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Funny and relationship-focused, ‘She-Hulk’ is not your usual Marvel fare

Latest from the MCU takes a look at what being super might be like when you’re not saving the world
This image released by Disney+ shows Tatiana Maslany in a scene from “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” premiering Thursday. (Disney+ via AP)

In the first episode of “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,” audiences not only learn how Jennifer Walters gains her superpowers — they also discover that she’s a tad obsessed with Steve Rogers’ sex life. It’s something she keeps pestering her cousin Bruce Banner about until he reveals whether Rogers ever lost his virginity.

One of the things about the Disney+ series that struck Mark Ruffalo, quoting head writer Jessica Gao, is “how horny-forward [the story] is” compared to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he shares with a laugh. Ruffalo, who has been playing Banner and his alter-ego Hulk since 2012’s “The Avengers,” also enjoys how “She-Hulk,” which launched Thursday, “just takes the piss out of a lot of the superhero macho stuff and kind of the toxic, male Reddit culture” that at times permeates certain fandoms.

It also helps that the show is genuinely funny.

“My favorite type of comedy is taking these big, high-concept things such as a Hulk — who can save the world and is one of the strongest beings on Earth — but then really grounding that in our reality,” says Gao, who also serves as an executive producer. “What I love about our show is that we’re taking the time to really just turn the camera a little bit to the left and see what’s going on in [their] everyday life.”

Created for television by Gao, “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” follows Jennifer Walters, played by Tatiana Maslany, after an accident leads to her exposure to Banner’s gamma-irradiated blood. Despite gaining the ability to transform into a powerful, giant, green version of herself, though, Walters insists she will keep living the same life she did before the accident.

“Unlike her cousin the Hulk, she retains her sense of self and her consciousness,” says director and executive producer Kat Coiro. “Whether she is Jen Walters or She-Hulk, she’s the same person. And yet, when you present so differently, when you are suddenly green and gigantic and every eye in the room turns to you when you walk in through a door, you do modulate your personality.”

The series explores how Jen learns to navigate a world that treats her differently according to her form at the time and the distinct perceptions and expectations through which our culture views women and their bodies. And from the first episode, “She-Hulk” does not shy away from addressing how women like Jen live with constant pressure to control their rage and fear in a way that men like Banner do not have to.

One of the other differences between Jen and Banner is that Jen is uninterested in giving up her life — including her job and her friends — in order to become a superhero. Below are some of Jen’s key relationships introduced in “She-Hulk” so far.

Who is Nikki Ramos, Jen Walter’s BFF?

Jen’s best friend is Nikki Ramos, played by Ginger Gonzaga, who also happens to be her paralegal. Gao describes the pair as “true ride-or-die friends [who] have this very comfortable ease about them.”

For Maslany, Jen and Nikki’s relationship is “the heartbeat of the show.”

“I love Ginger Gonzaga,” says Maslany. “It was effortless to be friends with her … We just found this joy in playing together that I think really set the tone for those human moments that you always want to come back to on this show and that, I think, make it really special.”

Gonzaga herself is grateful that “She-Hulk” is “showing [this] loving friendship” that isn’t always represented on screen.

“In so many things, even when they have loving friends, someone’s stabbing someone in the back at some point, and it’s so unnecessary,” says Gonzaga. “I don’t want to see that for women and I’m so grateful for our characters to truly love each other as friends and care about each other as friends and have all the dynamic levels of what goes into a mature adult friendship.”

Unlike other characters in the series — including Jen’s other legal colleagues — Nikki does not have an obvious Marvel comic book counterpart. And Gonzaga sidesteps the answer like a true MCU pro when questioned about whether Nikki has any secrets or powers of her own.

“As of now, I’m not sure whether or not Nikki has any special powers other than somehow avoiding a lot of credit card debt when it comes to her really cool outfits, based on her salary as a paralegal,” says Gonzaga.

How fun is Bruce and Jen’s dynamic?

Because Jen’s origin story involves Banner, “She-Hulk” allows the genius scientist to show new sides of his life through his interactions with his cousin. Ruffalo was excited that the series reveals how Banner does “everyday mundane things that people do to live” and answers some questions he’s had about the character along the way.

“How does he get around? How does he keep his furniture from collapsing underneath him? How does he keep from hitting his head going through doors? … How does he keep from splitting all of his clothes?” lists Ruffalo. “All those things that we never really consider when we’re watching big superhero movies”

Maslany sees their relationship as having what amounts to a brother-sister dynamic.

“I think he’s always tried to teach her how to live, and she’s been like ‘Yeah, whatever, Bruce, you’re a dork,’” says Maslany. “There’s a real fun antagonism there.”

And Ruffalo appreciates the fact that Banner is not shown to have all of the answers.

“He thinks somehow he’s going to mansplain what it is to be the Hulk to her, and she ends up teaching him just as much as he’s trying to teach her, if not more,” says Ruffalo. “Those surprising relationship things are really what the show is about, and it was great fun. [Tatiana]’s kind of a comedic genius and there was a lot of improvisation happening between us”

Coiro, who directed six of the nine episodes, enjoyed watching the playfulness between Ruffalo and Maslany.

“As actors, they were bonding about all of these technical aspects that they have to deal with” in the motion capture suit, says Coiro. “But the characters are also dealing with all these things that are put upon them by their superpowers.That relationship between two actors comparing notes on a very unusual way to act translated into two characters dealing with very unusual circumstances.”

What else can we expect?

Although the show’s trailers and other promotional materials have teased the appearance of characters such as Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), Wong (Benedict Wong) and the return of Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox), the “She-Hulk” team was careful about revealing any spoilers. But one thing that Gao, Gonzaga and Coiro can’t help but mention are Maslany’s skills as a dancer.

“She’s also a very good dancer, Tatiana,” says Coiro. “That’s a little hint.”

—Tracy Brown, Los Angeles Times

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