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She-Hulk may be Marvel's first successful comedy

She-Hulk: Attorney At Law is a female-forward comedy series about an attorney who possesses decidedly unsubtle superpowers

Tatiana Maslany in 'She-Hulk'
Tatiana Maslany in 'She-Hulk'

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Hulks smash. Across Marvel movies, we’ve seen scientist Bruce Banner turn into The Incredible Hulk and lose control in a tempest of rage, flattening cities and bodyslamming gods, all while growling and grunting. It took several Marvel excursions for Banner, presently played by Mark Ruffalo, to get a grip and find the mantra of being “always angry.” The big guy is, therefore, stunned when his cousin Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany), who now has similar bright green superpowers, can flip between Hulkness and normalcy— seemingly at will. How, he wonders, can she automatically control the Hulk’s triggers?

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“Anger and fear,” She-Hulk explains. “That’s just the baseline of any woman existing.” Created by Jessica Gao and directed by Kat Coiro, She-Hulk: Attorney At Law (Disney+ Hotstar) is a female-forward comedy series about an attorney who possesses — but is trying not to be defined by — decidedly unsubtle superpowers. She-Hulk is not like most Marvel shows. The show’s weapon is its self-awareness, and its big villain is… sexism. On becoming a superhero, Walters is immediately subjected to online trolling — “Why are you turning every superhero into a girl?” viewers complain the way they do across incensed toxic fandoms everywhere — and a vital plot-point involves the superheroine being doxxed and slut-shamed.

The show is a nutty, cameo-filled, fourth-wall breaking goof, and it’s in on the joke. When a character is asked what it’s like to be a female lawyer, she replies “Twice the work, half the recognition, and you’re constantly being asked what it’s like being a female lawyer.” Walters herself, as a superpowered individual who expresses zero interest in being a vigilante, is described as living every woman’s dream: “Being able to walk home with headphones on without being afraid.”

The female gaze is strong as Walters goes on about Captain America’s posterior, chooses her more glamorous She-Hulk avatar for her dating app profile, and unabashedly expresses her craving to “smash” fellow-superhero Daredevil. Ahem.

So here we have a silly legal sitcom — one where immortal men are made to pay alimony to all the women they’ve married over time — that follows a case-of-the-week format, but also a Marvel series that makes fun of other Marvel shows and films, especially of the way their explosive (and meaningless) endings look and feel the same. This approach of keeping everything relatively low-stakes leads to mixed but unique results. Not to spoil anything, but the innovative She-Hulk finale is both anti-climax — in that it rebels against Marvel’s hollow, loud finishes — but also, I must confess, an actual anticlimax, where much buildup goes nowhere. This may not be a bad thing. All sitcoms shouldn’t have to save the world.

(While on spoilers, I must warn anybody who has not yet watched The Sopranos, and is intending to: skip episode 4 of She-Hulk. Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is catching up on the golden age of television, and a massive, heartbreaking spoiler slips out.)

Maslany, who juggled multiple personas so adeptly on the series Orphan Black, is excellent as Jennifer Walters, thoroughly convinced of her own plane-Jane-ness and frequently shy about superpowers. It’s refreshing to see a Marvel heroine so tentative and uncool, and she plays great with her extroverted best friend and paralegal Nikki, played by Ginger Gonzaga. Nikki — who feels that it’s “twice as much of a sin to kill a fun person” — is a blast and gets some of the show’s best lines, like when she briefs a colleague infiltrating a meeting of incels and misogynists: “Always refer to women as females.”

The cameos are good fun, particularly because of She-Hulk’s varying interest in them. Charlie Cox’s Daredevil has never had such a great time on screen, but She-Hulk, who hasn’t heard of him, is less impressed by his costume and his shtick. “Hey man,” she asks Daredevil when she unmasks him and realises he’s the same blind lawyer who beat her in court, “Are you pretending to be blind? Because that’s really problematic.” On the other hand, she promises her undying fealty to Megan Thee Stallion. This brings us to how, in shows like She-Hulk (and the recent Ms Marvel), superheroes and celebrities co-exist almost interchangeably. One of Jen’s colleagues, for instance, is thirsting for a pair of Iron Man 3s — clearly that universe’s elite celebrity-endorsed sneaker.

Going back to the comics, it’s important to remember that She-Hulk — nicknamed Shulkie in recent years — broke the fourth-wall long before Deadpool did, clearly aware that the reader would be more likely to empathise with her than testerone-filled villains and superhero colleagues. From 2004, writer Dan Slott had a delightful run with the character that gave us the superpowered legal cases and the Marvel cameos that form the personality of this series. Let’s call it Ally McGreen.

“It’s pretty smug to call yourself Smart,” Walters tells her cousin. One of the first arguments between The Hulk and She-Hulk involves their names. The Hulk explains that when in bespectacled form — ie big and greek but also capable of science-y things — he has been nicknamed Smart Hulk. “I didn’t come up with it,” he says defensively, to which she counters, “You used it. Implied endorsement.” Case closed.

Streaming tip of the week:

Speaking of distinctive heroines, there’s a rather lovely retrospective of Smita Patil films on now at MUBI India. It includes Mirch Masala, Nishant, Mandi, Bazaar, and my absolute favourite, Bhumika.

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