Breaking fourth walls with glee: Thoughts on She-Hulk – Attorney at Law review (ep. 5-9)

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Aiming to be meta and actually delivering on it in a way that doesn’t feel twee or force is a magical balancing act that few TV series pull off convincingly well.

Breaking fourth walls and addressing the audience or melding the fictional with the semi-factual doesn’t always work, with narrative momentum for no good lasting effect and the show reeking of gimmick rather than solid storytelling ability.

One of the great joys of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is that it managed, in its first four episodes, to smash the conventions of the superhero genre in particular and TV series in general by being clever and witty and winningly human, fashioning us an eminently capable but relatably flawed who was going to tackle being an accidentally gifted superhuman in her own gorgeously idiosyncratic way.

The final five episodes take this initial promise and absolutely freaking run with it, taking the show’s love of the meta moment and elevating it to some pretty cool places, including an ending that is all kinds of convention-busting fun in a way that draws considerable inspiration, and this may surprise you as a comparison, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Quite whether the show’s writers, who feature in the final episode in fictional form, have watched the movie is another matter entirely but after She-Hulk, played with a brilliant mix of humour, sass and vulnerability by gifted actor Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) finds herself dissatisfied with the way the writers have fashioned the ending to her first season adventures, they send her on an adventure that doesn’t so much break the barrier between the real and fictional worlds as highly amusingly smash it to rubble and reduce it a barrier easily breached in the pursuit of laughs and a some startling empathy about what it means to not quite match mainstream society’s expectations of you.

In short order, and with writing that is blisteringly good in its ability to be both very silly and very serious in ways that makes some necessarily arch observations about misogyny, femininity under the sort of demanding microscope than masculinity is never subjected to and the way social media and digital culture warps humanity in ways facile and dangerous, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is one breathtakingly clever and hilarious show.

Much of its ability to carry off the leaps between the darkness and light that punctuates the show comes down to Maslany who has the ability to make both her Jennifer Walters and She-Hulk personas feel organically part of the same whole.

Which, of course, they are, but not everyone can pull those kinds of tonal and character shifts off but as she proved more than ably in Orphan Black, Maslany has the acting chops to seamlessly bring a character as complicated as She-Hulk to empathetically warm llife.

Embodying the character’s essential humanity and femininity, whether it’s at a friend’s wedding where she’s forced to fight Titania (Jameela Jamil in gloriously good social media superficial mode) once again or when her world falls apart in “Ribbit and Rip It” at the hands of small-minded, tiny-hearted, broken Incels, is key to the appeal of the protagonist and to the way the show drives forward, at once a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and yet also humourously set apart from it.

While plenty of her MCU stablemates aim for gravely serious and impossibly august, and end up feeling just a little too try-hard in the process, She-Hulk, by being hilariously, fourth wall-breaking herself in all her stunning capability and human frailty ends up being one of the most real of the lot of them, only matched perhaps by the appearance of Daredevil aka Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) who turns up in the show and proves that it’s possible to be both funny and affectingly mortal too.

His arrival, which is a boon to She-Hulk relationally and sexually, bolsters the feel of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law as a show that can be funny and thoughtful and not one cannibalised by the other, a rare feat that most shows of similar undertaking never really quite manage to achieve.

Yes, Jennifer gets her happy ending and justice is done and served in a very MCU kind of way but She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is that rare superhero show that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is all the better for it.

In saying that, it’s important to note once again that when it needs to be serious, it is to a winningly illuminating, sometimes excoriating degree; this is no more evident than in episodes eight and nine, “Ribbit and Rip It” and “Whose Show is This?” which serve up betrayal, broken humanity and the the dark descent into the abyss of societal opprobrium in a series of darkly intense scenes.

That these moments of Walters/She-Hulk humanity at its most bereft are in a show that is outwardly so lighthearted and fun at times, speaks to how well the writers have captured what it means to be a person in a world which rarely affords much real freedom to be yourself and where you are hostage to the whims and brokenness of other people, such as The Abomination / Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) and Todd Phelps / HulkKing (Jon Bass), who don’t have a shred of the real, honest humanity you do.

At its heart, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is a show about what it means to be a human grappling with some stuff that is literally in many cases bigger than you, and while it’s wildly over the top, hilariously out there and meta to the hilt, the show excels because it dares to go intimately down into what it means to be a woman trying to make herself known for herself in a world geared to the big, the bad and the cruelly uncaring.

Yes, it is fantastically clever and funny, populated by well-realised characters, pithy writing and a penchant for breaking all the rules in ways that enthrall with their vivacious cleverness and thoughtfulness, but more than that She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is intimately affecting human, in all its broken serious and silly glory, and by running with that, and breaking walls both metaphorical and actual, the show offers up one of the compelling, not to mention laugh-out-loud heroes to ever emerge from the MCU which just got a whole lot more human in its superheroness.

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