******BIG GREEN SPOILERS!!******
Old School Smash.
As a kid, I was a huge fan of the comic books and TV series based on Marvel’s “The Incredible Hulk” (1977-1982). The TV series kicked things up a notch by taking the story of latter-day Jekyll & Hyde, Dr. David “Bruce” Banner (an amazing performance by the late Bill Bixby) and shrouding it in everyday realism. TV’s Hulk didn’t use Tarzan-speak, nor did he fight human alligators, or giant robots. This Hulk fought everyday menaces, such as corrupt officials, drug dealers, crime bosses, abusive parents, and even everyday bullies. While perhaps not as colorful or dynamic as the Marvel comic books, I enjoyed the relatability of TV’s “The Incredible Hulk” very much.
The Hulk did finally make it to the big screen, with varying degrees of big-budgeted success. Ang Lee’s borderline arthouse version, “The Hulk” (2003), starring Eric Bana, was a mixed bag. A more mainstream sequel, “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) featured Ed Norton in a wonderfully nuanced performance as Bruce Banner. Then the “Avengers” movies happened, and Norton’s Banner was replaced by Mark Ruffalo (another terrific actor). However, the character was taken in a somewhat different direction–more comic, less dramatic. The character became the Avengers’ answer to ‘Little John’ from Robin Hood’s band of Merry Men. This Hulk is little more than a strongman oaf who can hurl armored tanks, and knock occasional demigods on their asses. Smart-Hulk (“Avengers: Endgame”) is an improvement, mainly in that it allows Oscar-winner Ruffalo a greater speaking role. The character’s defining element of pathos was all but gone.
While I appreciated this different, more commercial approach to the character, I still missed the more tragic version of Banner-Hulk that I enjoyed so much in the Bixby and Norton versions. All the same, I was curious; so, after staying out of the Marvel pool of content for awhile now (more like an ocean these days), I decided to jump back in with producer/writer Jessica Gao’s version of “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” (2022)…
“A Normal Amount of Rage.”
Told in flashback, Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) tells us how it all began; how she came to be “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.” Driving down a sunny country road with her famous “Avenger” cousin, Bruce (Mark Ruffalo), Jen and Bruce are having a discussion about her theory that Bruce’s fellow avenger, Steve Rogers (aka “Captain America”) was a virgin before he was frozen in World War 2. They also talk about the elaborate contraption that Bruce is wearing on his left arm. He tells her that it’s a device to keep him human by inhibiting his Hulk-outs. As they continue their talk of Steve Rogers’ virginity, a large “Sakaaran Class-8 Courier” spaceship lands on the narrow road, directly ahead. Unable to swerve out of the way, their car careens off the road in a devastating crash…
Note: We’ve seen the Sakaarans appear in multiple Marvel movies, of course. To be honest, I’ve more or less checked out of Marvel’s cinematic and TV universes, so I’m apologizing in advance for any references I may have missed. I haven’t seen a theatrical Marvel movie since “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), and I haven’t watched any Disney+ Marvel shows since “WandaVision” (which I wasn’t terribly fond of) and the pilot of “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which I had no interest in continuing. I’ve not seen any of the latest wave of Marvel movies, so I’m reviewing “She-Hulk” more as a casual viewer, and not a current MCU devotee.
Emerging from the wreckage, Jen accidentally gashes her arm while making her way to Bruce, who’s also bloodied his arm in the crash. As she pulls him from his seatbelt, a few drops of his gamma-irradiated blood drop into the open cuts other own arm, and voila–a She-Hulk is born.
Note: It’s been awhile, but I think the comic books (1980-present) had Bruce giving his cousin Jen a deliberate transfusion instead of an accidental mixture of their blood, in a desperate attempt to save her life. Personally, I prefer this accidental approach, since forcing Jen to take on his mutated blood would be condemning his cousin to the same curse he’s been desperately trying to undo for many years. Why would anyone, even in desperation, put someone else through that, let alone family? It’d be arguably more merciful to simply let her die.
The blood immediately and aggressively courses through Jen’s veins, giving her bright green eyes and a visibly verdant skin color, as well. As she transforms into a mindless rage-beast, she blacks out…
Note: As someone very close to persons living with epilepsy, I’ve long viewed Banner’s Hulkouts as a metaphor for the loss of control and momentary blackouts of consciousness that occur with that condition. I also appreciate that Banner, who lives with these blackouts, remains very much a hero, as well. She-Hulk, even in the comics, never loses her conscious-self during her transformations, which is a very different approach (opening the door for a lot more camp). On the plus side, it also decreases her level of victimhood–leaving her a very active participant in how she wields this newfound strength and power.
Jen then finds herself, clothes ripped and dirty, near a sleazy bar on the outskirts of nowhere. Going into the ladies’ room, Jen is immediately swarmed by other women who assume she’s the victim of assault. They bombard her with a jacket, fresh makeup (huh??), and even offer up their phones to make emergency calls. While their support is appreciated, and the jacket accepted, Jen makes her way outside, as she decides what to do next.
Outside, Jen’s swarmed by a group of men, who aggressively hit on her, despite her disheveled, possibly traumatized state. As she politely rebuffs their advances by pretending her ‘boyfriend’ is picking her up, the men begin to menacingly encircle her, like wolves with prey. Feeling both anxious and threatened by this possible prelude to a gang-rape, Jen has another, more fortuitously-timed Hulkout.
Fade to black.
Note: The bar restroom scene, as well as the sexual harassment (near gang-rape) scene outside the bar hint at the much deeper dramatic potential of this series, if it decides to go down that road. Personally,I hope that it does–at least every once in awhile. It could say many valuable things about being a woman in a 21st century that seems hellbent on repealing the progress for all women gained in the last 50 years. Needless to say, this was the most powerful scene of the episode, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more like it later on.
Waking up in Mexico, Jen is comforted to see a fresh t-shirt and shorts, neatly folded near her bed. She awakens to the sight of her cousin Bruce in “Smart-Hulk” mode; a fusion of his mighty Hulk form with all of Bruce’s mental faculties intact (as seen in “Endgame”). Bruce-Hulk explains to Jen that she’s at his secret lab complex in Mexico, where he eventually learned how to reconcile these wildly different sides of himself during “the Blip” (a reference to 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War”). He also breaks the news that she’s been infected with his blood. Fortunately, her system–like his–has the genetic means to handle an overdose of gamma radiation, hence, She-Hulk. Telling her that her old life is over, and that she’ll have to become a superhero, Jen resists that notion, hoping that her cousin can simply build her another Hulkout inhibitor. Bruce-Hulk explains that prototype device was calibrated only for him, and that it was destroyed in the crash.
Agreeing to partake in Bruce-Hulk’s mentoring for now, Bruce-Hulk places Jen in a thick glass cell, with walls of circular saw-blades closing in on her, in an attempt to trigger another Hulkout. Jen thinks her cousin has lost his damn mind, as she instantly Hulks-out and smashes both the converging deadly walls, and the entire chamber itself–something Bruce-Hulk laments, noting that it costs millions of Tony Stark’s dollars to build. However, this test also reveals something new… Jen retained her full conscious persona during the Hulkout. She willed it to happen, in fact…
Note: One of the best exchanges in the script is when Bruce warns Jen that “the triggers (to a Hulk-out) are anger and fear,” to which Jen correctly retorts, “That’s the baseline of any woman existing.” This is the kind of dialogue I wanted more from this series going forward; that uniquely feminine perspective that’s not often well-served in other superhero stories. We’d never hear WonderWoman or Captain Marvel talk about menstrual cramps, for example. “She-Hulk” could smartly cover that all-too ignored ground of everyday womanly existence.
Bruce-Hulk is amazed that his cousin has adapted to her newfound condition far easier than he has, retaining her own consciousness without the years of effort and medical research he was forced to try for the last 15 years. Still believing Jen’s Hulkouts could be a danger to herself, Bruce tries to immerse her in “Dialectal Behavior Therapy,” which involves yoga-like poses, breathing exercises, and emotional control (similar to what we saw Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner go through in the early scenes of 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk”). Jen sees Bruce’s well-intentioned tutoring as remedial, as she believes she can safely summon her metamorphoses at will.
Note: Some very good dialogue in this scene as well, with Bruce-Hulk unthinkingly telling Jen about learning to deal with Hulk-triggering factors in her life, not realizing that being a woman is incredibly triggering already; with male colleagues at her firm mansplaining her job to her, or how she’s assumed to be weaker and less competent, simply on the basis of her sex.
Jen is instantly proven wrong the following morning, when Bruce-Hulk awakens Jen with an air-horn, which triggers an instantaneous waking Hulkout. Her bed smashed, Jen-Hulk agrees that perhaps learning some exercises in self-control from her cousin might be a good idea after all…
Note: We also see that Jen is hypoglycemic, as she nearly faints from low blood sugar in human-form, before her cousin serves her a refreshing pancake breakfast. Since one possible factor for hypoglycemia is an unbalanced metabolism, I wonder if Jen’s Hulkouts might trigger onsets of her condition when she reverts to her human state? I assume that being a Hulk, with its rapid healing powers and super-strength, would also wildly accelerate bodily metabolism. This could be an exploitable weakness for her future nemeses, too.
The following is a humorous training montage, right out of a “Karate Kid” movie, with Bruce-Hulk acting as Jen-Hulk’s oversized Mr. Miyagi. The two of them practice more of his DBT, as well as hurling massive stones, and other practical exercises in super-strength–safely done in the remote hills of rural Mexico. Naturally, Jen-Hulk proves a quick study, with Bruce-Hulk’s overprotectiveness of her tempered with a bit of personal envy, as his cousin doesn’t seem to require the extensive adaptation to her condition that he did. Then again, when Bruce first became the Hulk, he didn’t have a pre-Hulk cousin to show him all the ropes, either.
Note: Some great gags involving Bruce-Hulk testing Jen-Hulk’s super-jumping abilities by pushing her off a cliff. During her fall, she gives her cousin the middle finger for his ‘dick move.’ There’s also a great scene demonstrating Hulk-clapping, which emits a supersonic blast of air and sound that can instantly fell an opponent.
Next, Bruce-Hulk teaches Jen-Hulk the practicalities of a good Hulk-minded fashion sense, with lots of spandex–her new best friend. Another side benefit to being a Hulk? Their super-metabolism means they can consume ridiculous amounts of alcohol… something the two of them decide to put to the test in Bruce-Hulk’s beachside bar, which he built by hand during his period of isolation following the Blip.
Note: If I have one heaping criticism of the show (and this dates back to the “She-Hulk” comic books as well), it’s that She-Hulk is very sexualized; remaining (more or less) classically feminine in her proportions, despite her green skin and unusual height. She never gets the monstrous, comic-book proportions of her cousin, whose silhouette is freakishly disproportionate. In yet another nod to male assertiveness in our culture, Jen has to remain ‘pleasingly’ feminine, so that adolescent fanboys might still see her as a sexual being, of course. Other than her green skin, Jen’s Hulk wouldn’t be too out of place at an L.A gym, or at a WWE Women’s Wrestling Championship. Incidentally, 6′ 5″ actress Malia Arrayah is the on-set digital reference for the computer-rendered body of She-Hulk.
At the bar, an overprotective Bruce-Hulk reaffirms to Jen-Hulk that she can’t just resume her old life and law practice, blindly refusing to see that his cousin shows much greater control than he does, when it comes to their shared condition. The following morning sees Jen awakening with a superhero-sized hangover (something her cousin failed to warn her about), as she tells Bruce-Hulk that she’s taking his Jeep back to Los Angeles, where she is going to resume her old life. With Bruce-Hulk using his super-strength to physically stop Jen from taking his Jeep back to L.A, he triggers another Hulkout from her, as she tosses a giant boulder his way.
Note: I have to admit, I wasn’t too cool with the idea of Bruce-Hulk using his monstrous will to physically stop Jen from resuming her life. That’s exercising a control over Jen that’s not very healthy for either of them–after all he’s a cousin, not her parents (who have been notified of her condition, by the way). He’s also ignoring the fact that Jen is a grown woman who is able to determine the course of her own life. If she makes mistakes? They’re hers to make. This is yet another example of men trying to put Jen into a box.
Thinking she might have killed him, Jen-Hulk’s relieved to see Bruce-Hulk pushing aside the massive boulders, but with his pigheaded intransigence intact, as he remains determined to prevent her leaving. Jen-Hulk’s own rage is pushed to the maximum, as she trashes her cousin’s beachside bar… an action she quickly regrets, and later helps him to repair. After their tempers cool, he ‘agrees’ that she’s free to take his Jeep and return to her life and legal practice in L.A. So, she takes the Jeep and splits…
Back in L.A, we see Jen once again talking to the audience, telling us that’s the story of how she became She-Hulk, and that she has it all under control now…
Note: The fourth wall gimmick is used several times in this premiere episode, and to be honest, it pops me out of the story a bit, as it feels more Mel Brooks than Marvel. Don’t get me wrong; I adore Mel Brooks (“Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” are two of my favorite comedies of all time), but I think these repeated fourth wall breaks short-circuit some of the dramatic potential this series might have going forward, if people see it only as a comedy. Even the campy 1960s “Batman” TV series never saw Adam West or Burt Ward talking directly to the camera.
In the courtroom, Jen prepares to give her case’s closing arguments, as her male colleague Dennis (Drew Matthews) whispers in her ear not to “screw this up” (another bit of unnecessary male a$$holery), while her lawyer bestie Nikki Ramos (Ginger Conzaga) shoots Dennis a dirty look. Halfway through Jen’s presentation, the courtroom walls are smashed in from the outside corridor by a gaudily-dressed super-villain known as “Titania” (Jameela Jamil). As “Titania” trashes the courtroom for an as-yet-unrevealed reason, Nikki then quickly urges Jen to change into She-Hulk. Jen gripes that she really likes the suit she’s worn to court that day, but at Nikki’s insistence, she prepares to trash her new suit and release her alter-ego—but not before Nikki reminds her to take off her expensive shoes, of course.
Note: Titania is, of course, the famed arch-nemesis of “She-Hulk” from the comic books; she is to She-Hulk what the Joker is to Batman. No doubt we will be seeing a lot more of her, as well as Jen’s colleagues Nikki and Dennis as well. The trailer for the season also promises appearances by “Daredevil” attorney/superhero Matt Murdock, and even the Hulk’s old foe, Abomination (Tim Roth, returning from 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk”).
Jen summons She-Hulk, as the seams to her expensive suit split with abandon. She-Hulk then rushes the attacking Titania and knocks her unconscious with a well-placed punch. Reverting back to human form, the diminutive Jen, in her ripped suit, finishes her closing argument before the judge…
Note: Stick around for a great coda after the credits where Jen and Bruce finish their earlier exploration into Steve Rogers’ alleged virginity; too funny to spoil.
Writer/producer Jessica Gao has adapted the inherently campy “She-Hulk” comics (created by the late Stan Lee and John Buscema) into an all-out comedy. But every now and then, there are flickers of potential underneath the gags and bon mot-filled dialogue. Yes, “She-Hulk” is being played very broadly (the characters even break the fourth wall at times), but there are a few moments–particularly the bar scene, and some choice lines delivered by Jen–that hint at some deeper, more significant things to come. My biggest hope for this new series going forward is that it’ll use the comedy as a spice, not a main course. There is still great potential for this series to say very important things about being a woman in the 21st century.
With the talented Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) in the title role, it’s clear that Gao isn’t just making a green “Wonder Woman”; Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk isn’t some naive Amazon, and she remains fully herself, despite her transformations. While I would’ve been interested in seeing the character tackle the sort of debilitating blackouts we saw with Bixby’s version (a metaphor for epilepsy, and other neurological challenges), Jen already makes a great point when she says that being a woman in this day and age can be rage-inducing enough. We don’t need to see a She-Hulk victimized as well. In fact, having She-Hulk played with all her faculties, and living her best life in spite of her condition is exactly what we do need to see right now.
“She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” is currently available for streaming exclusively on Disney+.