Directed by: Kat Coiro, Anu Valia
Distributed by: Disney+
Written by Anna Harrison
“Legends of Tomorrow” is (well, “was,” I guess…), for my money, one the nimblest and most inventive shows around—it started as another superhero spin-off in the CW’s Arrowverse, quickly figured out that the ties to “Arrow” and “The Flash” only hampered its creativity, and so shed those studio-mandated connections to do whatever the hell the writers came up with: these heroes got turned into puppets, infiltrated the “Lord of the Rings” set to talk to John Noble in costume as Denethor, had a unicorn bite someone’s nipple off (and had said nipple return later full of demonic intent), and always had a wink and a nod to their status as the Arrowverse’s kooky stepchild. Its cancellation is the worst casualty from all of the damage David Zaslav’s machete is wreaking. (Am I exaggerating? Not as much as you think.)
“She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” is “Legends of Tomorrow” with five times the budget but only half of the cleverness: an unnecessary superhero show added to an already sprawling empire, but without the need to prove itself that drove “Legends” to achieve greatness. Something complacent is in the state of the MCU.
Jennifer Walters, attorney at law, excels at every aspect of her life (except the dating arena), but after getting in a car crash with her cousin Bruce (Banner, of the Mark Ruffalo kind) and having some of his blood enter her own bloodstream, Jennifer gains the ability to Hulk out, though in a much more controlled fashion than her predecessor. (The CGI was the subject of much debate when the trailer was released, and though not great, it’s not horrendous. It is slightly unnerving to see Bruce’s Hulk, with a craggy face and stubbly cheeks, against Jennifer’s, whose skin is smooth and hair shiny. Give her some wrinkles and texture and maybe it won’t look so weird.) While her DA ambitions are dashed, Jennifer quickly gets scooped up for a new superhuman law division at a prestigious law firm, and She-Hulk quickly becomes a sensation.
Jennifer has had a penchant for breaking the fourth wall for decades; here, as played by Tatiana Maslany (another superb actor Marvel has snatched up), the effect is used sparingly, and never gives the audience information they couldn’t guess and thus leaves you wondering at its existence in the first place—is it just a way for Marvel to congratulate itself on being self-aware? Breaking the fourth wall and chatting to the camera has become increasingly common, but so far most attempts have failed to reach the heights of something like “Fleabag” (or, hell, even “Deadpool”—at least for the superhero genre), and so if you want it to actually mean something, you’re going to have to work harder than showrunner Jessica Gao (another “Rick and Morty” writer poached by the MCU) and her team do. While not offensively bad, at best her wall breaks are only mildly amusing, and considering that Marvel’s track record for the past year or so has been variations of “mildly amusing,” to have “She-Hulk” squander what could have been an inventive leap forward for the MCU is frustrating—a running theme for its Phase Four output—not to mention that Tatiana Maslany deserves better.
Gao and the writers’ room accurately predict the blowback to having a “She-Hulk” (the review bombing and Reddit response has been unfortunately par for the course, something the show mirrors with its own 4chan, dubbed Intelligencia) and the show has a strong throughline on bodily autonomy and female rage, including (perhaps especially) when it backfires, given extra weight now that Jennifer can Hulk out at any moment. Amidst the bland meta jokes, there is some astute commentary—it’s not all milquetoast.
The finale is certainly ballsy, if not entirely effective; had the rest of the show had shown the same willingness to turn the MCU inside out the finale does, my score would have been much higher. In its self-awareness, the finale avoids the pitfalls of the other MCU Disney+ shows finale: it very purposely steers clear of the action-heavy, world-ending showdowns of the kind that made the ending of “WandaVision” so lackluster. The stakes are high for Jennifer the character, but the world at large will remain unharmed regardless of outcome, which is the model these Disney+ shows should have been following all along. Stop trying to be a six-hour movie and instead embrace your television show status!
This is where “She-Hulk” excels. It knows in its bones that it is a TV show, and never tries to be anything more—and that’s a good thing. After the first episode, which finds Jennifer dealing with boring superhero, Hulk-y things, the show settles into its groove. It’s a bit of a courtroom procedural, a bit of a workplace comedy, a bit of a romcom as Jennifer searches for love with very little luck. The supporting cast pops in and out (shoutout to Josh Segarra as the lovable Pug and Ginger Gonzaga as Jennifer’s friend Nikki; this also marks the return of Tim Roth’s Abomination, who has found a new lease on life in prison, and Benedict Wong pops in to talk about how much he loves “The Sopranos,” which is a great bit), Jennifer smashes some things occasionally, and by the time the finale rolls around, we are invested enough in Jennifer to care about how this plays out, even if the rest of the world isn’t at stake. Nearly every Disney+ show has ended in some big showdown (minus “Loki”) that inevitably ruins the rest of the show by cramming a bunch of fisticuffs in at the last moment, leaving whatever character development or technical prowess displayed before by the wayside—not so with “She-Hulk.”
The problem is that “She-Hulk” is the eighth MCU Disney+ show to come along, and only now do the powers that be seem to have cracked the structural code—a classic case of too little, too late. The biggest media machine in the world should be progressing by more than just baby steps.
You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.