Last year, the unprecedented Marvel Studios money machine expanded its cinematic universe into a string of “event series” on Disney+, creating an avenue through which to introduce or further explore characters from Marvel Comics who don’t have the juice to support a blockbuster feature film. Some of these, such as the imaginative sci-fi mystery Loki and the delightful teen dramedy Ms. Marvel, have been highlights amongst the mostly underwhelming products the studio has offered since the WrestleMania-sized climax of Avengers: Endgame.
But even these successes felt more like extended, chopped-up mid-budget movies than television shows. Marvel’s latest effort, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, is their first that feels tailor-made for episodic television, a straight-up sitcom with a stable status quo and done-in-one plots, breezy and accessible to viewers who may not be interested in Marvel’s usual smash-em-ups. It has the sensibilities of a primetime network comedy, and though that might make it a refreshing addition to the Marvel oeuvre, it doesn’t pack enough of a punch to stand out as a must-watch sitcom.
She-Hulk stars Tatiana Maslany as Jennifer Walters, an ambitious Los Angeles attorney whose cousin Bruce (guest appearances by Mark Ruffalo) is the world-famous Avenger the Incredible Hulk. When Jen accidentally receives an infusion of Bruce’s blood, she develops a similar ability to morph into a giant green superhuman, though without losing her mental faculties. Jen has no interest in becoming a superhero and attempts to resume her life as if nothing has changed, but a career setback forces her to compromise and head up a high-profile firm’s new Superhuman Law division.
Jen must manage a demanding career that now involves intense media scrutiny and occasional brawls with gods and monsters, on top of the day to day drama of being a single woman in her thirties. Maslany is a capable and charismatic lead, and her performance drives the show even when it’s conveyed through motion capture, as Jen spends about half of each episode in her CGI jade giantess form. The four episodes that Disney provided for advance review all focus tightly on Jen and her interactions with various eye-catching guest stars, somewhat to the detriment of the rest of the regular cast, but I imagine the series may dedicate more time to its own secondary characters after getting its hooks into Marvel fans with a few familiar faces.
It takes the better part of three episodes for She-Hulk to settle into its workplace sitcom rhythm, with a new case each week for both Jen and one of her colleagues, Augustus “Pug” Pugliese (Josh Segarra) and Mallory Book (Renée Elise Goldsberry), plus a personal problem for Jen to handle outside of work. The series offers a unique opportunity to explore the way the colossal events of Marvel’s film continuity affect everyday life on the most mundane levels. For instance, Jen helps Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Wong from the Doctor Strange films), sue a hack stage magician for irresponsible use of his order’s artifacts, and Pug prosecutes a shapeshifting con artist from New Asgard (the colony of aliens set up in Norway after their planet was destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok).
There’s a playfulness here that’s imported from the most popular She-Hulk comics, which embrace the absurdity of enforcing legal standards in a world without reliable laws of physics. The potential of using the framework of a courtroom procedural to riff on an absurd fictional universe has been done before on television, as far back as 2001’s Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, but She-Hulk distinguishes itself by being (mostly) live-action, as well as having a less chaotic tone. Still, She-Hulk’s irreverent eye towards the MCU would be more charming if it wasn’t already present in basically every other installment of the franchise.
She-Hulk is amusing, but doesn’t offer much to distinguish itself as a television comedy. It sports some glib and snappy dialogue, but tends to take aim at low-hanging fruit. Favorite targets are male entitlement and gender double standards — certainly fertile ground for satire — but so far the show doesn’t have anything new to say on the subject. (Recurring chauvinist buffoon Dennis Bukowski is a cartoon caricature who does or says exactly what you’d expect him to in any given scene.)
The series is also concerned with the phenomenon of superhero celebrity, which has been hard-wired into the MCU since the first Iron Man, and highlights the contrast of how public figures are subject to totally different standards depending on their gender. By this point, however, having characters parrot the tired, passive-aggressive bullshit of sexist comics fans online feels like old hat. It’s not unfunny, but there’s very little edge to any of the show’s comedy, and it feels particularly tame coming only weeks after the return of HBO Max’s Harley Quinn, a devilish animated superhero sitcom that mines some of the same territory with much sharper instruments.
She-Hulk also suffers from one lazy comedic conceit, in that it makes fun of its shortcomings rather than just doing a better job in the first place. Jennifer breaks the fourth wall to poke fun at the show a few times per episode, and her criticisms are always dead on. It does rely too heavily on famous guest stars. The hot doctor she’s on a date with is a cliché. I, too, often wish we could dispense with the obligatory weekly fight sequence and get back to the courtroom drama.
The character’s meta frustrations do not alleviate my own, they compound them. She-Hulk is built to lovingly lampoon the world the show has inherited, but Jen’s asides exclusively mock weaknesses that are specific to this show, weaknesses that creator/showrunner Jessica Gao and company are totally capable of repairing but choose not to. It is, however, right courteous of them to compose this paragraph of my review for me.
I’ll be much more sparing in my criticism of the show’s heavy use of visual effects. No, the digital She-Hulk doesn’t look nearly as real as Thanos from the Avengers films, but even if Marvel’s VFX pipeline wasn’t fundamentally broken and willfully exploitative, it would still be unfair to expect that level of detail on weekly television. Marvel is one of the major culprits in the fusing of film and television into a single product known as “content,” but the fact that She-Hulk actually feels like TV — casual, chill on your couch TV — is an asset, not a weakness. It’s not a great television show, but it is, at least, a confident television show rather than an embarrassed, down-on-its-luck mid-budget feature. She-Hulk is the first Marvel Studios show that feels as if it could potentially run for years, rather than race towards a tired and familiar third-act climax and disappear into the Disney+ library. It’s a simple, unambitious, ABC-style comedy that happens to be part of a mammoth media franchise, and on that level, it’s pleasing enough.