She-Hulk proclaims itself a Legal Sitcom but is frequently distracted by adherence to being another generic, poorly paced Marvel affair that gets in its own way, despite fun guest appearances and another fantastically cast lead actor.
Bullet Point Review
- Once again, Marvel can’t commit to an idea, as the show struggles to find a cohesive identity.
- Similarly, pacing problems hurt yet another show, with a number of rushed stories and under-served side characters.
- Spending nine weeks setting up a giant meta joke was certainly a bold choice, but at the expense of the quality of the individual episodes leading up to it.
- Teasing Daredevil for so long and doing some fake-outs would have worked a lot better if the MCU were in better standing, but when he finally showed up, he was excellent.
- People dunked on the CGI ahead of release, and while it’s rough in spots, it works surprisingly well most of the time.
- Yet another impeccable casting that further bolsters the future of the MCU.
‘Not That Kind of Show’
Similar to virtually every MCU project in recent memory, She-Hulk never committed hard enough to a particular vision, instead dumping a bunch of interesting elements onto the table but then shrugging and refusing to cook something special.
Jen defiantly claimed in episode one this was her show and that it was a lawyer show, NOT a superhero show. She would later even claim this was ‘not that kind of show’ when discussing cameos and whatnot. HOWEVER! It was very rarely a fun legal sitcom either. It wasn’t quite funny enough, with too many jokes whiffing, and the writers admitted they weren’t good at writing lengthy courtroom scenes either, which seems like a problem given the premise. Perhaps some sitcom veterans could have been hired to punch up the scripts a smidge. Heck, go get an Ally McBeal alumnus. WandaVision had the same issue, referencing a tonne of timeless sitcoms but never getting within 100 miles of being as funny as any of them. Time after time, we got bogged down in teases of macabre secret villains and larger plot elements that felt tacked on and ate into the runtime that should go to satisfying payoffs and character pathos (MUCH more below).
When making these proclamations, Jen turned to camera to break the fourth wall. It was something the character began doing in 1989, eight years before Deadpool started doing the same (something she perhaps should have literally told viewers not as familiar with the character). The problem is, ten minutes could go by without Jen doing it, making it jarring when she did, culminating in a colossal binge in the final episode (more on that below too) that seemed to really fuck some people up. If you’re going to do this, do it. Do it a lot. Get weird with it. Own it. Make it your thing.
They also tried to tackle sexism, a task they were a little ill-equipped to handle, in much the same way The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was never going to be able to succeed at gently criticising the police and limply pointing at American racism. Jen’s rant about always being angry from episode 1 got the ‘What is grief…?’ treatment WandaVision experienced straight away, and while it was a tiny bit too on the nose, I actually thought they picked their spots decently throughout, particularly when incorporating real-world toxic behaviour towards female-led Marvel projects as a plot element. The Intelligencia got a smart re-write as an incel message board, and the frequent social media montages talking about She-Hulk in-universe mirrored the way fans attacked Captain Marvel, Mighty Thor, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk in real life.
Early on the writers mentioned Fleabag as one of the show’s key inspirations. Both the talking to camera and painfully honest look at the modern female experience would go hand in hand with that, right? Well, not really, because while Fleabag was obviously really funny, it was a completely different style of humour than She-Hulk was going for, and I’m not confident you can even pull off something like Fleabag with a PG rating, especially under the Disney umbrella. Sure, Jen shares some relatable and depressing anecdotes from her professional and personal life, but it’s difficult to pull off true poignancy when you also want a giant super-influencer to burst through a wall like the Kool-Aid Man.
Every one of these ideas is fertile, but I’m not really convinced they can co-exist, especially when also being beholden to generic Marvel tropes. I would happily watch the Legal Sitcom with a different wacky client each week and no major stakes. I would also happily watch a dramedy about identity, especially considering Jen maintains her personality in Hulk form, in stark contrast to Bruce’s repressed Hulk personality. What if that wasn’t as true as she thought it was, and some subtle behavioural differences began to creep in?
Basically I’m sick of Marvel refusing to pick a lane and instead trying to be all things to all people, only to not be particularly good at any of it. Moon Knight needed to either be a pulpy globetrotting comedy or a psychological thriller questioning reality. Ms. Marvel needed to be a high school comedy and hold off on the trip to Pakistan until season 2. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier either needed to do the Flagsmashers and John Walker, or Baron Zemo and the Power Broker. I desperately wanted to love a version of this show, but they rarely ever let me because they didn’t commit to which version they were making.
Pacing, Pacing, Pacing
This one infuriates me too. Is Loki legit the only season of television they’ve made that didn’t slam into a brick wall at the end, trying to tie up too many loose threads or cram in too much exposition and blahhh action? What If…? almost qualifies, but they had to postpone an entire episode leading to an awkward situation with an extra unexplained character in the finale. Hawkeye was mostly fine at this too, I guess. But basically everything else has gotten near the end of its season and left me thinking ‘boy there’s not a lot of runway left to land this plane.’
Now, as we will get to shortly, they didn’t actually end up having to confront that issue in the finale, but even with the big joke, it required Todd to deliver a hasty monologue explaining all the plot elements out loud. Infinitely worse than that though, six or seven of the nine episodes felt like they finished prematurely to me. An inescapable sense of ‘oh, I guess that’s it?’ The answer is almost never longer episodes – especially in a comedy – and Episode 7 proved they can deliver something compelling without bonus time.
Instead, it’s more about the above-mentioned lack of focus, poor use of time, and general structure of the season. What aired as episode 2 was originally intended to be the first episode, and probably would have worked better in that spot. Moving the giant flashback training montage episode from late-season (where I’m not convinced it would have made an awful lot of sense either, but hey) to the beginning instead led to ‘re-piloting’ and delaying how long it took to start just feeling good about the show. Speaking of Episode 1, remember when Titania burst through the wall out of nowhere and it felt like they rapidly cut frames to skirt in under their promised run-time? THEY NEVER EXPLAINED ANY OF THAT! Seriously, why did she invade that courtroom???
From there we kind of settled into the intended ‘Case of the Week’ format, with cameos left and right, but Intelligencia didn’t ‘debut’ until Episode 6, and Jen received her costume in Episode 5 but didn’t wear it until Episode 8 (those two episodes felt like they should have been sequential in general). It felt like that was supposed to be a huge moment, with her deliberating about putting it on, but when that decision was made it felt inconsequential. Put it on earlier or make it a bigger deal. People were waiting on Daredevil for weeks and then he arrived in the penultimate episode. This is all the more frustrating because while The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel all took 2-3 episode detours away from their plot only to whiplash back as they asked audiences to care about characters and plot elements that went AWOL, She-Hulk had no such need. They weren’t trying to shove a whole second story in to fill out the runtime, so to blow so much of your load on blahhh episodes is annoying. Each one is an opportunity to make a strong impression, and it felt like they didn’t know they only had 9 to work with.
Where this really reared its ugly head was the harm it did to the supporting cast. The incredibly talented Renée Elise Goldsberry didn’t get a meaningful scene until Episode 5. Nikki and Pug were set up to be series regulars, but would disappear or go quiet for entire episodes. Jen’s family never ended up being anything at all. If this were a ‘real show’, Nikki would have a storyline every single week. Unfortunately Marvel seem to have a deep commitment to casting fun people, getting bored of them, and only remembering they’ve got them later. I’m begging you to give your casts something to do!
Commitment to a Bit or Self-Sabotaging?
Following on from the above two points, for eight weeks, I complained about Big Plot Things creeping in, taking up precious minutes and detracting from the tone they claimed they wanted to establish. Well, it turns out that was all very much on purpose to set up a fake bad finale so that they could do an enormous meta joke about the MCU, their very real bad finales and various other issues.
In general, I respect commitment to a bit, such as Norm McDonald’s bad-on-purpose material. But there is an enormous difference between five minutes of stand-up and nine weeks of television. I question how wise it was to devote such a significant amount of time building towards a ten-minute sequence that received such mixed feedback anyway. Plenty of people enjoyed the show from start to finish and LOVED the finale, so maybe this is just like when Simpsons writers talk about the satisfaction of their most niche jokes landing with only a fraction of viewers.
For me, I’d feel a lot better about it all if the show weren’t struggling against tone and pacing issues already, with half the episodes landing on the bad end of the scale. It’s like high-stepping into the End Zone when there’s nobody within 10 yards of you versus trying to do the same amid heavy defensive traffic.
Where do we go from here? Now that they’ve gotten their big joke out of the way, do they jettison the creeping bigger picture villain stuff altogether and just make their breezy episode-of-the-week Lawyer Show? Couldn’t they have just done that in the first place and led by example when it comes to changing how the MCU does things rather than self-sabotaging just to say their point out loud at the end? Or do they try to replicate or even top this with another season-long meta fake-out? I’ll give them this: I’m very interested what a second season looks like.
The Daredevil of it All
Rumour has it the big returning Netflix-verse character in She-Hulk was originally intended to be Jessica Jones. As happy as I’d be to see Krysten Ritter come back (and hope it still happens!), I am an enormous fan of Daredevil, and was so thrilled to hear Charlie Cox would not only return after his nothing cameo in Spider-Man: No Way Home, but actually suit up and do superhero things.
Unfortunately, I think they made a mistake by making him such a focal point of the marketing. I believe he was missing from the initial teaser, but was all over the subsequent trailers, supplemented by many quotes about him from the cast and crew. I get why they did it – the show was a tough sell for some terrible human beings, and Daredevil was extremely popular, so it was an attempt to fix their narrative – but his impending arrival loomed over the series week after week. Some teases were entirely in fans’ minds, like Jen needing legal help at the end of Episode 4, while others were explicit like showing his helmet at the end of Episode 5. They played with these expectations, sending Jen straight off to a self-contained wedding episode directly after that tease, and even had her draw attention to the fact everyone was expecting him … only to not deliver him the episode after that either.
I desperately want to commend them for poking fun at self-entitled fans, who care more about cameos and castings than quality. Cameos by Harry Styles, John Krasinski and Brett Goldstein were all spoiled lightning fast and dominated social media in the wake of their movies’ release cycles. Some fans have even expressed disappointment when a movie doesn’t feature the arrival of a new character in a mid/end credits teaser. These films used to tease actual storylines that would be paid off in the next 6-12 months, and now they’re just throwing more coal in the hype train for nebulous cameos despite the fact we rarely know when we’ll next see these characters. It’s bad and needs to stop!
The problem is, the MCU is not in the same ‘can do no wrong’ position it was a few years ago, with every project receiving some level of backlash. They have desperately needed an unadulterated feel-good win for years now (no pressure, Wakanda Forever), so it seems misguided to play around with expectations, and they would have been better off keeping Matt’s appearance a secret. A Marvel firing on all cylinders could pull this off, but getting cute with it may have hurt more than it helped.
When he finally arrived? Perfect. A precious baby angel who must be protected at all costs. He smiles more. He does more somersaults. He fucks! I’ve never loved the yellow suit in the comics and liked it even less in live action, but symbolically I understand the notion that Bullseye killed people in his red suit, so he doesn’t want to wear it anymore, and it justifies Matt coming out West for a meet-cute with Jen. Their chemistry was electric immediately, and not a person alive could watch them flirt and not want them to get together.
The CGI Lead Is Actually Good… Mostly
For many this show was dead on arrival because some of the CGI looked iffy in the early teasers. It always does, because low quality videos of unfinished scenes leak out and get passed around and torn apart. Eternals looks way better as a finished product than that notorious clip of Angelina Jolie indicated. It’s a huge problem in the game industry, as weird chuds make exaggerated claims about how bad graphics look ahead of release, and the same is true of Marvel, particularly in the last two years as (valid) criticisms of their business practices have plagued the internet.
There are definitely some really rough looking scenes, particularly any time she’s in the GLK&H offices or in court (which is a problem given she’s in both of those places a lot!), but generally speaking she looks MUCH better than people would have you believe. Particular highlights were her arrival at the wedding – where she just looked like a big tall human lady painted green – and fighting demons with Wong. Why so hit and miss? Likely because different animation studios were assigned different scenes/types of activity. In a perfect world it would look as good as it can at all times, but such is the nature of modern filmmaking and an over-reliance on VFX over practical.
Announcing a CGI character will be the lead of an entire season of television or a major component of a movie generally makes me nervous because while Thanos looked shockingly good, Marvel’s green screen shenanigans have looked bad a lot more than they’ve looked good. She-Hulk wasn’t Thanos in Infinity War, but similar to the Mad Titan, they were able to pull off some genuinely emotionally affecting moments from a bunch of beeps and boops. Her monologue from ‘The Retreat’ stands out here, but her rampage at the end of Episode 8 was decent too, and overall, I do think that they proved they can pull this off. Or at least the CGI isn’t the reason it isn’t as good as it could be.
Another Strong Pillar for the MCU‘s Future
For all of the failings of Phase 4 of the MCU, you can’t fault Marvel’s tactical building of the next stable of stars to lead them into the future, especially important given how many OG Avengers have stepped down. Teyonah Parris, Florence Pugh, Sophia di Martino, Jonathan Majors, Simu Liu, Hailee Steinfeld and Iman Vellani are a wonderful stable of actors for them to get to play with for years to come. Heck, I hated the shows they were in, but Wyatt Russell and Oscar Isaac are interesting actors and great gets. You just hope they get to be in better things in Phases 5 and beyond.
You can firmly write Tatiana Maslany and She-Hulk to this group. Maslany has more experience as a series lead than anyone they’ve put in a TV show before, and that was demonstrated in spades throughout, with her performance a consistent highlight even when the writing let her down at times. She’s witty, charming and can do drama, comedy and romance with equal aplomb. Wearing a lot of hats is huge for the superhero genre, because they try to be all things to all people, with quips rearing their head even in the more serious projects. And this is all fundamentally very silly stuff, so being able to make me feel something is a huge bonus.
Jen could be a slam-dunk success if the writing were more consistent, and the nature of her character means she could pop up anywhere and never be out of place. Need a heavy hitter? She-Hulk Smash! In some legal hot water? Jen’s got your back. Just need someone fun to mix up the energy in the room? Maslany will bail you out. She had ridiculous chemistry with everybody she acted across from, and could end up being an MVP of a superhero ensemble if afforded the opportunity. I’m by no means the first person to say it, but the notion nobody wanted to date her in human form is the least believable thing in the show.
It feels reductive to compare the show and character to fellow maligned hero Captain Marvel, but I have similar feelings about both: LOVE the character. Excited for them to mix it up with other MCU characters for years to come. Just not a huge fan of the project they debuted in.
- The Retreat’ (Episode 7)
- ‘Ribbit and Rip It’ (Episode 8)
- ‘Is This Not Real Magic?’ (Episode 4)
- ‘The People vs Emil Blonsky’ (Episode 3)
- ‘Just Jen’ (Episode 6)
- ‘A Normal Amount of Rage’ (Episode 1)
- ‘Whose Show Is This?’ (Episode 9)
- ‘Superhuman Law’ (Episode 2)
- ‘Mean, Green and Straight Poured into These Jeans’ (Episode 5)
I would imagine for most people the Daredevil episode is number one by default, but for as much of a Matt Murdock homer as I am, I believe ‘The Retreat’ was a better crafted episode of television. It started well and maintained that quality to the end, and was probably the only episode that didn’t feel like it ended prematurely. Their take on Daredevil was amazing though, and the romantic pairing really sizzled, so it’s a close second place for that episode.
The shenanigans with Donny Blaze, Madisynn and Wong were pretty fun, so Episode 4 stands as the bridge between the top tier and basically all of the rest, which are mostly decent but not great. You could talk me into re-ordering positions 4-7 as the all have their moments and their weaknesses.
I’m firmly attached to the bottom two though. Episode 2 suffers from that ‘re-piloting’, and probably wouldn’t have felt as bad if it was the actual first episode, but season structure is a thing, I’m afraid. Episode 5 was basically a waste of space. It essentially re-treads aspects of the previous episode but worse, while sending Nikki and Pug off on a quest to find Jen a costume designer. The latter is good and necessary, but ending the episode without actually seeing the fruits of their labour makes it feel a little lame, and it just felt like the important moments could have been merged into some of the other episodes. Especially because of my complaints about pacing highlighted above.
Some of these shows have felt like they are best suited as a one-and-done, telling a specific story to bridge a gap between movies, but She-Hulk is definitely one that could go on for multiple seasons if they so choose. Jen spends the first season trying to embrace being both a lawyer and a superhero, reluctantly suiting up for the first time towards the end, so they can now do more bombastic stories akin to episode 8, which was the most popular by far. Daredevil was a major reason for that, but it was also a good preview of what it would look like for Jen to juggle her day job with a more conventional superhero nightlife. A whole season of that sounds fun to me. Titania is still out there. There’s no shortage of guest stars they could bring in, and obviously a return of Daredevil would be extremely welcome.
She-Hulk has also been reported to return in Captain America: New World Order, alongside Tim Blake Nelson, aka Samuel Sterns aka The Leader from The Incredible Hulk. Jen made a quip about the method of giving Hulk powers sounding suspiciously like Super Soldier Serum. Well, if you recall, the experiments that Bruce, Thunderbolt Ross and Blonsky were involved in were exactly that in the movie. So I’m guessing Sam Wilson will be continuing his efforts to mop-up super soldiers, which will take him in a Hulky direction.
The most explicit set-up for future events is of course Bruce returning from Sakaar with his son, Skaar. With rumours that Marvel have the film rights for solo Hulk movies back, She-Hulk in play, Abomination back and Red Hulk being loosely teased, all the ingredients for a World War Hulk adaptation are on the table.
Oh! And Daredevil: Born Again is a thing! It seems like they’ll just be evoking the name to further point to Matt’s change of personality and status quo, as Season 3 of Daredevil did most of the comic story of the same name. Regardless of how that goes, I hope that this flirtier, flippier, funner Daredevil sticks around and that they find space for a She-Hulk guest appearance.
My MCU podcast with Ben Phillips, Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey, will return in early 2023 to cover this and all the other 2022 Marvel projects.
In the mean time, check out my other podcast with Ben, There Will Be Movies, which looks at 25 of our favourite movies from each decade. Our fourth volume is the 1980s, continuing this week with Blue Velvet.