“A Normal Amount of Rage”
Another month, another dive back into the increasingly over-loaded Marvel Cinematic Universe. This time around, Disney+ has premiered She-Hulk: Attorney-at-Law, an introduction to the Hulk spin-off best known in the comics for John Byrne’s celebrated 1989 series that combined superheroics with comedy and now-legendary direct address by the protagonist Jennifer Walters to the reader. While there have been numerous comic book takes on She-Hulk over the decades, it is Byrne’s run that proved most popular and it’s that same run that informs the new television adaptation.
Ambitious and talented lawyer Jennifer Walters, cousin to Bruce Banner (aka the Incredible Hulk), is infected with his blood after an accident and inherits his powers to transform into a giant green rage monster. While Bruce is intent on training Jennifer to use her powers, all Jennifer wants is to get back into the courtroom.
And it’s a comedy.
Much was made in promoting this new series about how it was the MCU’s first situation comedy, although in practice that is not as big a jump as advertising would have you believe. The MCU has been filled with humour since Iron Man (2008), and it is only a slight adjustment that shifts She-Hulk from action-with-jokes to a fully blown comedy vehicle. The series has been created by Jessica Gao (Rick & Morty, Silicon Valley), who also writes the opening episode. Taking the director’s reins is experienced comedy director Kat Coiro, whose previous credits include the likes of Modern Family, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and personal favourite Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Credit to Marvel Studios for committing: in presenting this female-led comedy they have hired some excellent female comedic talent. Why, then, did I feel so unsatisfied by it?
I think this first episode at least packs in a few problems. Future episodes may move on and avoid these issues, and I have no doubt for many viewers these problems do not actually prove a problem at all. The plot is, it must be said, oddly messy. It begins in preparation for a court scene, jumps back into a 25-minute flashback to explain how Jennifer gained the Hulk’s powers, and then returns to the present in time for a confusing and rushed cliffhanger. This framing device is wholly unnecessary, since it lacks enough time to properly introduce Jennifer’s law practice colleagues and simply bulks out the episode unnecessarily – viewers have seen enough legal comedy and drama to be familiar with the “lawyer show” set-up.
The main events of the episode – Bruce training Jennifer to be the Hulk – is a mish-mash of comedy bits and skits. Some work, some land flat, which is the way with these things in most comedies, but proper enjoyment of them really comes down to the appeal of the actors. As Jennifer , Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is predictably outstanding. She has a fantastic sense of comic timing, and absolutely zeroes in on the precise tone her performance needs to make the series concept work. There is, like John Byrne’s comic book run, direct address to the audience. Maslany nails it.
I struggled more with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. I always do. I am an enormous fan of the Incredible Hulk, and have been since childhood. That firm fandom brings with it a certain expectation of what Banner and the Hulk should be. I must be clear from the outset that this is a matter of taste, and not quality, but the short version is that I simply do not enjoy Mark Ruffalo in the role. His laconic, easygoing take jibes with my idea of what Banner should be like, and since Avengers: Endgame his “smart Hulk” persona – while comics-accurate – is not the “Hulk smash” version of the character I most enjoy. For me no one captured the Hulk and Banner as well as Edward Norton in Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (2008), and Ruffalo’s take simply does not work for me. It is definitely not Ruffalo’s fault: I have enjoyed him in numerous unrelated films and TV series, and in his defence he is essentially a slave to the writing. In the end, however, 20 minutes of a character who annoys me in a 30 minute episode is a lot to sit through.
There is a major wobble in how quickly Jennifer comes to adopt and control her powers. The episode makes a specific point out of it as well, with Jennifer taking days to achieve what took Bruce a decade and a half. An admirable monologue by Jennifer explaining how she, as a woman, has always had to control her anger, goes some way to paper over the absurdity, but ultimately it still feels like a narrative convenience rather than anything else. This is a comedy series, and the aim of this first episode is to get from character introduction to a superhero in a courtroom as quickly as possible. I absolutely do not believe for one second that Jennifer was developed for television as a “Mary-Sue” (look it up), but at the same time her portrayal here essentially ticks every major box on the list. A certain type of rage-filled, sexist, “anti-woke” comic-book fan is going to have a field day hating this series. It’s a shame that some sloppy writing handed them the ammunition.
The core character and actor are great. The tone can work. Comedy is also subjective, more so than any other screen genre, so my best recommendation for She-Hulk: Attorney-at-Law is to try it and see. This first episode is three-star television. It does its job, is solidly built, but in no way invites re-viewing. It is up to the rest of the series, awkward introductions now out of the way, to get stronger and more focused.