Mark Ruffalo had something of a point, perhaps, when he defended the intensity of Marvel’s output recently. The actor – who makes a brief appearance as the Hulk in She-Hulk, and an outsized appearance as the Hulk in the trailer for She-Hulk – argued earlier this month that each new MCU offering has a certain flexibility that belies its superhero origins. Each instalment, he suggested, has “their own style, their likeness,” allowing each to have “a whole different feeling” even within the confines of the shared universe.
He’s not wrong, or not exactly at least. Each new Marvel film – or, more relevantly in this case, television series – does come with its own aesthetic, a new genre gloss over the underlying superhero mechanics. They can be an homage to classic sitcoms, a state-of-the-nation action thriller, a mob movie at Christmas, a paranoid Indiana Jones-esque adventure, or a teenager’s coming-of-age journey. But equally, there’s always an inescapable gravity distorting these series, pulling them back towards the underlying logic of the superhero story – and, with it, the hastily rendered crash bang wallop VFX conclusion – and often diminishing whatever charms it may have began with. It’d be hard to say with much certainty how well a Marvel series will continue after four episodes, let alone one, even if it opens well.
Enter She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Touted by some as Marvel’s first comedy – that reversion to a familiar conclusion lets the studio take advantage of audiences’ short memories of how each project began – the series follows Bruce Banner’s lawyer cousin Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany). The first episode is primarily an exercise in exposition, introducing Jen and her Hulk-like powers; writer Jessica Gao revealed recently that this opener is an edited version of what was initially planned as the eighth episode, a comparatively last-minute rejigging to emphasise the origin story ahead of the legal comedy – sorry, the “fun lawyer show”, as Jen puts it in a Fleabag-esque fourth wall break – the show promises to become.
You can understand the instinct to put that bit first, getting some of those obligations out of the way – the contextualising questions a lawyer might ask while taking a witness statement, if you like. Still, it’s strange to frontload She-Hulk: Attorney at Law with something that is just so completely not what the show is going to then become. You’d think ‘She-Hulk’ was an easy enough concept to trust the audience to grasp, and it probably doesn’t bode well for the legal comedy that weaving backstory through a relevant case-of-the-week was apparently beyond them. Indeed, it’s a show that probably would’ve benefitted from a double episode premiere, as WandaVision and Hawkeye had, just to give a bit more of a sense of the show the audience is actually going to spend the next eight weeks watching.
It’s worth a brief digression – or a sidebar, if you like, since at least one of us should try and preserve some lawyering here – to discuss the CGI. The look of She-Hulk’s eponymous attorney at law was widely criticised in the months before release, with Maslany’s character situated firmly-if-greenly in the uncanny valley. The unfinished trailer VFX is improved on in the finished show, though there’s still something distracting about it, never quite getting beyond being Obviously Not Quite Tatiana Maslany. This, of course, is in no small part because these scenes were moved from the eighth episode to the first, quite a sudden shift in deadlines that’s characteristic of how Marvel Studios treats its non-union VFX houses; for all that Marvel can maintain a flexibility of tone with its intense output, it’s plainly not worth the working conditions that imposes on its employees and contractors.
Still - sidebar not quite resolved, but anyway - if there’s a part of the show that works consistently, it’s Maslany (green and plasticky though she is for most of the first episode’s runtime). Unlike Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, Maslany’s Jennifer Walters has a much more immediate sense of self-control – the result of years of having to hold her temper as a woman patronised and condescended in her own field of expertise – and takes to being a Hulk much faster than he did, even as she’s very much a reluctant hero (“I don’t want to be a Hulk – I just got my own office!”). There’s some question as to whether a Hulk with self-control is actually dramatically interesting – Ruffalo’s presence mostly seeming to demonstrate that the answer is no – but even in the briefest flashes of non-expository material Maslany makes it clear the basic premise has some potential.
For the moment, it is still just potential, and largely unrealised potential at that too. You’ve got to hope that She-Hulk: Attorney at Law leans into its comedy stylings going forward – Maslany is, again, quite good in those moments, and her delivery of the deliberately cheesy “the only hulking out I’m going to do is in the legal sense” a highlight. Meanwhile, with Girls5Eva director Kat Coiro at the helm there’s an obvious model for this series to mimic. Wouldn’t it be great for She-Hulk to be as dense with jokes as Girls5Eva? Or even just to feel like it’s airing in the same year – at the moment, the jokes lean a little too product placement-y (did you know Pixar movies are available on Disney+ too? Jennifer Walters certainly does) or deeply behind the times (frankly, if you’re quoting the decade old tumblr post about Captain America’s sex life, you might as well just concede he slept with Bucky - that kind of fan culture stuff isn’t subversive or interesting anymore once the big corporation gets in on it too).
There’s plenty of reason to have some confidence in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law going forward – if nothing else, it’s probably still worth watching until Jameela Jamil and Renee Elise Goldberry show up. But, equally, there’s plenty of reasons to lack confidence in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law going forward – like, for example, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier or Hawkeye. As it is, fans might have to move for a continuance – because the jury’s still out on She-Hulk.
The first episode of She-Hulk is available to stream on Disney+ now, with new episodes airing weekly; I saw one episode of an eventual nine before writing this review. You can read more of our TV reviews here.