By George Bate
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for She-Hulk: Attorney At Law – Episode 1
Although cool team ups and exciting action sequences have been a staple of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for almost 15 years now, much of the franchise’s incredible success should be attributed to its tone, sense of humor, and overall ability to please crowds time and time again. She-Hulk: Attorney At Law is the latest addition to the MCU and, in turn, the latest example of how light-hearted fun and humor are the franchise’s not-so-secret weapons.
She-Hulk: Attorney At Law stars Tatiana Maslany, best known for Emmy winning turn in BBC America’s Orphan Black that required the actress to play a mind-boggling 17 different characters. Maslany plays Jen Walters, a witty, seemingly mild-mannered, and fourth wall-breaking lawyer who develops incredible powers.
She-Hulk’s first episode kicks off with Maslany’s Jen Walters speaking right to the camera, practicing the closing argument for an upcoming legal case. It’s soon revealed Jen is practicing this argument to her best friend and paralegal Nikki (played by Ginger Gonzaga) and a doubting, misogynistic male coworker who has the nerve to tell Jen to “smile” more. As Nikki and the misogynist leave, Jen closes the office door and turns to the camera. Speaking directly to the audience, she says, “It’s true, I am a Hulk. And I’m guessing you’re not gonna be able to focus on this fun lawyer show until you know all about that.”
Within these opening moments, it becomes clear She-Hulk: Attorney At Law will be more experimental with its narrative structure than perhaps any MCU project to date. It’s easy to pass this fourth-wall breaking off as a Deadpool or Fleabag rip-off, but fans of the comics will recognize this feature of the character dating back to the Marvel comics of the 1980s. This feature is not used as liberally or frequently (so far) as the likes of Deadpool or Deadpool 2 and yet nonetheless it makes for a decidedly different viewing experience of the latest of many MCU stories.
In this first breaking of the fourth wall, Jen tells the audience that they won’t be able to focus on a lawyer show without knowing how she became a Hulk. Hence, a pilot episode that unfolds like a traditional superhero origin story, something superhero storytelling has pulled away from in recent years. The likes of Moon Knight and The Batman have plummeted audiences into stories in which the heroes are already the heroes, making She-Hulk’s return to ‘formula’ surprisingly refreshing.
Indeed, She-Hulk’s pilot, from a pure storytelling perspective, proceeds in a somewhat formulaic manner. Jen is with her cousin Bruce (aka the Hulk, played by Mark Ruffalo) when their car crashes. Injuries to both cousins lead to some of Bruce’s blood leaking into a wound on Jen’s arm, thus giving rise to She-Hulk. To say this plot propels forward quickly is an understatement. In many ways, She-Hulk’s first episode feels like a 90 minute superhero origin story crammed into a tight 35 minute episode of television. This could make for a jarring or off-putting experience, but, instead, it makes She-Hulk: Attorney At Law extremely fun and watchable.
This accelerated pace is accompanied by heightened, witty dialogue, with Ruffalo’s Hulk and Maslany’s Hulk engaging in what ultimately feels like 35 minutes of a back-and-forth. It’s the kind of punchy, unrealistic dialogue you may hear in sit-coms or even in light hearted legal dramas (Franklin and Bash certainly comes to mind here). Sure, She-Hulk isn’t reinventing the wheel that is superhero movies/shows per se. But it’s undeniably fun and self-aware.
The fun and self-awareness of She-Hulk’s pilot doesn’t detract from the inclusion of more serious moments. A particular highlight involves Bruce trying to teach Jen ways to control her anger, which sparks an impassioned response about the restraint women like Jen exercise every minute of every day to navigate through a sexist and oppressive society. It’s a compelling monologue on paper, but is really sold by Maslany’s empathic performance. Although the MCU can certainly feel other-worldly at times, moments like this add more to the viewing experience than cool cameos and big explosions ever do.
Much has been made of the visual effects to bring She-Hulk to life. YouTube video after YouTube video will pick apart the look of Jen’s hulking alter ego, prematurely judging the character’s look from trailers and other promotional footage. Naysayers will likely (and mostly) be proven wrong as the visual effects in She-Hulk: Attorney At Law are, with the exception of a few shots, impressive and immersive. The character certainly looks better in certain shots than others, and particularly well lit outdoor scenes make She-Hulk appear more like a character from a video-game than a high-budget superhero television show. That being said, these moments that take you out of the show are fleeting. Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk looks fantastic and the level of detail captured by the visual effects artists is seriously impressive. Sure, the effects behind Tatiana Maslany’s She-Hulk are as seamless, but the heavy criticism the characters’ look has received is unfounded.
She-Hulk: Attorney At Law is the final television outing in the MCU’s Phase 4 and gets off to a fun and self-aware start with its pilot. Propelling forward at a rapid pace that somehow works well for the show, She-Hulk’s pilot tells a straightforward superhero story with enough witty dialogue, intriguing fourth-wall breaking, and poignant social commentary that makes for an undeniably entertaining experience. Jen opens the episode by telling the audience they’ll have difficulty focusing on a “fun lawyer show” without knowing the origin story of her Hulk. This first episode succeeds in telling her origin story, opening the door for the (hopefully) “fun lawyer show” to follow.