Tatiana Maslany as the green-hued superhero
Maslany, as Walters, appears disheleved in the courtroom; rear: Ginger Gonzaga as Nikki, her best friend, and Drew Matthews as prosecutor Dennis Bukowski.
Mark Ruffalo as Smart Hulk/Bruce Banner is at the controls in the lab, where Maslany is about to be transformed from Jennifer Walters to She-Hulk.
Kat Coiro, directing, with Wendy Jacobson on the set
Just admit it. When you see the word "Hulk," the first image that comes to mind is an oversized mean and green monster wearing clothing three sizes too small and grunting his way to destruction. As in: Oh, look, there's a car! Time to smash it to the ground as if it's a toy.
Actress Tatiana Maslany pictured all the above when she picked up the pilot script for a series titled She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Then she read it and — in true superhero style — underwent an instant and distinctive transformation. "I was blown away by how unexpected it was," she says. "It's a very human story in a wild universe. And it truly changed my perspective on what a superhero show could be."
That show — premiering August 18 on Disney+ — is a half-hour adventure comedy about a witty woman who tends to morph into a massive and impervious green figure armed with ultra-strength. Or, as director Anu Valia puts it, "a total weirdo whose life experience lends itself to so much humor."
The wit and the weirdo reflect two sides of Jennifer Walters, a crazed thirtysomething Los Angeles–based lawyer forever prioritizing work over her personal life. One day, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), her scientist cousin and a proud Avenger, comes to her rescue. In the process, she inherits his gamma ray–absorbing ability to go big.
Here's where things get interesting. Instead of becoming angry like you-know-who, Jennifer retains her core emotions. "The character occupies two bodies, but her consciousness stays the same," Maslany explains. So at any given moment, the incredible She-Hulk can defend clients (such as Tim Roth's Abomination) in her firm's new superhuman law division, bicker with her parents about their lack of a grandchild, hang with her closest confidante (played by Ginger Gonzaga) or argue with her nemesis (Jameela Jamil's Titania).
"All the Marvel movies are about saving the day, and I wanted to explore what happens on an off-week," says head writer and executive producer Jessica Gao. "Like, what happens when the fate of the universe isn't at stake and these guys go home? My favorite type of comedy takes an extraordinary concept and grounds it." Consider that her inspirations were the sly series Fleabag and Better Call Saul.
Indeed, the nine-episode She-Hulk stands out even amid the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe on Disney+. Though fans have seen extended Phase Four looks at Wanda, Vision, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Loki, Ms. Marvel and Moon Knight, She-Hulk brings a uniquely self-aware sensibility — and not just because she snaps that "Superheroes are for billionaires and narcissists and adult orphans" and breaks that so-called Fourth Wall.
"It's got the same Marvel qualities of great characters and great storytelling," says Wendy Jacobson, a production and development executive at Marvel Studios and a coexecutive producer of She-Hulk. "But it's one of the boldest shows we've ever done."
Fun fact: She-Hulk was the last major comic-book character cocreated by Marvel guiding light Stan Lee. She started in the 1980s as part of the Fantastic Four, but by the 2000s had evolved into a relatable urban lawyer not unlike Ally McBeal. As a teen, Gao devoured every issue. "I worked at a comic-book store during high school and was really into She-Hulk," she says. "I loved that it was funny, lighthearted and made fun of all the comic-book tropes."
Gao went on to contribute to Silicon Valley and in 2018 won an Emmy for penning an episode of the irreverent animated comedy Rick and Morty. But she had her heart set on writing for a Marvel show and pitched three projects. Each effort led to a polite pass, and each time she replied to executives that if She-Hulk ever came to fruition, they'd better call her to submit a script... or she'd burn the studio to the ground. Seriously.
Cut to 2019, when Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige announced at Disney's D23 Fan Expo that the series was in development. Gao devised a concept that meshed well with her beloved comic books. And when she landed in Feige's office to present it, "The first thing he said was, 'We called you, so you can't burn us to the ground,'" she recalls.
From Marvel's perspective, Gao nailed the notion that a heroine could exist within a legal comedy structure. "The main decider was that she had this very strong point of view on material that was deeply rooted in this modern-day, real-world, thirty-something experience," Jacobson says. "So, the best idea in the room wins."
The pilot script soon made its way to the desk of director Kat Coiro. An ardent fan of the comics dating back to her childhood in Florida, she says, "I remember hoping that they nailed that she was an active participant in her own story... and they did!" Coiro signed on as an executive producer and ultimately directed the first four and last two episodes. Valia subsequently lensed episodes five, six and seven.
The last piece? She-Hulk herself. The quest to find the right actress led to one of the longest casting searches in Marvel history, as Jacobson attests. "You need someone who can anchor a show and make you feel empathy and make you believe this person could be a Hulk without being this rage monster," she says. Picking said actress at the height of a pandemic didn't make the mission any easier.
As the comic-cosmic fates would have it, Maslany was looking for a tonal shift after starring in the Canadian sci-fi thriller Orphan Black from 2013 to '17 — for which she won an Emmy in 2016 — and doing theater. "I have a drive toward anything that creatively excites me," she says. "And a full-out comedy is very new to me. I've always dreamed of working with incredible comic actors and having that challenge."
She soon read for the role in a Zoom meeting with executives. "I had done board-game nights and dance classes over Zoom, but acting was a whole different thing," she says. "It's vital to make this connection, but you can't make eye contact and be in the same space. It was very strange. I was lucky that the script was so great."
For those watching the makeshift audition, the choice was a no-brainer. "Tatiana nailed it," Jacobson says. "She's this wonderful, intuitive artist and her creative choices are great. We were in awe."
By the way, it's no coincidence that all the major behind-the-scenes players are women. (The writers' room consisted of seven women and two men writers, with two assistants, one woman and one man.) "I think it imbues the show with this inherent truth you just can't deny," Jacobson adds. "Jennifer goes on dates and the women in the writers' room are going on dates, so they're adding their personal experiences. Hopefully that will make it emotionally satisfying to the people watching."
Production started in Atlanta in April 2021. And just in case it's not already clear that She-Hulk is no typical superhero fare, the only thing Maslany destroyed on her first day was killer banter with her onscreen bestie. "It wasn't some big effects thing," she says. "It was just Ginger and me doing our buddy scenes, hanging out and figuring out what's going on in my dating life." In those moments, she adds, "I learned so much about Jennifer."
Going green, however, did present a series of challenges. To convey the physical transformation, Maslany was regularly fitted in a gray motion-capture suit featuring a battery pack, helmet and a minicamera hanging directly in front of her face. Affixed to the top of her head: a long stick capped with a photo of She-Hulk so costars could maintain an accurate sightline to the six-foot-seven incarnation. (The actress stands five-foot-three.) And no offense to Hawkeye, but he doesn't have long, cascading hair; those visual effects alone required extensive time in postproduction.
"It was technically complicated," Valia admits. "When you're storyboarding, you can't just wing it, because it's a whole changeover. So even though you're shooting a comedy and trying to work quickly, you're moving a little slower." Plus, Jacobson says, "Every movement requires a different lighting pass and camera and all this data. You're trying to make something computer-generated look real. It's an ambitious endeavor to do over nine episodes."
Now imagine coordinating two CGI'ed Hulks.
While no one would confirm precisely how Ruffalo factors into Jennifer's conversion — Gao coyly notes that the narrative is set after Bruce Banner's cameo in the 2021 movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — his presence was a literal and metaphorical big deal. "Watching Mark and Tatiana come together for the first time was one of those moments when it all clicked," Coiro says. "They have instant playful chemistry as cousins. You'd think Hulk would be the mentor, but the student quickly becomes the teacher. That dynamic really plays out in the narrative."
Maslany still, uh, marvels at how effortlessly Ruffalo toggled between his personas. "When he changes into Hulk, he does something with his body that I didn't know was humanly possible," she says, attempting to demonstrate the move on the Zoom camera. "It was cool to witness, because it was without any prosthetics." For her part, she says, the key was staying present: "It feels like you're in the theater because you're creating these circumstances without them actually being there. That's a pure kind of acting."
But she didn't truly process all the work until she saw the rendered footage. "You never know how it will end up, but when I saw it, I was like, 'Whoa!'" she recalls. "We're a lawyer show, so it's not like we were walking around with swords." But she would like to clarify something regarding the first trailer: "I know people were wondering how I got that ripped bod. It's computer graphics!"
The creatives of She-Hulk underline that Jennifer Walters never asked to be a superhero. "If I got powers right away, I wouldn't be psyched and immediately rise to the occasion either," Gao points out, "because it's one more thing to add to my day." Yet there's no denying that the woman of the (half) hour has some serious responsibilities on her docket — both as a champion attorney and as the latest star of a saga with a startlingly high success rate.
But the principals are confident of success. "I don't hold the keys to the Marvel Kingdom, but I would love to see the show go on for many seasons," Jacobson says, adding that a future big-screen appearance is possible. Gao is equally excited. "I see an endless well of possibilities with She-Hulk," she enthuses. "Especially with Tatiana playing her, she could take this character everywhere."
And their star? "We're breaking up the genre in a way that feels special and feminine and very cool," Maslany says. "This is definitely a big step."
Maybe you'd better watch out after all.
In addition to Jessica Gao and Kat Coiro, the executive producers of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law include Kevin Feige, Louis D'Esposito, Victoria Alonso and Brad Winderbaum."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #9, 2022, under the title, "Don't Sell Her Short."