'She-Hulk: Attorney at Law' Review: Marvel's Latest Is Smart but Underwhelming
Tatiana Maslany is a solid lead in a flimsy stab at comedy from Marvel.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
If you want to make the case that there's too much Marvel these days, She-Hulk is exhibit A. The most explicitly comedic of Marvel's TV series, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is a charmingly goofy show with an arrestingly savage streak of intelligence. But it lacks the delicious courtroom chicanery of a proper legal drama, the rousing action of a sci-fi show or the heart of even other Marvel shows.
Streaming on Disney Plus tomorrow, Thursday, Aug. 18, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law stars Tatiana Maslany as Jennifer Walters, an ambitious lawyer who suddenly winds up with superpowers she absolutely did not want. It's all the fault of her cousin Bruce -- yes, that Bruce Banner, played by Marvel Cinematic Universe mainstay Mark Ruffalo, who turns into a big green giant at the slightest provocation. This smart, capable woman is far from happy at being dubbed "She-Hulk," but a goofy name is the least of her worries as she's thrown into a new world of superpowered weirdos -- not to mention regular people being very weird around her now that she has powers.
As fans of the Marvel comics will know, She-Hulk is built around not one but two powerful ideas. First, it looks at the quirky new legal challenges that arise when some people have superpowers. And second, it interrogates the power fantasy of being a superhero from a woman's perspective.
This second part is the smart and scathing streak that runs through She-Hulk. When Bruce tells Walters that his transformation into the Hulk is triggered by fear or anger, she replies that's the baseline of everyday emotion for a woman. When she's recruited to run a legal department specializing in superhuman cases, she worries that everybody will think she just got the job because of how she looks. And when Bruce tells her, "When people start seeing you as a monster, that never goes away," his Hulk-splaining is painfully evocative of the way women in the public eye are treated with vicious scorn and double standards -- as Britney Spears, Monica Lewinsky or Amber Heard can testify.
So the flimsiness of a character called "She-Hulk" is underpinned by something surprisingly thought-provoking. But while Maslany is a solid lead, the show falls down in terms of actually being a funny legal comedy-drama. One of the character's signature quirks (going back to the '80s and '90s comics) is that Walters breaks the fourth wall and chats directly to the audience, but the series struggles to muster up any biting or hilarious things for her to say.
It also doesn't help that things start with possibly the most half-assed origin story in the genre to date. And while I can't find fault with the specifics of the effects, the CG She-Hulk is just slightly off and the general look of the show has a flat, shot-on-greenscreen mutedness that just feels oddly cheap.
There are some mildly fun judicial shenanigans, as Walters is called to defend Tim Roth's Hulk-like villain Emil Blonksy and a shapeshifting Asgardian causes trouble. But in the first four episodes Marvel provided for review, the superpowered legal stuff doesn't have the intricate and ironic double-dealing of a show like Suits or Ally McBeal.
I didn't even really watch Ally McBeal, but decades later I still remember the weird little guy and the weird guy with the neck fetish. I watched She-hulk this morning, and I couldn't tell you a single thing about Walters' friends and colleagues, their lives or hopes or fears or even, frankly their names. The opening episodes suffer from a real lack of distinctive secondary characters.
Yes, there are the familiar MCU mainstays, and Mark Ruffalo and Benedict Wong's easygoing charm is always watchable. It's intriguing to see Bruce Banner exploring what it means to be the Hulk, especially when counterpointed with Emil Blonsky's perspective on who gets called a superhero and who gets thrown in jail. Sadly, though, the glib tone doesn't leave much room for these thoughtful moments to find much depth.
Compare that to the last MCU series, Ms. Marvel, in which every secondary character had something going on, some problem or compelling friction with main character Kamala Khan (take Nakia, for example, who was running for office, and then falling out with Kamala because she never shared her secret).
She-Hulk's biggest problem is that it comes so fast on the heels of Ms. Marvel. Following the misadventures of adorkable teen Kamala Khan inheriting superpowers, Ms. Marvel was a delightfully multilayered story that included superhero action, ultra-relatable coming-of-age anxiety, compellingly specific Muslim-American representation, and -- of all things -- a thought-provoking history lesson about the Partition of India. Which it managed while still being a breathlessly zippy, stylishly visual show filled with fun characters. She-Hulk is meant to be funny, but amid the tired gags about Silence of the Lambs or Tinder these first few episodes lack the life or depth of Ms. Marvel or Moon Knight -- and it isn't a patch on Loki or WandaVision, which already presented a bolder and funnier version of an MCU sitcom.
She-Hulk is diverting enough to deserve its day in court, but the second half of the season needs to mount a much more spirited defense if it's going to overrule all objections.
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