Marvel and Disney have hit a superhero speed bump as they push forward with downsizing their spandex-wrapped empire for the small screen. This year’s Moon Knight was memorable only for Oscar Isaac’s accidental Frank Spencer impersonation.
And the recent Ms. Marvel’s attempt to repackage the caped crusader genre for a teenage audience sank faster than Iron Man in quicksand. But the franchise pulls itself out of that slump with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (Disney+) – a feather-weight workplace comedy that owes its success almost entirely to the delightful Tatiana Maslany in the title role.
Maslany is charm itself as Jennifer Walters, an ambitious lawyer whose career is derailed when she accidentally becomes She-Hulk, green goddess of lycra-based crime-fighting. She is lumbered with the standard superhero origin story – involving a car crash and contagious Hulk blood acquired from cousin Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) – yet the obligatory scene-setting is over and done within the span of a single 30-minute episode high on zinging one-liners and low on cosmic melodrama. If only all origin tales were as brisk.
Zippy and low-stakes it may be, yet She-Hulk is also an ambitious attempt by Marvel to splice biff-pow action with a quirky dramedy about a young female lawyer negotiating a male-dominated profession. In She-Hulk the ultimate villain isn’t Thanos – it’s the patriarchy.
The series – which lands amid news that Disney+ has surpassed Netflix in global subscriber numbers – is frank about the challenges women continue to face in the professional world. These are obstacles that remain every bit as entrenched as they were circa late-Nineties legal drama Ally McBeal – upon which She-Hulk is shamelessly patterned – and, indeed, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which pioneered the woman-in-the-city sitcom nearly 50 years ago.
This is acknowledged when Bruce, in his role as Hulk’s mentor to Jen, cautions her to control her anger and fear when she transforms into the gigantic She-Hulk (with green skin and perfect wavy black hair). She replies that those “are just the baselines of any woman existing”. There is also a running joke in which Walters protests her “reductive” superhero name: why is it that she is “She-Hulk” and Bruce gets to be just “Hulk”? Even in the superhero realm, the glass ceiling proves indestructible.
She-Hulk’s swings against institutionalised misogyny and the travails of dating in your 30s are affixed to a caper of breathtaking slightness. We are treated to a deadpan turn by Tim Roth as ancient Marvel baddy Emil Blonsky/Abomination – reimagined here as an absurd mindfulness guru, with a penchant for haikus and with seven soulmate pen-pals waiting to marry him when he get out of prison. He is joined by actress and campaigner Jameela Jamil, in an underwritten part as a “superhero influencer” Titania, whose courtroom freak-out prompts Walters’s early transformation into She-Hulk.
Marvel has never been afraid of comedy – in contrast to its mostly buttock-clenchingly grim rival DC. That humour can be divisive: many fans were alienated by the hammer-blow larfs of Thor: Love and Thunder. But Maslany – who won an Emmy award for dystopian BBC America thriller Orphan Black – is more than capable of carrying off She-Hulk’s blend of girl power drama and superhero adventure. Whether in hulk or human form, this queen of green smashes it.
She-Hulk begins on Disney+ on Thursday 18 August