Warning: this review contains spoilers from She-Hulk episode 1. If you have not watched the latest entry in the MCU, then turn back now!
Marvel has certainly landed more hits than misses with its foray onto the small screen. From the genre-bending WandaVision to the gritty psychological thriller Moon Knight, the Disney Plus shows have changed our expectations of what the MCU can be. Now, as Phase 4 comes to an end with its last episodic series, She-Hulk is planning to push the superhero genre even further as the studio's first all-out comedy – all in the guise of a half-hour legal drama.
Head writer Jennifer Gao previously explained her plan was to lean into the conflict of a superpowered individual coming to terms with their powers clashing with their normal lives. Think less Thanos, and more about the perils of dating on Tinder when you’re six-foot-seven and green. The result is a story about a hard-working lawyer who just so happens to Hulk-out from time to time.
We first meet Jennifer Walters mid-monologue discussing the responsibility of power (not quite quoting Spider-Man, but not far off) as she prepares to take to the courtroom floor for her latest case. However, it’s not long before we learn she's not just a normal lawyer, as her colleague – and best pal – Nikki advises her to "Hulk out" if things don’t turn out as planned. In the MCU's first fourth-wall break, Jennifer turns to us and explains just how she landed her powers.
Turns out, Walters ended up with her green visage thanks to an ill-fated road trip with her cousin, Bruce Banner (a returning Mark Ruffalo). A rogue spaceship pulls out in front of their car and causes them to roll and crash. Both survive, but Bruce gets some of his blood on Jennifer’s open wound, turning her into She-Hulk.
Bruce whisks Jennifer away to his Mexican hideout to teach her how to handle her newfound Hulk status. He’s got a binder – and 13 years of trauma – to help. But, Jennifer isn’t like the Hulk. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have much of an issue at all with her new powers, much to Bruce’s amazement. The thing is, she explains, she’s already always angry as a woman thanks to the patriarchy (yes, She-Hulk isn’t the most subtle of shows – although you do appreciate what they’re trying to do).
The dynamic between Bruce and Jennifer in these scenes is really charming, with Tatiana Maslany and Mark Ruffalo bouncing off each other well. In particular, Maslany, previously best known for Orphan Black, puts in a stellar performance: you can’t help but root for her. She’s so likable as soon as she’s on screen, effortlessly nailing the comedy, including some particularly great moments where she grapples with the foot-and-a-half difference between her Hulk height and her Jennifer height.
However, their interactions put the focus on the visual effects. The much-criticized CGI has been one of the biggest talking points ahead of the show's release, and while you can’t judge something until its final form comes to screens – and it’s definitely better in the finished episode – there remains something unnatural about the She-Hulk design: maybe it’s that her skin seems too smoothed-out and perfect compared to Smart Hulk’s rugged look, or it might be the choice to change Jennifer’s hair into a stylized (and at times unmoving) '80s bouffant. The frustrating result distracts from the subtleties of Tatiana Maslany’s performance – and I couldn’t help but long for her to return to Jennifer form.
Aside from the quibbles with the visual effects, She-Hulk does well to feel part of the MCU. It’s a show all about rewarding fans of the world –even if it's not in the way you're expecting, given Jennifer is discussing Steve Roger’s virginity within the first five minutes (make sure you watch until the end of the credits for a great pay-off to this storyline). There are also other classic MCU references to enjoy: Bruce and Jennifer’s hideout was built by Tony Stark, the spaceship that sent them off course was Sakaaran, and they solve the issue of Bruce’s injured arm after the Avengers: Endgame battle against Thanos.
The reliance on outside references means that the series isn't quite its own thing just yet. There's a strong tonal whiplash when we’re back in the courtroom for the episode’s conclusion. We only get a very brief glimpse at this side of Jennifer’s other life, including a very brief introduction to villain Titania, played by Jameela Jamil.
The tonal shifts and huge amount of information crammed into these first 30 minutes means it’s hard to know what to expect with the rest of She-Hulk, especially as it’s been billed as primarily a courtroom drama, and we’ve only spent a few minutes in one so far. But with eight more episodes on the way, we’ll have plenty of time to get to know Jennifer – and her alter-ego – better.