She-Hulk: Attorney at Law: Review

Warning: Contains Spoilers!

She-Hulk emerged from the late-70s/early-80s boom for female Marvel Superheroes, which also saw the arrival of Spider-Woman, Dazzler and the original Ms. Marvel. In her early adventures, she was pretty much a female version of the Hulk, simple as, but as time went on and she lost her own title, the creative bodies at Marvel Comics never seemed sure what to do with her. ‘Shulkie’ became a member of the Avengers, the Defenders and the Fantastic Four, but didn’t really stand out in any of them. It wasn’t until Marvel Comics decided to re-launch and promote some of its female heroes in the 21st century that the character was really done justice by. Gone were the days of the uncontrollable rampaging woman with none-too-subtle menstrual overtones and gone were the days of the male-fantasy green gym-bunny; this time the writers were concentrating on alter-ego Jennifer Walters’ career as a defence attorney and how this was either helped or hindered by being an occasional Hulk.

I liked this new iteration of She-Hulk, it was clever and witty, with lots of interesting new characters and guest appearances from established Marvel characters with legal problems that you might not have considered before but, when you think about it, are usually pretty obvious. As with all of the Marvel Studios adaptations for Disney+, it’s this most modern version that they’ve taken their cue from, proving once again that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a good 20 years behind the comic books when it comes to female emancipation. Perhaps I’m being unfair; Marvel Studios are really pushing their female characters and, for the most part, having a great deal of success with them; WandaVision, Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel all presented their female leads with a great degree of success. As I said earlier, I’m a big fan of the latest Marvel Comics version of She-Hulk, so I was delighted to see they were adapting in for TV… as long as they do it well. Have they done it well? Weeeeeeell…

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (to give it its full title) is probably the weakest of the Disney+ serials so far. Why? Well, initially it doesn’t really seem to know what it’s trying to be. Is it a comedy? Is it an action story? The tone is all over the place, but it’s surprisingly short episode length (rarely more than 30 minutes each) does seem to imply they were trying for a superhero sitcom. Not the best of ideas, superhero sitcoms rarely work; we in the UK still wake up in a cold sweat at the memory of My Hero. It also feels a bit like it’s going for the sort of hen-night humour of Bridesmaids, which has also has a less-than-glowing history when it comes to genre adaptations (I’m looking at you, Ghostbusters). As can be clearly seen from my previous reviews, I’m by no means anti-female led stories, but She-Hulk feels awkward to me; as if it’s vociferously trying to make some point that doesn’t need to be made at the expense of its sublime source material.

In the comic books, Jennifer Walters becomes She-Hulk when she gets a blood transfusion from her cousin Dr. Bruce Banner, but since the whole world and his dog in the MCU knows that Banner is the Hulk, that clearly wasn’t going to work. Instead we get a melodramatic car crash in which both Bruce and Jen are injured and some of the big green guy’s gamma-irradiated blood gets into her open wound. “Noooooooooooo!” cries Bruce as his infected fluid drips towards her in slow motion. Marvel Studios usually take the outrageous comic book origins of characters and inject a sense of real-world believability, but here they’ve actually succeeded in making it less believable! It’s a very silly start to the serial and is easily the most throwaway original story in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It almost feels like they just want to get past all of that tedious ‘origin’ nonsense and skip straight to the comedy lawyering.

Alongside Tatiana Maslany as Jen Walters in this first episode is Mark Ruffalo as Banner/Hulk. Ruffalo is always great value for money and it’s a crime that he’s never been given a solo Hulk film or TV series. I’ve always been a big fan of both Hulk and She-Hulk and though I really enjoy seeing the former alongside The Avengers or Thor, it often feels like a disservice to turn him into someone else’s straight man. Sure, the two Hulk movies that have been produced both failed to smash the box office, but neither of those had Mark Ruffalo in the lead, nor were produced in the established period of the MCU. Speaking of those earlier cinematic outings, She-Hulk establishes that at least The Incredible Hulk (2006) was canon by reintroducing Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky (aka The Abomination) in a courtroom segment that also features a guest appearance by Benedict Wong as the Sorcerer Supreme of the same surname. Roth seems to be really enjoying himself in this much more light-hearted cameo… as do all the guest stars, to be frank.

She-Hulk does not serve Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk well, though; most of his time on the show is involved in consanguineous banter with his cousin, which seems to always end with her belittling him or making him look foolish. They even get in a knock-down fight, which She-Hulk wins because… y’know, it’s her show. I don’t know if the implication is supposed to be that Bruce is holding back out of familial affection for his childhood pal, but the idea that a character who’s previously been seen punching tanks and knocking down buildings is consistently (and rather smugly) bested by someone who’s been a Hulk for about half an hour is hard to swallow. Mark Ruffalo as Banner/Hulk is only really in the first episode before blasting off into space for reasons briefly explained in the last, which I have to say I’m pretty glad of because I don’t think I could have taken eight episodes of Jennifer essentially bullying him.

As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that this is a comedy – and not just a light-hearted adventure story, an all-out, fourth-wall-breaking, sly-winks-to-camera comedy. Nothing wrong with that, of course; one of the MCU’s strengths over the DCU is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but you have to ask yourself if this is the best way to serve these characters. Late on in the series, Matt Murdock / Daredevil (played by Charlie Cox) is introduced to the MCU proper as a guest star and potential love interest for Jennifer Walters and you can’t help but wonder if this is the best way to usher in one of the traditionally darker characters from Marvel Comics. I mean, the comics always mixed it up when it came to the more comedy elements – introducing Howard the Duck alongside Man-Thing for example – but I’m not entirely certain that that works in a cinematic / televisual sense.

It’s a relief when Matt Murdock turns up though, because he’s pretty much the only male character in it who isn’t represented as a bad guy or a dope. I understand that this is a story about a woman and she is, quite rightly, shown as the most important character in it; she should not be overshadowed by anyone else, particularly not a man – but does every man she meets really have to be an asshole? Some of them need to be; Jennifer finds herself beleaguered by a bunch of online misogynists and it’s perfectly apt that they should be assholes, such people are in real life, but it feels like everyone from her boss to her clients to her gay costumier is deeply flawed and I found myself thinking ‘come on, there must be some man in her life who isn’t a fool or a villain’. Apart from Matt Murdock, the only solid male is her Father, played by the wonderful Mark Linn-Baker.

To be honest, a lot of the female characters don’t fare much better. The principle villain is Titania; in the comics she’s a powerful super-villain and former member of the Masters of Evil, but here, she’s a super-powered Tik-Tok ‘influencer’ played by Jameela Jamil, who has taken against She-Hulk after losing a court case to her and is determined to destroy her. Imagine Kim Kardashian on steroids. Her terrible act of revenge which constitutes the cliffhanger to the penultimate episode…? She slut-shames Jennifer / She-Hulk using details of her sex life stolen from her mobile phone. Now, this is a terrible, humiliating thing to happen to any woman, of that let there be no doubt, but it’s not really a superhero-level threat, is it? Couldn’t she have framed her for murder or something? Shulkie and Titania do have a couple of punch-ups, but they’re presented as inconsequential and more like super-powered cat-fights.

This is what bothers me about She-Hulk: it’s framed from a female perspective and quite rightly so, but it’s a very traditional female perspective. It reminds me of nothing so much as the terrible 2004 Catwoman movie, where our hero is pitted against a corrupt Cosmetics magnate, because… y’know, girl’s stuff. That kind of attitude was outdated in 2004 and it seems positively prehistoric now, so I don’t really expect to see it in a superhero show almost 20 years later. The series also eschews some of the more progressive characterisation from the comic book. In the 2010s run, Jennifer’s paralegal in the law firm is Angie Huang, a large-framed Korean woman with a spiritual attachment to her pet monkey, but in the TV series, she’s replaced by stick-thin Nikki Ramos (Ginger Gonzaga), every inch the mouthy best-friend from a million rom-coms. I’m sorry, but it feels like a retrograde step.

Okay, so I’ve been quite negative about She-Hulk: Attorney at Law so far, but there are some very good things about it. Tatiana Maslany is superb as both Jennifer Walters and She-Hulk, her knowing performance treading the line between drama and parody. The more super half of her persona is a motion capture performance and although She-Hulk generally looks excellent, I fear the production may have stretched its TV budget a tad, because there are moments when the CG character has an indefinable ‘floaty’ quality or doesn’t appear lit correctly for the background. The CG is still far in excess off most of what’s on TV at the moment, but it’s unusual for the special effects to be less than 100% on a Disney+ production. I found myself looking forward to scenes where Maslany plays Jen rather than She-Hulk though, which while exactly what every actor wants to hear, isn’t really great news for a superhero series.

Surprisingly, I loved all the fourth-wall breaking stuff, but then I loved it when Moonlighting did it three decades ago, so it can hardly be described as revolutionary. I’m not entirely convinced that it was appropriate for this show though. Deadpool has a lot to answer for, because it brought all this metatextual stuff to the superhero world and fans cried with glee, causing Hollywood’s creative types to go ‘let’s apply that to more stuff’. Then, of course, it doesn’t work on more stuff. She-Hulk dives headlong into this pool and has the title character climbing out of the Disney+ menu in the last episode and going to see the show’s writers, unhappy with the show’s direction (she’s probably not alone). She confronts MCU head honcho Kevin (Feige, presumably), who turns out to be an A.I. It’s all very clever-clever, but won’t mean anything to a large percentage of the audience. It’s what was known as a ‘rave-up’ ending back in the day.

Ultimately, the series with no definable storyline has no definable conclusion. If this were an original property being presented up-front as a comedy, all of this would be absolutely fine. But it isn’t. The audience has certain expectations of Marvel superheroes and this series just doesn’t live up to them; there’s breaking free and being creatively expressive in an established format… and then there’s this – whatever this is.  I enjoyed watching each episode of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law as it happened, but it lacked coherency and I’d have liked at least some semblance of a storyline that didn’t feel like it was being made up as they went along. My favourite episode was the self-proclaimed ‘standalone’ wedding episode and my least favourite was the last episode, because it disappointed on a number of levels. The fact that it was one of Marvel’s leading female characters presented in this way made the disappointment even stronger.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I’ve always been a big fan of the She-Hulk comic book, from reading her adventures in the pages of Spider-Man and Hulk Weekly as a child, but I expected much more from this series. I can never get over the crushing disappointment of seeing beloved childhood icons turned into objects of mockery in movies like Starsky and Hutch (2004) and The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) and I’m afraid that this series teeters on the edge of that category. I’m not one of your po-faced fanboys who wants everything to be ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’; I think comedy adds an important element to fantasy films and series, but this was misjudged in my opinion, too over the top and self-satisfied with its own cleverness. If She-Hulk returns to the MCU – and I sincerely hope she does – I pray they rein in some of the smugness and give her a better storyline. This series doesn’t disprove the idea that Marvel are never quite sure what to do with She-Hulk, but one thing is for certain – she deserves better.

‘She-Hulk: Attorney at Law’ is currently streaming on Disney+

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