‘She-Hulk’ review: Marvel’s bold comedic experiment
Chicago - So far, most of Marvel’s Disney+ shows have been driven by a sense of mystery: Why is "WandaVision" a 1950s sitcom? Who’s the voice in Steven’s head in "Moon Knight"? What’s up with the bangle in "Ms. Marvel"? But the latest series, "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" gets its sense of watchability from a different kind of question altogether: "Is this show any good?"
The answer isn’t a resounding no, although it’s not quite a yes either. "She-Hulk" is an unusual new experiment for Marvel – a comedic half-hour series aiming for a tone somewhere between "Ally McBeal" and The CW’s "Supergirl." And like most experiments, this one feels like it’s going to need some time to gel.
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In the first four episodes screened for critics, cringe-worthy humor, simplistic feminism, questionable CGI and over-exposition mix with genuinely funny, unexpected moments that hint at a series with the potential to develop its own unique comedic voice. The question is whether it’s worth waiting for it to get there – especially with a weekly release model that doesn’t do the show any favors when it comes to building up steam.
About "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law": It’s not easy being green
(L-R): Tatiana Maslany as She-Hulk/Jennifer "Jen" Walters, Ginger Gonzaga as Nikki Ramos, and Drew Matthews as Dennis Bukowski in Marvel Studios' She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Ri
Indeed, the exposition-heavy premiere is really more of a prologue to the rest of the series to come. It devotes most of its runtime to establishing the rules for why and how ambitious, idealistic lawyer Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) is able to transform into a souped-up "She-Hulk" form.
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It involves her cousin Bruce Banner (recurring guest star Mark Ruffalo) and some supremely sweaty Marvel worldbuilding. Basically, some of Bruce’s gamma radiation-infused blood winds up giving Jennifer a version of his powers. But where poor Bruce had to spend six movies learning to integrate his human persona with his Hulk form, Jen’s personality remains the same whether she’s a 5’4" human or a 6’7" green body builder.
As Jen explains it, she’s spent her entire life learning to control her anger over everything from catcalling to sexism at work. Why should controlling her Hulk rage be any different?
(L-R): Mark Ruffalo as Smart Hulk / Bruce Banner and Tatiana Maslany as Jennifer "Jen" Walters/She-Hulk in Marvel Studios' She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.
Like a lot of elements of "She-Hulk," it’s an interesting idea imperfectly executed. The show tends to overexplain and oversimplify its feminist themes in a way that feels more in line with the mid-2010s than the early 2020s, particularly when it comes to its cartoony male chauvinist punchlines.
Still, what the show has going for it is a fascinatingly flexible central metaphor. While the classic Hulk arc is an internal battle between human intelligence and animalistic impulse, Jen’s struggle is an external one: She doesn’t feel like two people on the inside, but she’s treated drastically differently depending on whether she’s in her human form or her Hulk one.
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It’s a smart way to use She-Hulk’s transformations as a commentary on the breadth of the female experience. At times, Jen’s powers are like an "X-Men"-style metaphor for diversity and tokenism. Other times, they serve as a commentary on the experience of existing in the world as a woman whose body doesn’t conform to societal expectations. And once Jen goes public with her abilities, she has to figure out how to navigate those complexities without losing herself – or her job – in the process.
"She-Hulk: Attorney at Law": A sitcom still finding its voice
(L-R): Ginger Gonzaga as Nikki Ramos and Tatiana Maslany as She-Hulk/Jennifer "Jen" Walters in Marvel Studios' She-Hulk: Attorney At Law exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. © 2022 MARVEL.
"She-Hulk" is at its best when it’s leaning into that duality in a funny, offbeat way, without trying to underline one pointed message. Though creator/head writer Jessica Gao and lead director Kat Coiro sometimes default to Marvel’s general quippy, self-aware style, at their best, they bring a new comedic energy to the MCU — like occasional "Fleabag"-style moments where Jen talks directly to the camera to comment on the show itself. (After a Marvel character gets a name drop, for instance, Jen warns viewers this isn’t going to be a cameo-a-week show.)
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Indeed, the show seems to build in comedic confidence week after week, as it has more time to hone its voice (the first four episodes were provided to critics for review). While the premiere is all but crushed under the weight of Marvel worldbuilding, later episodes lean into the density of the MCU for more fun, subversive ends as Jen takes on a new job as a lawyer who specializes in superhuman cases — a set-up that brings some old faces back into the fold in new ways.
Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky (a.k.a. the Abomination) is reimagined from the aggro supersoldier of 2008’s "The Incredible Hulk" to a serene, reformed prisoner who may or may not be a cult leader. And the series has a lot of fun playing around with what Wong (Benedict Wong) gets up to in the rare moments he’s not actively protecting the world as the Sorcerer Supreme.
Tim Roth as Abomination/Emil Blonsky in Marvel Studios' She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.
While "She-Hulk" doesn’t exactly deploy a case-of-the-week structure, it feels more episodic and less plot-driven than past Disney+ Marvel shows. And there’s a lot of potential to be mined in its more relaxed hangout vibe, particularly when Jen is paired with her likable co-workers Nikki Ramos (Ginger Gonzaga) and Augustus "Pug" Pugliese ("The Other Two" scene-stealer Josh Segarra).
But as with She-Hulk’s weightless CGI design, the balance isn’t quite there yet. For every joke that hits, another one misses. And with its swift episode lengths, the early run of "She-Hulk" doesn’t have a ton of time to build its case.
As opening statements go, it’s an uneven one. That means that when it comes to the promise of the series as a whole, the jury’s still out.
Nine-episode superhero series. Four episodes screened for review. "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" debuts Aug. 18 on Disney+. New episodes arrive weekly through Oct. 13. Featuring: Tatiana Maslany, Mark Ruffalo, Ginger Gonzaga, Jameela Jamil, Josh Segarra, Jon Bass, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Tim Roth, Benedict Wong, Charlie Cox.
Make it a meta double feature with "Staged," streaming free on Tubi
Staged (2020): We wouldn’t go so far as to call this David Tennant/Michael Sheen meta-comedy the only good "pandemic show," but it’s certainly one of the best — if only because it accurately captures the surreality of those early months better than any well-meaning drama ever could. Tennant and Sheen play fictionalized versions of themselves who are trying to rehearse a play over Zoom during lockdown. Prepare for a delightful parade of deadpan guest stars (Samuel L. Jackson! Dame Judi Dench!) and Tennant’s many headbands. So many headbands. Rated TV-MA. Two seasons streaming on Tubi. Also featuring Georgia Tennant, Anna Lundberg.
"Staged" is streaming free on Tubi — get the app
How to watch "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law"
"She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" debuts Aug. 18 on Disney+. New episodes arrive weekly through Oct. 13.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she spent four years lovingly analyzing the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her column When Romance Met Comedy for The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
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