Disney+’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is a very, very silly show.
Don’t get me wrong. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is exactly the sort of silly show you should be expecting from a series called She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. It’s broad, bright and eager to serve the audience with a wink and a nudge. It’s loose to the point of near formlessness, boasting a clear theme and a savvy feminist streak, but it doesn’t seem to even be aspiring to stakes or a distinctive style.
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Based on the four half-hour episodes sent to critics, She-Hulk is more Ally McBeal than The Good Fightas legally focused comedies go, closer to the sort of relentlessly meta tweaking of classic sitcom tropes characteristic of the early episodes of WandaVision than the darker, richer undercurrents characteristic of the later episodes. Approached on its own terms, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is zippy, amusing and laden with Easter eggs, but anybody looking for “more” — more darkness, more drama, more cohesion — will be frustrated.
That frustration could come almost immediately, because Jessica Gao’s pilot, working with a character created by Stan Lee and John Buscema and expanded in various comic book iterations with varying amounts of levity and fourth wall breaking, begins with a fake-out. Deputy district attorney Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) is about to head into a completely irrelevant trial, and her paralegal/best friend Nikki (Ginger Gonzaga) suggests that if all else fails in court, she can just hulk out. The idea of a show like this starting without a perfunctory origin story feels refreshing for maybe two seconds, until Jen turns to the camera and says, “It’s true. I am a Hulk,” launching into exactly that perfunctory origin story, which takes up nearly the entire pilot.
Short version: In a car accident with her cousin Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Jen ends up being exposed to Bruce’s blood and a level of gamma radiation that would kill somebody without their shared genetic profile. Instead of dying, Jen hulks out, becoming a 6-foot-7-inch green figure with more physical similarities to Stretch Armstrong than to Ruffalo’s familiar, bulky Hulk. The first episode is basically an extended series of training montages and quippy one-liners as Smart Hulk instructs her on using her powers — the usual lifting of heavy objects and muscular leaping — and controlling the beast within.
Unlike Bruce, who required years of Zen meditation and scientific exploration to separate man from Hulk, Jen has near-immediate control over the alias the media will quickly dub “She-Hulk.” Her secret weapon is the conditioning required to be a woman in the modern world: She’s used to managing her emotions, lest she be accused of being hysterical. She’s used to managing the stress and terror of simply walking down the street at night, the pressure and uncertainty of not knowing the motives of a sketchy guy who approaches her at a bar.
Once Jen bids farewell to her cousin — Ruffalo makes additional appearances, but in fleeting cameo form — and takes a job heading up the superhero law department at a major firm, the show establishes a case-of-the-week structure that introduces the likes of Tim Roth reprising his role as Emil Blonsky/Abomination, up for parole under circumstances that make absolutely no sense (it’s up to you if you choose to take them seriously). We quickly understand that even if the series gives her larger-than-life adversaries, Jen’s real obstacles come in the form of online dating or condescending male co-workers, which can be very funny when She-Hulk takes the time to clearly explain how chauvinistic institutions treat her differently as ordinary Jen versus She-Hulk.
Maslany spends maybe half of the series as Jen, chipper and likable, and the other half as She-Hulk, clearly recognizable under special effects that aren’t impressive, but rarely attempt to be. She-Hulk is, as I’ve mentioned, big and green in a lithe, athletic and elongated way. If there were more action scenes or more sequences requiring heavy lifting, literally or figuratively, from the effects, maybe the show’s technical modesty would be a problem. Mostly She-Hulk is litigating or making TV appearances or generally just existing in an overlit version of Los Angeles instead of engaging in epic set pieces, so even if I wasn’t impressed, I was only rarely distracted. There are definitely scenes in which the scaling opposite She-Hulk gives the impression that the reliably high-energy Gonzaga is three feet tall, which she generally is not.
Mirth-resistant viewers will probably be irked by the way the show’s silliness infects characters with prior seriousness in the MCU. Should Blonsky/Abomination be reduced to cheap, despite knowing, punchlines regarding the fact that he was introduced in a movie with a very different Hulk? It didn’t bother me, but your mileage may vary. Ditto with transforming Benedict Wong’s Wong from the sometimes comic but seriously badass figure of the Doctor Strange movies into a much more frivolous character who spends his evenings catching up on prestige TV. Expect some hypocritical outrage from audiences who had no problems with the Taika Waititi Thor movies, which are, if we’re being totally candid, also mighty silly. I didn’t mind this version of Wong, especially in an episode featuring a hilarious guest turn by Florida Girls Star Patty Guggenheim.
As Jen puts it, speaking to the camera, “God, everybody loves Wong. It’s like giving the show Twitter armor for a week.” A lot of the humor in She-Hulk is in that vein, including mid-credit gags in each episode and a blink-and-you-miss-it acknowledgment of the end of Eternals that some people have been waiting for. The series also finds chuckles in putting a spotlight on deliciously marginal figures from the Marvel canon, including the Wrecking Crew — though unlike in HBO Max’s animated Harley Quinnthese characters are treated only with silence and not as simultaneously silly and threatening.
It could just be that these four episodes, all directed by Kat Coiro (Mary Me), are entirely about introducing the character, her voice and her professional world, and the rest of the nine-episode first season will be dedicated to grounding She-Hulk in a way that would let her be integrated into future Marvel projects. Renée Elise Goldsberry, Josh Segarra and Jameela Jamil are among several reliable supporting players barely utilized thus far who could form a solid foundation along with Maslany, Gonzaga and some of the cameos that are so frequent Jen has to reassure the audience that this isn’t a cameo-of-the-week show. So far, it kinda is a cameo-of-the-week show — one that isn’t without pleasures as long as you’re not allergic to silence.
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