCU thing, which meant you were down to a formula. Phase 4 has, appreciably, seen some shake-ups to that – some good, some bad – but a lot of this is still in comparison to other MCU entries. She-Hulk does join a nice run of recent efforts that, once again, do stand on their own, and it pushes beyond that – using clout to take some larger gambles within a general TV / Disney framework, while never losing sight of being a hoot to watch (or rewatch!) every week.