The first time that Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) looks directly into the camera to address the audience, it’s clear that She-Hulk: Attorney At Law is not going to be the typical Marvel show that viewers have come to expect. Though the fourth-wall breaking is kept to a minimum in the premiere, it’s obvious that this is a show that plans on being self-reflexive. Beyond that, it’s a commentary on the entire MCU itself.
She-Hulk has consistently been marketed as a half-hour legal comedy, and while there’s not a lot of the ‘legal’ part of that in this premiere episode, the comedy is definitely there. The show deftly plays into the more comedic side of Marvel’s storytelling, and even if it can’t always shake the weaknesses that most TV pilots have to bear, it makes up for it with great chemistry between its characters and sharp writing.
The first episode of the series functions almost like a supercompressed origin movie, beginning with the incident that grants Jennifer her newfound powers. After hulking out for the first time, Jennifer is whisked away to a tropical paradise by her cousin, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, returning to his Smart Hulk form). There, Bruce attempts to teach Jennifer how to control her Hulk side, only to discover that she may be more in control than he could have ever dreamed.
Beyond all of that, there isn’t a ton of story in this episode. Bruce acts more like an exposition machine in the first half, before actually diving into some deeper character stuff in the second. What is a nice treat is getting to see Bruce Banner again unmoored from the other Avengers. It allows the character to actually contextualize his own experiences without having them filtered through other characters. Here, there’s a level of fun that the Hulk hasn’t been able to convey in the MCU since he merged the two halves of his personality.
However, the real fun is watching Tatiana Maslany fall into her role as the MCU’s newest superhero. As she proved for years in Orphan Black, Maslany has the acting chops to carry a story all on her own, and here she does great work in conveying Jennifer’s confidence as well as her vulnerability. It also helps that Maslany can be incredibly funny, lending the character a great comedic edge and utilizing her fantastic comic timing to great effect. This is especially true in a mid-credits scene for the ages, which adds some much-needed flavor to MCU history.
Where the show really finds its strength is in Jennifer’s personal experiences. Right before one of her early transformations, Jennifer finds herself in the parking lot of a seedy bar waiting to be picked up. There, she’s harassed by men who refuse to leave her alone. Jennifer tries to shake them off with refrains of “I’m waiting for a friend” and saying she has a boyfriend. When the men don’t stop, Jennifer hulks out. She’s stopped before the smashing can commence, but it’s a scene that embodies the kind of everyday problems that women have to put up with.
That thematic relevance carries through the rest of the episode. Jennifer consistently shows Bruce up with her abilities. That includes being able to be in complete control of her Hulk form. Bruce can’t really believe that Jennifer is able to control her emotions, but as she makes it clear to him, the thing he struggled with before finally becoming Smart Hulk is something that women have to do all the time, lest they be criticized for “being too emotional.” Even though he is her cousin and wants what is best for her, Bruce consistently underestimates Jennifer’s abilities. Even the world’s foremost gamma scientist still has a hard time overcoming his own biases. Creator and head writer Jessica Gao, along with director Kat Coiro, find the perfect way to balance all of this with some heartfelt humor while still hitting familiar superhero origin beats.
Where the premiere of She-Hulk falters is how far off from its premise it strays. Very little time is spent in a courtroom in this first episode, and Jennifer’s legal qualifications are rarely mentioned. The premiere instead chooses to place its focus squarely on the She-Hulk part of the title while sidelining the Attorney At Law aspect. It’s fun to watch two Hulks doing their thing in an admittedly beautiful environment, but aside from the conflict between Bruce and Jennifer, there’s not much plot driving the episode forward. What it boils down to is that Jennifer wants to return to her life and Bruce doesn’t think that she can.
There has been a lot of commentary regarding the visual effects in the show. Early reactions to She-Hulk’s appearance were not entirely positive, and although a second trailer that dealt with the compression issues of the first was released, it didn’t quite inspire more confidence. Watching the show, however, it’s clear that Jennifer’s Hulk form is much better integrated in the show than previously thought. The most important part is that Maslany’s facial expressions don’t get lost in the visual effects. That being said, it remains to be seen if She-Hulk sticks out in a more grounded setting like a courtroom or a law firm, as most of the premiere episode was likely taking place in a computer-generated locale.
She-Hulk: Attorney At Law’s premiere episode is a great indicator of all the themes, humor, and action that audiences can expect from the show, even if it doesn’t necessarily reflect what the show will really be. Pilots can be tricky, and with the show going for more of a half-hour sitcom feel, it’s understandable that the episode burdened with all of the set-up isn’t necessarily the strongest. However, there is plenty of promise in these first 30 minutes, and Tatiana Maslany is a more than welcome addition to the MCU family. The self-referential humor (which is beating Deadpool 3 to the punch) is the perfect way to poke a bit of fun at Marvel, and hopefully there will be plenty more in upcoming episodes.
She-Hulk: Attorney At Law premieres August 18 on Disney Plus, with new episodes streaming every Thursday.