I haven’t been able to keep up with watching, let alone reviewing the latest Marvel TV series, because there are a lot of them and I don’t have a lot of time these days. So I still haven’t caught up with Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel, though I did like what little I saw of them.
However, there’s no way I was not going to watch She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, because She-Hulk or rather a version of her is a long-time favourite of mine.
Back in the 1980s, a company called Comics Spain made amazing PVC figures of various comic and pop culture characters, both American and European characters. Comics Spain had hardly any distribution in Germany, but at the time my Dad worked in the Netherlands and Belgium, where you could get the figures. And since I collect PVC figures and love comics, I bought a lot of their offerings.
Comics Spain‘s product range included a selection of Marvel and DC superheroes and a few supervillains (plus the Phantom and Flash Gordon, who are King’s Features Syndicate characters, but matched the Marvel and DC line in scale and style). Of course, I wanted to buy all of the characters – and I did eventually acquire most of them – but my pocket money was limited, so I could only afford a single figure first. I wanted a female character and as so often with toys supposedly aimed at boys, there were only two available, the Jessica Drew Spider-Woman and She-Hulk (they later added two DC heroines, Wonder Woman and Starfire, to the line). I never much liked the blank-eyes 1980s Spider-Woman costume, so I picked She-Hulk.
Except that I had no idea that this character was called She-Hulk at the time. To me, she was just an awesome green superheroine. Browsing some of the American comics on offer at the comic and book stores of Rotterdam and Antwerp eventually revealed that the character was called She-Hulk a.k.a. Jennifer Walters and that she was a female counterpart of the Hulk.
However, at this point I had already come up with a name, code name and origin story for the character, so I took the Marvel version as “Well, that’s their version of the story, but I prefer mine.” So here’s my version of her story:
Her name is Maud Daniels* and she used to be an investigative reporter. One day, while investigating a series of mysterious disappearances and deaths, she stumbles upon a mad scientist, is captured and experimented upon. Unlike the scientist’s previous test subjects, Maud survives, but she is now tall, muscular, super-strong and green. Maud takes out the mad scientist and escapes his lab, only to find that her old life is gone. No one will believe her, she loses her job, because she’s green and way too noticeable now and her boyfriend dumps her, because she’s green, taller and stronger than him and he thinks she’s ugly.
So Maud takes to wandering the world, looking for a cure, a purpose and a home. She finds the latter two, when she stumbles upon the Kirchenkistenheinis, an underground civilisation of gnomes, fairies, anthropomorphic animals and humans who have nowhere else to go. This underground civilisation of the Kirchenkistenheinis (the name means “church box guys” and refers to the fact that I originally kept my PVC figurine collection in a cookie tin embossed with a picture of the Cologne cathedral) is one of my oldest imaginary worlds and everybody, whether my own characters or characters borrowed from somewhere else, eventually washes up there. This stuff rarely finds its way into my published fiction, because it’s just too weird, but trust me, there are Kirchenkistenheinis everywhere and they’ve met everybody.
Anyway, the Kirchenkistenheinis and their leader Stella aren’t afraid of Maud, but think she’s absolutely awesome. Plus, her super-strength is really useful to help build their ever expanding underground civilisation (they have a space port, laser guns, highway, tunnels and everything). So Maud stays, find friends and is encouraged to become a superheroine, starts calling herself the Green Lady (yeah, not very imaginative, but then neither is She-Hulk) and joins a Justice League/Avengers type superhero organisation, because more Comics Spain superhero figures had by now joined my collection.
After a lot of misunderstandings, Maud eventually falls in love with and marries the Phantom, the second Comics Spain superhero figure I ever bought, because I liked the character. Plus, the version of the Phantom I was most familiar with was the one from the Defenders of the Earth cartoon who’s a widower living in a single dad superhero house share**. Together, Maud and Phantom raise Phantom’s teenage daughter Jedda from the Defenders of the Earth cartoon (who sadly never had a figure of any kind) adopt Suske and Wiske (there was no Aunt Sidonie figure and Suske and Wiske needed parent figures) and even have a baby boy.
You can see Maud and her family (sans Jedda, who has snuck off to make out with Flash Gordon’s son Rick – and yes, this is actually implied in Defenders of the Earth) below:
Summing up Maud’s story, I still think it’s pretty good and no more absurd than what Marvel has come up with over the years.
Anyway, I absolutely loved this figure and took her everywhere. She was my absolute favourite for many years and I still love her and have her on display.
I did buy the John Byrne Sensational She-Hulk comics of the 1980s/1990s and generally enjoyed them, even if that story was not Maud’s story. Though Jennifer and Maud have a lot in common. They’re both green and both snarky and both kick arse.
There were rumours of a She-Hulk movie starring Brigitte Nielsen in the early 1990s, but it never happened and I never thought I’d ever see a version of this character on screen. Except that we now live in the golden age of superhero movies and every character, no matter how strange or obscure, will eventually wind up on screen. And if it’s a Marvel character, the chances of it being good are pretty high. If it’s a DC character, the chances are very hit and miss.
And so we have a She-Hulk TV series on Disney+ now and I of course had to watch it, because my teen self and Maud would never forgive me, if I didn’t. And yes, I had Maud and Phantom next to me, as I was watching.
Warning: Spoilers after this point!
When we first meet Jennifer Walters, she is practicing the closing statement for a trial and basically offers a variation of the famous “with great power comes great responsibility” motto. An annoying male colleague tries to mansplain her job to Jennifer and clearly wants to be the one who gives the statement, but Jennifer won’t have any of that. Her friend, paralegal Nikki, supports her and tells her that she’s got it. And if not, she can always hulk out. This causes Jennifer to turn to the camera and say that she’s better explain that “hulking out” comment, because otherwise no one will focus on the lawyer show.
There have been some comments about the fourth wall breaking and comparisons to Deadpool and – weirdly enough – the British comedy show Fleabag (Is that what Fleabag does? Cause all I know is that it’s about a woman and a sexy priest). However, She-Hulk has been breaking the fourth wall since the The Sensational She-Hulk debuted in 1989, well before Deadpool, let alone Fleabag. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I experienced fourth wall breaking, though John Byrne sure as hell did not invent it either.
The episode then launches into Jennifer’s origin story with bonus appearance by Jen’s cousin Bruce Banner a.k.a. the Hulk. When we first see them, he’s in Bruce form with a device attached to his arm that keeps him from changing into Hulk. We get some nice banter, including Jen musing about whether Captain America was a virgin, and then their car almost collides with a random space ship, swerves off the road and overturns. Jen is injured, but manages to free herself and pull out Bruce. Bruce warns her to stay away, but it’s too late. Bruce’s blood accidentally gets into Jen’s wound and she hulks out, as does Bruce.
Jen’s origin story has been slightly tweaked from the one in the original 1980 Savage She-Hulk comic, where Jen is nigh fatally injured in a mob hit and Bruce has to give her a blood transfusion to save her life. But then, superhero origin stories are frequently tweaked to keep up with changing times and scientific knowledge. Iron Man’s origin story was fairly easy to adapt – Marvel kept the basic story, just changed the setting from the Vietnam to the Afghanistan War. Hulk’s origin story, however, was changed from “Was stupid enough to run into a nuclear explosion and survived, only green” to a lab accident as early as the 1970s. But while a mob hit wouldn’t have been implausible, it would still have required more story set-up than a random car crash. Also, regardless of how much movie and TV executives love them, origin stories rarely matter all that much.
Jen initially comes to somewhere in the woods, still injured and with damages clothes. She stumbles upon a roadside bar – one of these log cabin type roadside bars with neon signs that seem to be all over the place in the US, at least in movies and TV shows – and heads for the bathroom to clean herself up. A gaggle of woman come on and promptly offer help to Jen in a show of female solidarity. They help Jen clean herself up, one of the women gives Jen her jacket and another lends her her phone to call Bruce.
Next, we see Jen waiting outside the bar for Bruce to pick her up, when a bunch of drunken dudes stagger out and do what drunken dudes do, when confronted with a lone woman – they begin to harass and catcall her. Considering that Jen is a Hulk, this turns out to be a very bad idea.
Jen passes out again and the next time she comes to, she finds herself in a strange bed. This is of course highly alarming to her, but it turns out that she is in a hidden lab cum holiday cabin on a beach in Mexico that Tony Stark built for Bruce (or rather Tony and Bruce built it together). Bruce is there as well in his smart Hulk form. He explains to Jen what happened and that she was infected with his Hulk powers due to her contact with his blood.
Jen wants to leave and return to her job and her life, but Bruce tells her she can’t until she learns to control her newfound Hulk powers, because otherwise she’d be a danger to everybody around her. Jen is understandably not happy about this.
The bulk of the episode is given over to Bruce testing Jen’s powers – quite brutally at times, such as using a noisemaker on the sleeping Jen or locking her in a chamber with chainsaw studded walls closing in to make her transform. Hereby, it turns out that Jen is a very different kind of Hulk than Bruce. For starters, she retains her normal persona and intelligence even in Hulk form, something that took Bruce years to achieve.
Jen is also apparently stronger than Bruce – something she wasn’t in the comics – though it’s quite possible that Bruce is holding back at first. Though a full smackdown fight between two Hulks still trashes the entire environment, including the tiki bar that Bruce and Tony Stark built together.
BTW, one thing I really liked about this episode is that Bruce’s grief for Tony is acknowledged – after all, they were close friends in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, something that grew out of the real life friendship between Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, since the characters were never that close in the comics. In general, it’s fascinating how much Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark influenced the portrayal of the character in the comics. Because before approx. 2012, Tony Stark was a C-list character, something of a jerk, not very close to Bruce Banner, not in a committed relationship with Pepper, does not banter with Doctor Strange and he didn’t adopt and mentor teenage superheroes either. In fact, I suspect that if Robert Downey Jr. hadn’t delivered such a great portrayal of Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it would likely have never come to exist.
As for why Jen is a different kind of Hulk than Bruce – and this comes straight from the comics, where Jen is never a mindless “Hulk Smash” type either – Jen herself delivery an interesting theory, namely that being a woman, she has a lot more experience suppressing anger than Bruce ever had. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw quotes the relevant bit of dialogue and also reactions to that scene at The Daily Dot.
Now it has always been quite obvious to me that She-Hulk is very much an avatar of female rage just as Hulk is an avatar of (male) nerd rage. She-Hulk was created in 1980 at the tail-end of a flurry of superheroines, often female versions of male heroes, that Marvel introduced in the 1970s as a response to second wave feminism. Carol Danvers in her Ms. Marvel incarnation is probably the most famous example, the Shanna the She-Devil, Tigra a.k.a. the Cat, Night Nurse and the Jessica Drew Spider-Woman all date from this era. And yes, Marvel obviously created these woman-centered comics to sell more comics to the underserved female demographic, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a genuine desire to tackle hot button issues of the day behind these comics, similar to how Marvel introduced several superheroes of colour in the late 1960s and 1970s in response to the Civil Rights movement. Of course, the results were quite often embarassingly clumsy, the 1970s Ms. Marvel comics (which coincidentally are some of the oldest original comics in my collection) are almost painful in their very earnest attempt to create a feminist superheroine, but at least they were trying. Also, anybody who complains that Marvel has gone “woke” should just shut the hell up, because Marvel (or rather its predecessor Timely Comics) has been “woke” at least since Captain America punched Hitler on the cover of Captain America No. 1 back in 1941.
If the original Ms. Marvel comic of the 1970s was about second wave feminism and issues such as equal pay, women’s rights, etc…, She-Hulk was about female rage at mansplainers, catcallers and other shitty men. Even my young self who bought a toy figurine of a superheroine she did not know or recognise back in the 1980s, instinctively understood this, because the story of Maud Daniels is as much a story about shitty men (the scientist who transforms her, the boss who fires her and the boyfriend who dumps her are all male) as it is a story about being accepted for who you are.
Another source of conflict between Bruce and Jen is that Bruce wants Jen to become a superheroine and protect the Earth, just as Bruce did/does with the Avengers. And interestingly, the “protecting the Earth” angle is another thing Bruce borrowed from Tony and to a lesser degree Natasha, because the Bruce we meet at the beginning of The Avengers just wants to be left alone.
Like Bruce pre-Avengers, Jen also just wants to be left alone. Saving the world isn’t her job, because she already has a job, thank you very much. And so Jen leaves Bruce’s Mexican hideaway to return to her life as a lawyer. She also doesn’t keep her powers secret from her family and best friend Nikki. But then, no one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe really keeps their powers a secret, which I for one like a lot, because not telling your loved ones that you are secretly a superhero is not only a recipe for disaster, it also never really made sense and I’m glad to see that trope either discarded or interrogated.
The episode now comes full circle to the opening scene with Jen about to deliver her final statement in a trial against what appears to be an unscrupulous businessman type. However, just before Jen can get going, the trial is rudely interrupted by the arrival of the super-villainess Titania, who proceeds to smash up the courtroom, dressed up like an escapee from a 1970s disco. Honestly, Titania looks more 1970s in this episode than she looks in the actual comics from the era.
Like everybody else, Jen’s hide under the table, when Nikki tells her that now might be a good time to hulk out. As Titania proceeds to take apart the courtroom, Jen finally agrees, while lamenting that she really likes the suit she’s about to wreck. Jen also first takes off her shoes before hulking out, because there’s no reason to ruin a nice pair of shoes. Then she hulks out, saves the jurors from Titania and proceeds to whack Titania with the jury bench. Then she transforms back into Jen and dusts off her ruined suit and says, “I’m ready to deliver my statement now” to the judge. Cue credits.
There is a post-credits or rather mid credits scene, where a very drunk Jen laments that Steve Rogers, though extremely hot, very likely was a virgin until he want back in time at the end of Avengers: Endgame. Whereupon Bruce tells Jen that Steve lost his virginity back in 1943 to one of his back-up chorus girls from his “Star-Sprangled Man” tour. Which makes Jen very happy, happy enough to exclaim, “Yes, Captain America fucked!” Okay, she only says “fu”, because this is family-friendly Disney, but we all know what she was going to say.
Now I have to admit that I also assumed Steve Rogers was probably the last adult virgin of the Marvel Universe, now that Rogue can control her powers – unless Natasha took pity on him. But hurray for Steve actually getting to have sex with a pretty chorus girl.
The great strength of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and something that none of the other cinematic universe attempts have ever really managed to replicate is that it tells a great variety of different stories and tackles a lot of different genres in the same universe, even if all of these stories feature superheroes. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law introduces a new genre into the mix, because here we have a humorous lawyer show a la Ally McBeal, Boston Legal or Danni Lowinsky combined with a superhero story about female anger. And as with most Marvel attempts, the mix somehow works.
I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Tatiana Maslany, though she is a great actress and clearly deserved that Emmy. But I never liked Orphan Black and stopped watching after one and a half episodes. Maslany was good in last year’s Perry Mason show, though I didn’t quite get what the point of her weird radio preacher character was in the whole story, since that weird and very American church stuff distracted from the actual plot. And Tatiana Maslany wasn’t the first person who came to mind to play Jennifer Walters, but then Mark Ruffalo also wasn’t the first or even tenth person who came to mind to play Bruce Banner either. But Tatiana Maslany is really good here and after a few minutes I stopped seeing her as “that woman from Orphan Black” and began to see her as Jennifer Walters. She also nails the humorous aspects of the show, something she really didn’t get to do in Orphan Black or Perry Mason.
This episode is very much a Jen and Bruce two-hander, so the rest of the cast doesn’t get much to do, but I guess we’ll see more of Nikki and Titania in future episodes. Besides, more Mark Ruffalo as Hulk is always good.
The first episode is very much set-up and origin story and the actual plot doesn’t kick in until the last few minutes, but I did enjoy it and I will certainly watch (and try to review) the rest of the show.
If only because Maud would not forgive me, if I didn’t watch this.
*I remember picking the name Maud from a handwritten list of names I liked, but I have no idea where I got it from. Probably the movie Harold and Maude.
**1980s cartoons not only had a lot of single dads, they also had a lot of examples of men banding together to raise kids. Which is why I always find those complaints about LGBTQ content supposedly indoctrinating kids hilarious, because dudes, we already had this in the 1980s and we all survived and became better people for it.