No one is more annoyed by the derivative moniker of “She-Hulk” than Jennifer Walters, aka She-Hulk herself. In a stark departure from her brooding cousin Bruce (“Avengers” veteran Mark Ruffalo), the lawyer turned reluctant superhero (played by “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany) approaches her life with a winsome grin and “let’s get this over with!” sigh. That the public decides to call her “She-Hulk,” as if she’s nothing more than the lady half of Bruce, is definitely an insult — but not one that Jen, a lawyer practiced in the art of grinning and bearing constant frustration, can’t brush off with a well-placed eyeroll.
And so begins “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.” Marvel’s latest swing at adapting a beloved comic book character into a show tries both to stand apart from the studio’s formidable film franchise and to incorporate enough of its hallmarks to keep fans invested. From head writer Jessica Gao and director Kat Coiro, and strongly inspired by John Byrne’s seminal comics, “She-Hulk” is charming enough as it bounces from one hijink to the next, especially in Maslany’s capable hands. But between its obligations to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, a far more limited budget than its film peers, and attempts to infuse Jen’s story with dated #girlboss energy, “She-Hulk” also represents an unsteady balancing act that needs more time than it likely has to settle into its own groove.
Though the 9-episode series is largely the quirky legal drama that its title suggests, the first episode (premiering Aug. 18 on Disney+) is devoted to Bruce trying to teach Jen the ways of being “a Hulk” on some far-flung tropical island. It could be bold to start off a show with an episode that looks nothing like the ones to come afterward, but in this case, it’s also somewhat necessary. Getting to know Jen in direct contrast to Bruce’s Hulk, who’s spent most of his decade onscreen as The Avengers’ self-flagellating straight man, is crucial to understanding how she might move in the world in her new, green skin.
It helps, too, that Maslany and Ruffalo instantly find a spark of familial chemistry even through all the heavy Hulk CGI shrouding them — which, nervous fans should be relieved to hear, fares better in its final form than the show’s first trailer suggested. (Make sure you stick around for the premiere’s mid-credits tag scene, featuring some truly fun comedic work from Maslany as Jen cajoles Bruce for Avengers gossip.) When Bruce and Jen eventually engage in a friendly(ish) Hulk versus Hulk throwdown, director Coiro does her best to avoid Marvel’s traditionally muddy battles by making this one feel more elastic as the Hulks furiously hurtle through the palm trees.
While Bruce has spent most of his “Avengers” screentime struggling to keep a grip on reality in between transformations, Jen has a steady enough handle on her roiling emotions that she can shrug the Hulk persona on and off like a comfy sweater rather than let it weigh her down. As such, Jen has zero interest in following Bruce’s example with “shady government contract work” when she could just keep the stakes of her everyday life relatively low. When the two are together as Hulks, their differences are made more physically manifest; Jen’s alter ego looks more just like an extremely tall, muscled woman, while Bruce becomes an unfathomably brawny colossus.
The reason why, Jen tells her skeptical cousin in an exchange that also acts as the show’s thesis statement, is that she simply doesn’t have to learn how to keep herself in check the same way he did. “I’m great at controlling my anger…I do it pretty much every day,” she insists. “If I don’t, I’ll get called ‘emotional,’ or ‘difficult,’ or I might just literally get murdered. So I’m an expert at controlling my anger, because I do it infinitely more than you.” It might not be a revolutionary statement at this point, but it is an undeniably effective way to make the She-Hulk experience markedly, urgently different from that of her grim male counterpart.
As Jen tries to find a new place in the world as She-Hulk and the show shifts into “Attorney at Law” mode, each episode flings as much as it can at the wall to see what might stick beyond Jen’s relationship to Bruce and the MCU at large. Will it be Jen’s work life, where her best friend Nikki (Ginger Gonzaga) and new coworker (“The Other Two” standout Josh Segarra) have to entertain the law’s most annoying loopholes? Will it be her dating life, in which cute Jen can’t find half as much success as the sultrier She-Hulk? Maybe it’s toxic influencer Titania (Jameela Jamil)? Or perhaps Wong (Benedict Wong), the mysterious sorcerer from the “Dr. Strange” movies whose belief in moral codes and the sanctity of protecting “Sopranos” spoilers clashes with the American legal system and chatty party girls (respectively)? Or how about Jen breaking the fourth-wall with occasional asides to her audience, in a knowing echo of Byrne’s comic panels that did the same? In its first four episodes, “She-Hulk” tries all these angles and more, relying on Maslany’s natural charisma to be its most constant throughline.
While there’s plenty to like and latch onto along the way, it’s hard to shake the feeling while watching “She-Hulk” that its approach is several years behind the curve. Jen’s passion for her job doesn’t have a clear motivation beyond winning cases, and her misadventures on the “Matcher” dating app have nothing new to say about dating via swipes beyond that it generally sucks. Even the costuming, deliberately lurid and strangely reliant on chunky statement necklaces circa 2010, feel several steps out of date.
And while Byrne’s fourth-wall breaks were groundbreaking once — and, for the record, predated Deadpool’s by a not insignificant margin — they have since become a mainstay in comic adaptations and beyond. Finding a more innovative way to use the device decades later could’ve gone a long way towards making this one more remarkable. She-Hulk, Jennifer, and Maslany alike all deserved more of an updated version to play with, and the chance to push more timely boundaries, than Marvel ultimately affords them.
“She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” premieres Thursday, August 18 on Disney+.