Superheroes are ridiculous. No lifelong comic book lover could honestly claim otherwise. For every undercurrent of gravitas and moral certitude driving our favorite crusaders, the picture of them surging into battle wearing tights and capes unironically is goofy as hell.
"She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" head writer Jessica Gao confronts that foolishness in the premiere when Tatiana Maslany's ambitious lawyer Jennifer Walters learns from her cousin Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) that a Hulk's greatest friend is Spandex. Not titanic strength or invulnerability, but stretchy fabric.
However, the season premiere's stickiest bit doesn't emerge from their training retreat or any of Jennifer's painful workplace interactions. That honor belongs to the episode's post-credit scene, where Jennifer finally badgers Bruce into confirming that Captain America fu– well . . . isn't a virgin.
"She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" is billed as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first TV comedy, although that designation is debatable. Certainly it's MCU's first true comedy and the rare Marvel title besides "Deadpool" or Taika Waititi's "Thor" films that targets our laughter head-on.
Mark Ruffalo as Smart Hulk in Marvel Studios' "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney+)But you may recall that "WandaVision" transforms into a different sitcom each week before pulling back its disguise to reveal its identity as a grief-fueled figment of Wanda Maximoff's magical thinking. That series danced with the way classic sitcoms soothed the audience with unrealistic portraits of domestic bliss, starting with "The Dick Van Dyke" show, "Bewitched" and "The Brady Bunch."
Those shows are more charming than humorous, similar to the way another series, "Ms. Marvel" is more of a comedy than a drama. That youth-skewing series introduces an emerging hero who isn't bedeviled by a dark past or activated by trauma. Kamala Khan comes from a close-knit family headed by loving parents and has a supportive community behind her. Her story's fantastical tone aligns with her bright imagination, leavening its approach with the bubbly spirit of a dreamer suddenly able to make her superhero fantasies real.
It can't be a coincidence that all these more lighthearted takes on heroic journeys come from head writers who are women. Jac Schaeffer gave us "WandaVision" and went on to co-write "Black Widow." Bisha K. Ali, a stand-up comedian who cut her teeth on writing for Mindy Kaling's series adaptation of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," shepherded the first season of "Ms. Marvel."
Succeeding at comedy is tough, but making a Marvel comedy must be tougher still.
Along with Gao, an alumnus of "Rick and Morty," each writer confronts the genre's tendency to sideline mighty women by using humor to subversively comment on the challenges that come with being a powerful girl or a woman, whether in the multiverse or ours.
Where Kamala and Wanda each struggle to balance family duty and their obligation to serve the greater good, Jennifer's struggle is what every woman contends with: the need to be taken seriously. Bruce does, but her colleagues and the rest of the public don't, especially after she's urged to hulk out to confront Jameela Jamil's superpowered influencer Titania after she crashes through a courtroom's wall and derails an extensively rehearsed closing argument.
Jameela Jamil as Titania in Marvel Studios' "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney+)Succeeding at comedy is tough, but making a fully realized Marvel-branded comedy must be tougher still. Every title comes with an assortment of brand requirements, like the obligation to incorporate at least one physics-defying fist fight into each season, if not every episode, along with promoting other MCU shows and movies. Provided you have made peace with the reality that a pilot is merely a calling card hinting at what a series endeavors to become, that's fine.
But that also means that this story about a career woman who society doesn't allow to be herself isn't allowed to flex its full potential until the third and fourth episodes. First, it must showcase all the ways that She-Hulk is the match to Banner's Smart Hulk, if not fundamentally better than him because she's a woman.
Where Bruce had to gain mastery over his rage trigger, Jennifer has full control over where and when she transforms into a 6-foot-7 glamazon because, she explains, women are obligated to control their anger all the time.
And this is the joke Jennifer confronts in every episode while battling foes such as workplace sexism and the casual cruelty of the app-driven dating scene, or throwing around the self-absorbed Titania as if she were a life-sized Barbie doll.
The first episode ends with her unintentional coming out in the courtroom necessitated by Titania's drywall-demolishing ambush; upcoming installments examine all the ways that even the most empowered women face roadblocks to having it all.
Maslany's time on "Orphan Black" proved her expertise in holding an assortment of personalities in her body at the same time, which makes managing her hero's duality a breeze. Jennifer and She-Hulk are the same persona dwelling in two different bodies, with her statuesque, green-skinned form gaining her considerably more cachet than her shorter and supposedly mousier self. This informs Jennifer's constant urge to remind us – playfully! – that this is her show, not a cameo train for Bruce's Smart Hulk (Ruffalo) or the Abomination (Tim Roth), and especially not everybody's favorite Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong).
Despite all this, Gao eventually strikes a fertile vein of high jinks once grounds the wild superhero domain in the woolly yet staid legal realm. And this is where "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" relaxes into its situation's broad farce in a way those other titles couldn't, establishing its identity somewhere in the balance between "Ally McBeal" and "Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law."
Want great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.
Gao channels "She-Hulk" comic writer and artist John Byrne's style into the show, taking advantage of his comic's practice of breaking the fourth wall and satirizing the trappings of the superhero's existence.
But the show takes off when she and her writers fully commit to poking fun at the comic book world's celebration of hyper-masculinity while crashing its supernatural justifications against the unpredictable vagaries of American jurisprudence.
Tatiana Maslany as Jennifer "Jen" Walters/She-Hulk in Marvel Studios' "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney+)
Upcoming episodes examine all the ways that even the most empowered women face roadblocks to having it all.
Gao won an Emmy for the third season "Rick and Morty" episode "Pickle Rick," an installment that kicks off with its narcissistic protagonist transforming himself into a brined cucumber to avoid attending family therapy. "Pickle Rick" travels a tonal spectrum between utter ludicrousness and dead-sober epiphany, and it hits the mark not despite its core absurdity, but because of it.
This may be the superpower Schaeffer and Ali could not fully access in "WandaVision" and "Ms. Marvel," even as they tap into comedy's exuberance. Wanda Maximoff created her sitcom bubble to escape dread and sadness, the same reason we turn to those brisk and digestible shows in times of distress. Kamala Khan's good-natured wit and optimism keep her exploits lively regardless of the danger she finds herself in.
But Jennifer Walters is inherently comical because of the preposterous nature of her existence, both concerning the humans and superhumans she deals with and the weirdness of being an ambitious woman who's good at what she does. "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" is genuinely funny in that classic "you gotta laugh to keep from crying" sense of the term. That also makes it ring true.
New episodes of "She-Hulk: Attorney at Law" debut Thursdays on Disney +.
about the women of the MCU