New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: TATIANA MASLANY GIVES “SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW” ITS STRENGTH

The comedic tenets of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have always been one of its greatest strengths, whether on the big or small screen. Now, with the MCU’s adaptation of the comic book series She-Hulk, those comical inklings have moved to the front and center. It’s even there in the very title SHE-HULK: ATTORNEY AT LAW to ensure that we all understand this series is going to be more sit-com than adventure. And indeed, it is, stressing character over action, silliness over breathlessness. Fortunately, the new, nine-episode series premiering tomorrow on Disney + delivers the goods. And in star Tatiana Maslany, they have a lead who’s part hero, part Carrie Bradshaw, and all-heart.

Maslany showed her comic chops in her Emmy-award-winning turn on the television series ORPHAN BLACK playing various clones, some of whom were as hilarious as a good stand-up. She also showcased a keen understanding there of the vulnerability necessary for audiences to connect with characters, even in some of the nastier, stronger ones she played in that tour de force turn. Such vulnerability is crucial for SHE-HULK to work and Maslany ensures that it’s there even in her most heroic state. The fun of the show lies in the fact that despite being a high-powered attorney or even a new superhero, Maslany’s character of Jennifer Walters is anything but over-confident. She’s far from one to ever throw her weight around in either state, and that makes her and the show dynamics all the more likable and relatable.

As the series starts, Jennifer talks directly to the camera, a fourth-wall-breaking trope adapted from the comic book series. She seems to be a capable attorney, full of pluck and smarts, but something in the way Maslany’s nervous energy bubbles out suggests that she’s not quite as together as she seems. Shortly after that, she starts to explain her backstory and we see her struggling to deal with bullying and sexist law colleagues. Not long after that, she’ll be wrestling with even bigger issues as her metamorphosis into a 6’ 7” tall, pumped-up, green superhero takes hold. 

The accident that turned her into a female version of the Hulk occurs while visiting her cousin Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), years after the events in the movie AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Bruce is wholly resigned to his ‘Hulkiness’ now, to the point where he’s mostly occupying a middle-morph state. Soon after meeting, they’re involved in an automobile accident. Their crashed SUV leads their blood to mix from their sustained wounds and before you can say, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” Jennifer morphs into her new alter ego.

Jennifer’s appearance is less brutish than Bruce’s, and she’s able to control her Hulkiness too. Taking a cue from the comics drawn by John Buscema, she’s green and statuesque, but still womanly, and the CGI wisely uses most of Maslany’s recognizable features. The fun of the first episode showcases Bruce teaching her what she can do and Jennifer’s discovery of a bolder version of herself makes this take on ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ even more engaging. She’s not wholly thrilled with the change, but she likes the power and confidence it instills in her.

Her tutorial is hilarious as she and Bruce banter like Hepburn and Tracy, albeit with some WWE-style smackdowns mixed into their horseplay. From there, Jennifer returns home and runs headlong into numerous opportunities to turn on her green side, both at work and at play. Not only does it help with some of her work, but her new state makes her wildly popular with adoring fans and even some potential suitors. By the end of the second episode of four made available to critics for preview, Jennifer has crossed paths with Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), A Russian super soldier from the Steve Rogers/Captain America era she’s forced to defend in court. That sets up the main external conflict as she must contend with Blonsky’s extracurricular shenanigans in his morphed monster state of a creature dubbed Abomination.

It all makes for mostly breezy, frothy fun with Jennifer struggling to find her footing as both a career woman and a reluctant celebrity. The series dishes out slyly wicked commentary about sexism, careerism, and even nationalism. It parodies and embraces the tropes of the MCU too, making this work on a meta-level. And because we see so much of Maslany in her SHE-HULK persona, the character retains most of her nuances as one of our nation’s most gifted actresses.

The supporting players, particularly Ginger Gonzaga as Jennifer’s BFF/paralegal Nikki, add layers of more spirit to it all, even when the special effects can feel a bit rushed at times and less than fully realized. It’s clear that some of the edits here are designed to cut around some of the series’ lesser images, but such short-cuts never become too distracting. In fact, it’s impressive how well the CGI wizards actually ply so much craft to the show’s comedic tone. There’s as much wit in the action as there is in the clever dialogue, and it keeps it all feeling consistent.  

Some may criticize the lesser stakes on display versus the ‘save the world’ vibes of previous MCU entries, but this series clearly is going for an Avengers-lite tone. Sometimes it feels awfully silly, and you half expect a laugh track to show up, but most of it has a sophisticated wit to it, especially when the camera focuses on Maslany and her sublime comic talents. Her Hulk may be capable of tossing villains, vehicles, furniture, and lovers about with equal aplomb, but through it all, the dual characters that she’s created remain wholly fascinating and recognizably human. Even when one is an almost Day-Glo shade of green.

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