Unless you’ve been living under a gamma-irradiated rock, you know plenty about the Incredible Hulk by now. He’s big, he’s green, and you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. And considering three different actors have played Bruce Banner—and his rampaging alter ego—in the last two decades alone, we’re not hurting for Hulk exposure.
But odds are that you know considerably less about She-Hulk, a.k.a. Jennifer Walters. And that’s a shame, because arguably, Jen is much better at being a Hulk than her famous cousin Bruce (she also boasts a law degree, an easy sense of humor, and a much healthier relationship with her inner demons).
Now, she’s finally getting the spotlight she deserves in Disney+’s She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, starring Orphan Black Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany as the buffest attorney in New York City. As with most MCU projects, Jessica Gao’s series will likely put its own spin on the original version of the character. But considering she’s been smashing her way through the funny pages since 1980, there’s a lot to know about Jen and her world. And if you don’t have time to catch up on 42 years’ worth of superhero soap opera, here’s a crash course on the essentials, plus what to expect when the first episode drops on August 18.
To understand how Jen got her powers, you first need to know how her cousin got his. In his 1962 introduction, scientist Dr. Bruce Banner gets caught in the blast of a gamma bomb and the radiation transforms him into the Hulk, a green goliath with super strength, speed, and invulnerability. But his power is more a curse than a gift: Bruce can’t control his transformations, and when he’s in Hulk form, he operates from a place of pure animalistic rage. (In the MCU version, he got irradiated while working on a Super Soldier Serum, with the same result.)
In the first issue of the 1980 comic series Savage She-Hulk (written by none other than Stan Lee), Bruce goes to Los Angeles to visit his cousin Jennifer. When she gets shot by a crime boss’s goon, Bruce is forced to give her a transfusion of his own blood. Though he manages to save her life, he also unwittingly gives her his powers—and all the baggage that comes with them.
Luckily for Jen, she doesn’t end up being the same kind of Hulk as her tortured cousin. She can shift between her two personas at will, and when she Hulks out, she’s still in control: She can think, talk, and make a brilliant closing argument as easily as she does in her human form. And because these are superhero comics we’re talking about, She-Hulk’s physique isn’t so much a musclebound monster as a towering glamazon with sick biceps.
When we first meet Jennifer in the comics, she’s working as a criminal defense attorney, and even after her transformation, she remains as dedicated to her law career as pummeling bad guys into dust. She’s also very funny—a trait that became more apparent in John Byrne’s Sensational She-Hulk series, which debuted in 1989. This was also when She-Hulk first smashed through the fourth wall, offering cheeky commentary directly to the reader—an M.O. later adopted by characters like Deadpool and Fleabag. (“Okay, now. This is your second chance,” Jen says on the cover of the first issue, in a nod to the low sales numbers of the original She-Hulk run. “If you don’t buy my book this time, I’m gonna come to your house and rip up all your X-Men.”) Judging by the trailers for the Disney+ series, in which Maslany sometimes speaks directly to the camera, this meta tradition will continue onscreen.
Over the years, She-Hulk has worked as a superhero both solo and on various teams, including the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and A-Force, and she’s been BFFs with everyone from Hellcat to the Wasp to the Thing. And like any character who’s been in decades’ worth of comic books, she’s had her fair share of ups and downs: Among other things, she’s fought Doctor Doom, been mind-controlled by Scarlet Witch, argued for mutant rights before the Supreme Court, gotten body-swapped in space prison, married and then divorced a wolfman, and lost and regained control of her powers countless times. But through it all, she’s maintained her dedication to practicing law, kicking ass, and delivering killer one-liners.
The new series is set in the MCU version of New York City, meaning the place is crawling with superheroes and supervillains alike. And fortunately for impatient fans, the trailers have already shown us who we can expect to show up.
There’s the good Dr. Banner, of course, played by Ruffalo. The MCU’s version of the character is currently in a very different place than he was in the 1980s comics: In Avengers: Endgame, it was revealed that Bruce now has control over his powers and can be in his Hulk form while still maintaining his mental faculties. So it’s a good bet that She-Hulk: Attorney At Law’s take on how he passes along his powers to Jen will be very different.
Tim Roth will reprise his role as Emil Blonsky, the main villain of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. (Edward Norton played the big green guy in that movie; Ruffalo took over the role in 2012.) Blonsky was a soldier recruited by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) to capture the Hulk. Along the way, he got a dose of both Super Soldier Serum and gamma-irradiated blood, leading him to transform into a big ol’ monster called the Abomination. In She-Hulk, it appears that Blonsky, now back in his human form, will be one of Jen’s clients in her capacity as a defender of superpowered criminals.
Also appearing in the trailers is Wong (Benedict Wong), the current Sorcerer Supreme, who featured in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness earlier this year. And in a coup for fans of dearly departed Netflix Marvel shows, Charlie Cox will don his cowl and broody grimace once more as Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil. Like Jen, he’s a lawyer with superpowers, so it’s only fitting that he’d show up to give her a few pointers.
Meanwhile, The Good Place alum Jameela Jamil is taking on the role of Titania, who has been She-Hulk’s nemesis since way back. In the comics, she gets amped up with superstrength and super-agility thanks to an intervention from archvillain Doctor Doom (a character who has yet to show up in the MCU). Plus, Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry is playing Mallory Book, an attorney who works with Jen in the comics, and Ginger Gonzaga is taking on Nikki Ramos, a brand-new character who’s Jen’s coworker and best friend.
The powers of any Hulk, She- or otherwise, stem from a potent allegory about anger and the consequences of keeping it bottled up. For much of his history, Bruce Banner is the Dr. Jekyll to the Hulk’s Mr. Hyde; one is all intellect and guilt, while the other is pure id—rampaging violence with no intelligence behind it. (“That’s my secret, Cap: I’m always angry,” Bruce memorably tells Captain America in 2012’s The Avengers.)
Bruce has a typically masculine relationship to his rage: The only way he can keep his mind intact is to control his feelings and bury them deep. But the effects of gamma radiation look very different on a female character. Though intense emotions also cause her to Hulk out, Jen is at the wheel whether she’s a mild-mannered brunette or green-skinned and swole. The reason for that? In a world of catcalling, workplace sexism, and worse, women tend to have a very different relationship to fight-or-flight. “Your transformations are triggered by anger and fear,” Bruce tells his cousin in the She-Hulk trailer, to which Jen replies, “Those are, like, the baseline of any woman just existing.”
The comics frequently focus on Jen’s relationship to her own body, too, as well as how other people react to it. Though the two are one and the same, She-Hulk turns heads in a way that Jennifer Walters doesn’t, for better or worse. And while Bruce is all in on the saving-the-world game, Jen is more focused on her career; after all, just because you have superpowers doesn’t mean you automatically want to be a superhero. “I did not go to law school to become a vigilante,” she tells her friend in one of the trailers.
Though the nonstop ballooning of the MCU can feel exhausting, the good news is that it paves the way for more stories to be told beyond those of the buff white guys who headlined the first phase of the franchise. And if that means a witty female-fronted comedy featuring Marvel’s favorite big green lawyer, we’ll happily take it.