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October 3, 2022
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Marvel’s new ‘She-Hulk’ is the feminist superhero sitcom of our dreams

Since crashing into Disney+ and releasing a veritable fire hose of titles in 2021, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been experimenting with different types of genres. “WandaVision” was meta-commentary on the medium; “Loki,” a time traveling sci-fi adventure; “Hawkeye,” your classic holiday caper. More recently, “Ms. Marvel” aimed for a younger crowd with its teen-oriented series. But “She-Hulk,” also aimed at women, is Marvel’s first stab at situational comedy. This workplace-oriented sitcom features a single gal trying to balance work and personal aspirations while also transforming into a 6-foot-7-inch superhero at will.

This workplace-oriented sitcom features a single gal trying to balance work and personal aspirations while also transforming into a 6-foot-7-inch superhero at will.

Considering how many Marvel characters have comedic aspects, it’s a bit surprising it took 14 years and 45 titles before the MCU tried this more traditional storytelling format. It’s also a sign Disney genuinely believes the old ways still work, despite cratering broadcast ratings. And it does work, due to star Tatiana Maslany, who makes both her 5-foot-2-inch Jennifer Walters persona and her much taller and greener She-Hulk counterpart feels effortlessly distinct.

That success is the least surprising part of “She-Hulk.” Maslany is best known for her incredible star turn in “Orphan Black,” where she played an entire call sheet’s worth of unique-yet-cloned women. In that sense, playing two characters (three, if you add the fourth-wall-breaking Jen, who sometimes comes off as bonus persona), is a piece of cake. If anything, the ease with which Maslany carries the show’s premise makes one wish “She-Hulk” was willing to go bigger in scope. But by aiming for something akin to “Marvel’s Ally McBeal,” the studio basically guarantees “She-Hulk” is a TV-level hit. And that might be the best way to ensure its longevity — at least for now.

The MCU’s history with Hulk stories has been mediocre, at best. 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk,” which starred Edward Norton, did respectable box office business. But the critical reviews (and the star’s inability to work within the Marvel franchise system) meant the film and its supporting characters spent a decade being retconned out of the narrative. Mark Ruffalo, who took over the character, has never anchored his own film (a choice made due to rights issues). But even an attempt to give him a three-movie arc in “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Avengers: Endgame” had mixed results.

Thus, as the first Hulk-centered story attempted by the franchise in well over a decade, “She-Hulk” has a heavy lift. The series starts off with a bang — no long, drawn-out reveals like in “Moon Knight,” which took nearly the whole season to come together, or “Spider-Man,” who took an entire trilogy of films to realize with great power comes great responsibility. Jen wakes one morning after a car crash to find herself inexplicably transformed into a monstrous green woman. Unlike Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” she does not scuttle off, but pretty much immediately accepts her absurd situation. Like generations of women before her, she decides very quickly that she’ll just have to find a way to make it work.

Indeed, the comedy of “She-Hulk” relies heavily on the unspoken acknowledgment that women are quite used to the sometimes absurd unpredictability of the human body — menstruating, cramps, hot flashes, pregnancy. They can’t give in to it, and sometimes they can’t even talk about it, for fear of not being taken seriously in a male-dominated environment. The show has a lot of fun in the first four episodes playing with this dynamic, as Jen assures us — with an increasing lack of believability — that she’s got this. It also makes comedic hay from the surprisingly underexplored experience of going from everyday person to “enhanced individual.”

The result is something Marvel has desperately lacked: a ground-level, lived-in universe where superheroes put on their pants one leg at a time.

“She-Hulk” also leans heavily and presumably purposefully into an episodic format. On any given day, superheroes and villains from any of Marvel’s multitude of standalone franchises walk through her door, looking for a lawyer. While some are Hulk-related characters — Tim Roth’s Abomination, for instance, has now been fully resuscitated from the 2008 Norton film as one of Jen’s clients — others are quirkier surprises. Jen works with everyone, be it Sorcerer Supreme Wong of “Doctor Strange” or a certain “Daredevil” lawyer from the firm of Nelson and Murdock, which has lately moved from Netflix to Disney+. The result is something Marvel has desperately lacked: a ground-level, lived-in universe where superheroes put on their pants one leg at a time, even if those legs aren’t always the same length every morning.

However, as an added twist, Jen represents the rare superhero who believes in the system — specially here, the criminal justice system. She’d much rather be arguing in courtrooms than smashing them.

Jen’s fight to manage assumptions about who she is and what she can do is framed as a legitimately exhausting battle. It’s also a familiar one for any woman who finds herself confronted by society’s multifaceted, internalized sexism. It’s not a surprise that the show really takes off once Jen finally accepts that she can’t control how and when people respect her — and she uses both green and mousy sides of her to gain the advantage.

These are important and worthy themes — and it’s possible Marvel could have done a lot more with them had it tried for a larger story arc. But that’s not how sitcoms work. So instead, the series more gently makes those points, even though the real goal is clearly to entertain you for half an hour. And in that, “She-Hulk” is a smashing success.

Ani Bundel

Ani Bundel is a cultural critic who has been writing regularly since 2010. Her work can also be found at Elite Daily and WETA’s Telly Visions, where she also co-hosts “Telly Visions: The Podcast.”

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