“She-Hulk,” even as a character, was a derivative version in the comics. Now, before people come at me with pitchforks, it should be pointed out that derivative versions of male superheroes have existed in comics since time immemorial. The distinction of She-Hulk with her male counterpart lies in the fact that in comparison to Bruce Banner she could control her transformations far better and managed to exist with her consciousness still intact within the green giantess’ physicality. As a result, when John Byrne finally took over the She-Hulk story in the comics (later followed by notable runs of creators like Dan Slott and Charles Soule), they focused more on the mundane in the universe of Marvel Comics. Jennifer Walters is a lawyer, but her physicality and powers make her somewhat of a bridge between the superheroes and the common folk, both within the universe and among the readers. This was fertile ground for the mining of comedy, especially fourth wall breaks, legal cases of heightened mundanity, etc.
So when She-Hulk was announced as the newest installment in the increasingly experimental but also increasingly flawed slate – that is, Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – it was met with the usual reactions – ecstatic excitement among diehard fans, skeptical curiosity among others, and, of course, the backlash exhibited by a populace who has some of the usual problems with the MCU ever since Captain Marvel came into theatres. It didn’t help matters that the unfinished or incomplete CGI was very much evident even within the trailers showing She-Hulk. And, of course, the news reports said that Marvel Studios had been overworking their VFX artists down to their last sweat drop. As a viewer you wonder – is any of it worth it? The answer, inevitably, was no. The surprise was how unworthy the efforts actually were.
It’s not to say that the show stumbles right out of the bat. The show’s first two episodes explain the origin of Jennifer Walters, how she is different from her cousin, her mental state, and her reticence to becoming a superhero instead of focusing on her career—these are interesting wrinkles, perhaps explained in far too blunt a fashion. In hindsight, they were pretty effective. The relationship between Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) has been established pretty well, both through friendly banter and healthy competition. The inevitable fight between the two Hulks does feel like a superhero fight required for the sake of the genre and is not organic in terms of storytelling, which could be attributed to first-episode jitters. Red flags start flashing, however, when in the ensuing courtroom proceedings, Titania (Jameela Jamil) crashes through the wall, and a fight breaks out between the now Hulked out Walters and Titania in an extremely sloppily edited fight. What continues after that from the third episode is a show so confused and yet so proud of its own subversive takes that it forgets to tell a story.
She-Hulk tries to be a sitcom in the MCU (never mind that Wandavision had already tried to comment on the different eras of sitcoms and did it with much more flash and substance, but I digress). It tries to be a legal sitcom in the vein of Ally McBeal. It doesn’t hide its influences in the slightest. It introduces a colorful supporting cast, who are actually just different archetypes allowed to coexist together, with the broadest of definitions—the misogynist co-worker, the chirpy and sassy assistant, the extremely capable older lawyer, the unflappable boss, and the nice guy who looks tough. It also brings in a slew of high-profile guest stars who had been previous MCU stalwarts, namely Tim Roth as Abomination, Benedict Wong as Wong, Charlie Cox reintroduced as Matt Murdock/Daredevil. It has witty comebacks in spades, but lacks writing and meaningful story structure. The legal aspect of Jen’s career is explained haphazardly and lazily, almost as if the writers don’t really have much of an idea of how courtroom scenes or interpersonal dialogues within courtrooms are supposed to work. It’s really surprising, considering there are many legal dramas to pull or even take inspiration from in terms of storylines and then apply superhero sheen to them.
The show, however, succeeds in utilizing its guest stars in unique and fun ways. Benedict Wong steals the show in every scene he is present in. His chemistry with his co-stars, especially with Madisynn (Patty Guggenheim), is the cause of some of the most genuine laugh-out-loud moments of the show. Similarly, Tim Roth’s Abomination is a welcome return of a character long canonically ignored but now brought into the fold. His eventual transformation as a new-age self-help guru is only bolstered by Roth’s performance, who is allowed to be effortlessly charming and funny in a lackadaisical fashion. And, of course, the eventual reintroduction of Charlie Cox’s version of Matt Murdock/Daredevil is the closest the show has come to nailing the character, mixing both Cox’s natural gravitas of the Netflix show with the MCU humor that’s sprinkled just right. As a result, the episode where he finally appears is one of the strongest of the lot, not only in terms of acting and direction but also as a showcase of the chemistry between Tatiana Maslany and Charlie Cox. She-Hulk is also the most consistent aspect of the show, able to elevate the subpar writing to something even remotely watchable, even as you look at the show and realize how an actress of her caliber is getting wasted in filler episodes like The Wedding Episode.
But at its core, where She-Hulk falters spectacularly is its confusion about what it wants to be. And even as it tries to hone in on which aspect to commentate on, it forgets to tell a coherent or even compelling story on which to base the entire show. Its prediction of how internet trolls would react to the events of the episode is almost uncanny and portentous, but there is a Catch-22. A well-done commentary should be a cherry on top of an already well-written and strongly thematic or even remotely funny story. If none of these key ingredients exist, the commentary becomes shallow, and as a result, the real world reacts with that exact vitriol the show is trying to commentate against. Thus, when an episode like the finale occurs, where Jennifer realizes the events of the final episode don’t make sense, and crashes the fourth wall through the Disney + interface, enters the writer’s room, and confronts the writers who urge her to meet K.E.V.I.N., an A.I. who had been writing all these episodes following a strict algorithm, you realize that the grand plan of the show’s being clever enough to proclaim that “this was always the plan” might have worked if the show was actually good and clever from the start. By backloading all of its cleverness into the finale and even teasing a Season 2, the writers are trying to maintain a tone of cheekiness that feels extremely disingenuous after trudging through 4.5 hours of sub-par slog-masquerading as comedy. Tatiana Maslany is one of the primary reasons why the show is watchable, and even the supporting cast of Ginger Gonzaga, Josh Segarra, and especially Griffin Matthews as Luke Jacobson, and I do want this entire cast to stick around. I only want them to be associated with a project with far better writing and enough time given to the VFX artists so that the special effects are honed instead of being inconsistent in quality across episodes.