The next big thing arrives: Thoughts on She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (S1, E 1-4)

(courtesy IMP awards)

Superheroes are, by and large, fairly serious individuals.

Fair enough – duty and service, saving the world on a regular basis and a complete dearth of work/life balance would make if difficult for anyone to be too jocular or giddily upbeat, and as for kidding or joking round, especially in some sort of self-referential way, well, forget that, who has the time or the mental energy or emotional energy?

While some Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have attempted to have a huge amount of fun with comic book favourites – think Thor: Ragnarok (but not the terrible Thor: Love and Thunder which was more inane than funny) and Guardians of the Galaxy (but again not the sequel which failed to be much other than a pale, unworthy successor) – She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is the first MCU show or film to really loose and have FUN in all-capitals way that recognises the absurdity of the very building blocks of its storytelling world.

In many ways, an affectionate dig at the very genre it occupies, though one that, of course, respects the universe from which it springs – in our modern digital binary environment of either/or opinions, many people fail to remember that it’s possible to poke fun at something while respecting and loving it overall – She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is a gloriously good breath of fresh air that recognises that if you suddenly became a superhero, right when life is finally on an impressive upswing for you, it might be more of a headache than its worth.

In Jennifer Walters aka the She-Hulk, played with impressive alacrity and range by the inordinately gifted Tatiana Maslany who made the portrayal of the multiple roles she had in the superlative Orphan Black seem near effortless, we have the newly-minted superhero for our times, someone who gains some Hulk-ian powers courtesy of an accident involving her and her cousin, Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and is none too pleased about it.

No Pete Parker woohoo-ing across the skyscraper-filled landscape of New York for her; no, Jennifer, who by the way hates the fact that the name She-Hulk stuck before she could even figure out what to call herself, is royally pissed off that her glittering, promise-filled character as a district attorney is being derailed by Bruce’s insistence that she is now a superhero.

It’s not that Jennifer doesn’t want to help people; she manifestly does, Exhibit A being the fact that she’s a district attorney in the first place, and Exhibit B being the way she tackles ego-driven social media influencer Mary MacPherran / Titania (Jameela Jamil), her eventual rival for strongest woman on the planet when she tries to make a scene in a courtroom.

What Jennifer doesn’t love are the weight of expectations that automatically fallen upon her, chiefly from Bruce, with whom she’s close and enjoys a sizzlingly hilarious and warmhearted rapport, who seems to think that she’ll have the same issues and trajectory that he does.

But surprise, surprise she doesn’t, and almost immediately after her powers make their very green, angry presence felt, Jennifer begins to define what the Hulk phase of her life is going to be like on her terms (“It’s not wrong that I am choosing to help people in the way that I’ve always wanted to”).

For a start, it won’t be based on any male-driven ideas of power and success look like; pretty much from the get-go, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law stakes its territory very firmly in a clear understanding of what life is like for a woman and how a woman would approach being a superhero.

It’s a feminist twist on the old superhero journey that works brilliantly and refreshingly well, and while there are some out there who would scornfully and small-mindedly dismiss it all as far too woke, it’s a joy having a character who tackles things from a woman’s perspective, doing so with independence, strength and a wearied observance that men never quite understand how different life is for a woman.

Bruce, for instance, who is definitely one of the good guys, doesn’t comprehend that anger and fear are, as Jennifer archly notes, the default emotions of a woman’s life (“Those are, like, the baseline of any woman just existing”), and that while he can be aggressive and strong and be lauded for it, she will be treated be painted in dismissively negative terms.

This female-centric approach to a superhero character is a welcome change of pace, helped no doubt by the fact that Jessica Gao is the creator of the series, that firmly establishes that if Jennifer is going to be She-Hulk, and honestly it doesn’t look like she has much choice, from an employment perspective or while dating or just being a daughter to parents who handle her transformation very well (having Bruce in the family helps), then it will be as a woman charting her own course and not one chosen for her by a man, whoever they may be.

Another very welcome aspect of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Yes, it has some pithy things to say about the way the world views women and superhero women for that matter, but even these sage observations are neatly parcelled into a sharp, witty sensibility that has a great deal of fun with a world where superheroes are the norm, thugs have Asgardian construction tool to wield as weapons, and having a She-Hulk as your legal representative is par for the course.

Jennifer regularly, and to clever effect, breaks the fourth wall, speaking to the audience in a way that makes us confidantes of the kind that the rest of the people around Jennifer, save for her paralegal and bestie, Nikki Ramos (Ginger Gonzaga) – and it should be added queer presence in the show (though in keeping with the MCU, its muted at best) – never really are since Jennifer has to fight to keep so much personal when everyone knows who she is and what she ostensibly thinks.

We are her safe, confidential place that is also where she can go all meta and note that, yes, there are a lot of cameos in the show from Bruce aka the Hulk to Titania to the Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) to a villain in the possibly reformed guise of the Abomination aka Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a wry observance that the MCU does love its spaghetti junction of intersecting properties and characters.

Sure, that doesn’t stop She-Hulk: Attorney at Law from doing the same thing but at least Jennifer knows that’s what they’re doing, and we know that’s what she’s doing, and it’s that shared sense of the knowing that creates what feels like a very tight bond between a winningly down-to-earth, funny and whip smart protagonist who is ridiculously and endlessly likeable and the audience who are on her side from the start anyway but even more so when the writers effectively makes us part of the inner circle.

It’s a clever technique that works a treat and combined with tight, sharply-written scripts, well-formed characters, wittily entertaining, word-savvy dialogue, and an ability to be both a superhero show and to have a considerable degree of fun with it, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is one of the best and quirkiest shows to come along in a long while, even more welcome in a very serious, testosterone-rich MCU where being female and hilarious and clever isn’t always a given.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, in just its first four episodes, establishes itself as one of the breakout highlights of the MCU, and Jennifer Walters as a brilliantly incisive, take-no-prisoners kind of woman who, if she has to have superhero powers, is going to use them her way in her own time and see where it all goes from there.

I have a feeling it’s going to go to some very good places indeed.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is currently screening on Disney Plus with five more episodes set to drop, one a week, until 13th October.

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