Four episodes of She-Hulk are in the bag as of writing this, keeping us entertained with topical comedy, cameos, and a little intrigue. While it’s lighthearted and enjoyable, the storyline has yet to land its plane. I’ll be going back and forth with my co-author Frantz Jerome to see just where this show is going and where it’s taking the MCU.
Aisha Jordan: First, let me say I was pleasantly surprised by the composition of the She-Hulk series so far. My skepticism came before it even aired. Learning it was being packaged as a comedy, that the casting was different than many would have thought, and that the first leaked images were not so promising, it was so hard to discern the direction the show might take. I was glad to be pleasantly surprised. Making a weekly comedic procedural superhero TV series sounds like a choose-your-own-adventure situation. I was taken aback by the performances, the witty repartee, and the storylines; which were much more intriguing than the trailers let on. I could do with some pulling back on breaking the fourth wall, let’s be real, Deadpool set the bar pretty high for meta-comedy. In light of all this, She-Hulk hasn’t turned me away just yet.
Bringing in storylines from the previous Hulk media was expected (it’s Marvel’s whole appeal, really) and they’ve done it more tastefully than I would have thought. It’s hokey at times, but it feels like an intentional device to grab as wide an audience as possible. Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) and her paralegal Nikki (Ginger Gonzaga) are a really fun duo. They make She-Hulk a nice break in your program day. One issue I have is with every male character being reduced to an example of toxic masculinity except for Augustus ‘Pug’ Pugliese (Josh Segarra). You know, the season is still young, he still has time to get canceled. In spite of its shortcomings, I am still invested in seeing where the narrative is going to take us in the larger scheme. Right now, it’s giving heavy-handed modern feminism with cameos (like Megan Thee Stallion’s viral moment) to distract us from its overwhelming white lady politics. My co-author has a bit more context in the She-Hulk universe to track the show’s decisions.
Frantz Jerome: All of the tonal things that have been hit or miss with audiences can actually be chalked up to good research by the creative team. In John Byrne’s 1989 run of the Sensational She-Hulk comic, we get the fourth wall breaks, the comical D-list villains, and the use of the courts to provide nuance to said villains and to She-Hulk herself. Also, in these runs of She-Hulk, Jennifer is looking to move away from her sheepish and timid ‘human’ self and really step into her identity as the ‘Emerald Amazon.’ A lot of the comedic takes in the show are derived from the Sensational She-Hulk comic. But the depth, lively writing, and layering of the lore happen in Slott’s 2004 run, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. The formula was so cut and dry, that Slott took to Twitter to let folks know what it is:
As it stands, the show is good. All of the pieces needed are there. Tatiana Maslany knocks this character and their alter ego out of the park. If you’re a fan of Orphan Black, you already know she’s the goods. No one drops the ball on their acting, and the special effects are on par with the other Marvel shows. Which includes that one glaring issue in each show. In She-Hulk it’s definitely the graphics on the titular character that sometimes look off. They got Jenny looking like a cartoon sometimes. Mind you, it’s way better now than the first trailer, but it ain’t all the way up yet. But that’s the only real technical issue I have with the show.
Permission to Approach the Bench
FJ: For readers of the comics this show is based on, you already know. This show has limitless potential. At some point in Dan Slott’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Jennifer is tapped to practice “Universal Law” in outer space and represents The Living Tribunal (whose head we see floating around in Multiverse of Madness!). I say that to say this; using these two runs would allow this show to go ANYWHERE and change the direction of the MCU if Feige sees fit. That said, using the courts as a hub for the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe will be a breeze.
Phase four left the MCU a scattered kaleidoscope of scales and dimensions. Spider-Man: NWH, Moon Knight, Hawkeye, Falcon and The Winter Soldier (and a few others) have been fleshing out the street-level and Earth-based heroes. On the other hand, Eternals, Love and Thunder, Ms. Marvel, Multiverse of Madness, and Loki are expanding the limits of the cosmic part of the cinematic universe. It’s baffling to no end, based on the source material, how far-reaching She-Hulk can go. So it makes perfect sense for the entirety of the MCU to pop in and out of this show for as long as it’s running. We’ve already got a direct connection to Shang-Chi and an indirect shoutout to New Asgard, so the sky’s the limit. Other than an Avengers movie, no other property can crossover this easily.
The Art of Distraction
AJ: I agree completely. My producer’s brain found it hard to discern which direction She-Hulk was really going to take because it’s hard to tell which direction the MCU is going to take. With the way Eternals shook out, it was almost a stand-alone notwithstanding /the mention of Thanos and the ripple effect of reversing his snap. I’m of the right mind to think the events of Eternals weren’t even in our universe. Which, brings me to the Multiverse of Madness – utter insanity! The entire movie was a ball of confusion. This mixed with the allusion to mutants in Ms. Marvel, no one even knowing who Peter Parker is and Thor distancing himself, it’s all pretty disorienting. I’m not saying it has to be as streamlined as it was before. The first four phases were a careful trail of breadcrumbs. Not every movie was top notch but with every easter egg, viewers could put the puzzle pieces together.
With She-Hulk entering the chat and bringing bits and pieces of everything with it, there are a million and one theories you could make from what we are seeing, and it’s anyone’s game as to what direction they’re taking things. I think this format is an intentional play at the art of distraction. Feige is operating on ‘put everything out there so once all is revealed,’ so we would never see anything coming. This is what I hope and feel to be true. The thing that concerns me is the next phase of DEI (entertainment jargon for ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’) the MCU is pulling.
AJ: The MCU has been working on the level of its DEI efforts in its cinematic world. Bringing to life characters like Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel the first Pakistani superhero, Riri Williams the Black girl genius taking up the armored mantle of Iron Heart; and of course Captain Marvel, Black Panther, you know the names. For some time the thought has been, ‘are we doing this just for representation’s sake’? Or are we ‘bout it ‘bout it? Whenever mainstream media projects do anything we have to ask this question: is the diversity just in the casting? Are there women, Black and Brown folks, and allies alike in the writer’s room? At the producing table? In the director’s chair? Anywhere? Over time, Marvel has gotten better at this, and the subsequent two phases of the MCU have shown there will be a plethora of writers, directors, producers, etc. Now for me – the authenticity of progress lies in the execution. How does this all lead back to She-Hulk (if you didn’t guess already, let me just jump into it.)?
To say the show is feminist would be a little on the nose for this article, but the series is taking the on-the-nose approach, so why not? She-Hulk the series is feminist. From episode one, it’s pretty clear what lens Jennifer Walter’s story is meant to take. She is on the ‘women work twice as hard,’ ‘don’t compare my struggle to a man,’ ‘guys are douches,’ ‘I can do this on my own,’ ‘everyone looks down on me because I am a woman,’ and laying this on with the thickness while hulk-smashing the plane down. We see this in a moment during training with Bruce. While he is providing his expertise as a ‘Hulk-type,’ she quickly hits him with the ‘anything you can do I can do better.’ Bruce tries to lead Jennifer through meditation, and she turns Tyra on him! Like, “You don’t know where I’ve been, what I’ve gone through!!”
Not to say she doesn’t have a point. Yes, women deal with a lot in society, and the world has been built this way. Did I need She-Hulk to say that on behalf of all women? No, probably not. I know someone out there needed that. Someone watching was like “f*ck yeah!” I’m not here to belittle anyone’s experience or put down what helps someone be seen. But I am a critic, so I’m here to be critical. Sometimes the most powerful moments are held in the subtleties, and we are given none in the message thrown at us in She-Hulk. Would I have felt a better sense of connection to Jennifer Walters had she used specific inferences where she was put down or made to feel less than? Or told a first-person account of having to hold in her anger to get through the day? Yes! I would have felt a deeper connection to the character’s plight.
It is important to say I am a cishet Black and Latine woman writing this. As a Black woman, I will say it, it is hard to feel genuinely connected to white women when it comes to feminist moments. The initial reaction of – ‘we’re all in this together’ can be a bit triggering. Now, I speak from the I because I don’t want to lump all of Black feminism into my experience as an example (cough cough). I bring this up because in the history of feminism there is the narrative of Black women being largely excluded. In Maia Niguel Hoskin’s Forbes article, they speak directly to the sometimes absent rhetoric for Black women in predominantly white feminist spaces. This isn’t to say all white women feminists exclude the Black experience, not at all. Unfortunately, the issue has not been thoroughly addressed or unpacked enough, so it’s still a little triggering for Black women like me. All of this is to say when Jennifer Walters brings up the plight of women as her ability to keep from hulking out without meditation, I was not the one cheering ‘yaaasss queen.’ I was giving a look to the side and shrugging shoulders emoji like, “Okayyyyy.”
I was hoping this was not going to be the basis of the series, but as episodes progressed, this became more and more a platform for She-Hulk to hulk jump off of; mainly the juxtaposition of the male character’s performativity of toxic masculinity versus the literal strong woman and independent boss b*tch. I’m talking namely about the Dennis Bukowski character (played by Drew Matthews.) Attorney Dennis Bukowski is an exaggerated caricature of a toxic man. He is, literally, toxic masculinity personified. His cartoony personality starts to make She-Hulk look like what haters claimed Captain Marvel would be. Because there is no reason to take Bukowski seriously, it almost waters down the themes that She-Hulk is presenting. It’s not to say people like this don’t exist but making every other character a hyper-masculine man is not a requirement in showing the depth of a woman’s experience. I understand keeping the themes big and clear to read works, but if I am being critical of execution then a subtle knife is what’s missing. Now maybe I’ve been off-base with the source material, so I’ll let Frantz take the mic.
Power of Attorney
FJ: The politics at play in She-Hulk are very upfront and smash mouth. It’s…a style. Despite its first-wave feminist overtones (not to be confused with later ‘waves’ that were inclusive of Black, Brown, and Indigenous women), this show is based on a run written by Dan Slott that ran from 2004 to 2006. Slott’s run with the character brought them back into comics’ popularity by focusing more on her capability as a lawyer and the ways the Marvel comics universe interacts with the law. Or breaks the law. Prior to Dan Slott and perhaps more influential to the style of the show is John Byrne’s run of Sensational She-Hulk published in 1989.
In Byrne’s 1989 run, we get the fourth wall breaks (see above), the comical D-list villains, and the use of the courts to provide nuance to said villains and to She-Hulk herself. Also, in these runs of She-Hulk, Jennifer is looking to move away from her sheepish and timid ‘human’ self and really step into her role as the ‘Emerald Amazon.’ The more comedic takes of the show are derived from Sensational She-Hulk, but the depth and layering of the lore happen in Slott’s run. At some point in She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, Jennifer is tapped to practice “Universal Law” in outer space and represents The Living Tribunal (!). I am reiterating these point to say that using these two runs would allow this show to go ANYWHERE and change the direction of the MCU if Feige sees fit.
While the feminist lens is front and center with Jessica Gao as the show’s creator and lead writer, there is a spectacular irony that this show is sourced from comics written by two cishet, white, men. I bring that to the forefront to illustrate a particular toxicity: male experiences are being made fun of in She-Hulk, and it’s at the same time disturbing yet apropos. After the many centuries (to present-day) of mistreatment that became unspoken second-class citizenship, there is a lot that women and femme-identified folks need to say. Out loud. On large platforms. Unfiltered. These are some of the ideals that appear to validate so many of the decisions made on the show.
FJ: I am a firm proponent of ‘talk your shit!’, but also that there’s a need to read the room. The creative team on Black Panther didn’t diminish the lived experience of white people to make Wakanda look good. It simply and carefully explored the ways Wakandans navigate the world and let that example speak for itself. Unlike the scene in episode one of She-Hulk where Jennifer explains why she’s a better Hulk (which, for the record – she is, even canonically) was indicative of this uneven messaging. As we know, Bruce has struggled with all types of abuse and suffers from a gamma-mutated mental health issue. He confessed in Avengers, “You can’t kill me; I know, I’ve tried. […] I put a bullet in my mouth, and the other guy spit it out.” For Bruce’s experience of self-harm to be not only shrugged off but then highlighted as an example of mansplaining is a one-to-one instance of toxicity performed by She-Hulk. The scene pits men’s mental health issues in opposition to the injustices women face daily. When in reality, those things are connected. In my opinion, the show is cutting off its nose in spite of its face. The character, their mythos, and their cultural impact are what suffers in the end. She-Hulk herself is becoming a symbol of feminism as opposed to an example of womanism (coined by Alice Walker and centers fighting sexism and racism) in action.
Even with all of this at play, She-Hulk is still entertaining and is going to be a staunch and widely popular piece of feminist media. But the hope is that it becomes a great female-led show that challenges sexism. Great performances and never knowing what’s coming next keep the show afloat. Can the lore stay ahead of its need to put feminism over everything? We’ll find out together as Jennifer Walters stakes her claim in Marvel Universe. She-Hulk Attorney at Law episodes drop on Thursdays on Disney+. Check it out and let us know what you think!
Cover image via Disney+