Way back in 1980 (maybe late 1979—you know how comic book publication dates work), I purchased The Savage She-Hulk #1, a Marvel comic book written by none other than Stan “The Man” Lee and illustrated by legendary artist John Buscema. The title lasted for twenty-five issues, but I never bought another after the first.
Honestly, I was underwhelmed by the book. Yes, Jennifer Walters was Bruce Banner’s cousin, even back then. And she was a lawyer. She gained her Hulk powers from an emergency blood transfusion from her superpowered cousin after a failed Mafia hit, not a car accident. But, yes, most of the same elements were there. But even with its fine pedigree, being the brainchild of two of my favorite Marvel creators, the story didn’t resonate with me at the time. It felt flat, underdeveloped.
In fact, it felt cheap and uninspired. A blatant cash grab. A lazy, inferior product featuring a female version of an established male superhero. Perhaps you’re familiar with the idea. Name one member of the Avengers who hasn’t had a female counterpart in some medium or another. And Black Widow doesn’t count (although Yelena Belova is another Black Widow, isn’t she?).
Turns out—surprise, surprise—that’s exactly what it was.
Keep in mind we didn’t have the Marvel Cinematic Universe in those days. The Bruce Banner/Hulk we had in those days was Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno on the CBS television show The Incredible Hulk, which ran from 1977 to 1982. It was actually “David” Banner on the television series, but that’s splitting hairs (I just want to split those hairs before some haughty fanboy does). By now you grok that the comic book was introduced while the show was still on the air, and that’s an important part of my narrative.
A brief aside: I loved the television series. It was closer to The Fugitive than the comic book version of the Hulk, but back in those days we accepted what we could get. I still want that “sad walking-away music” playing whenever I leave a room.
And we’re back.
In the 1970s, the hit ABC television show The Six Million Dollar Man spun off a female version of the Bionic Man in the series The Bionic Woman. Marvel was afraid that CBS could do something similar, so the creation of She-Hulk was a fancy bit of lawyering (of which Jen Walters would be proud, no doubt) to ensure that Marvel would own the rights if a female Hulk appeared on TV.
At some point in the early ’80s, I fell out of the comic book continuity altogether as life intervened and other things took precedence for a long time. I am aware that She-Hulk became an Avenger, and that she joined the Fantastic Four for a minute. I remember She-Hulk as drawn by John Byrne.
I’ve always liked the way John Byrne draws his female characters, whether it is Jean Grey, Sue Storm, Wonder Woman, or She-Hulk. I am aware how this sounds. I choose to write it anyway because it is the truth. Byrne draws women with all of the traits valued by the superficial male. My interest in his female characters is more than merely prurient, however. Byrne draws women who are beautiful, of course, but they also radiate strength and power. And few more powerful than She-Hulk.
Byrne’s version of She-Hulk was who I had in mind before I began watching this Disney + series. Moreso than even Big John Buscema, Byrne knew how to depict Jen’s raw strength without sacrificing her feminine allure. From the trailers, this seemed like what the creative forces behind the show were shooting for.
I always thought the name She-Hulk was a terrible one. It felt reductive somehow. This predated the first appearance of She-Ra by half a decade or more. Plus, the term She Shed had yet to enter the lexicon. Perhaps Jen Walters started the trend. Who knows?
There’s no good reason that adding the “She” should feel reductive, of course. In the series, Jen isn’t crazy about the name either. The writers were lampshading the fact that it’s a ridiculous superhero name. Were the alternatives any better, though? Hulkstress, Lady Hulk, or Hulk Girl? Another character on the show points out that Hulk, on its own, is also a ridiculous name, and she is correct. The more we hear the name She-Hulk, the less ludicrous it seems. A rose by any other name . . .
I realize that mentioning that the creation of She-Hulk was some adroit legal maneuvering on Marvel’s part —and casting aspersions about the name She-Hulk— makes me run the risk of being lumped in with all of those fanboy review bombers who hate anything featuring female characters long before ever seeing the shows.
I assure you that I’m not a member of that tribe.
I celebrate this new spate of superheroes, male and female. I loved Hailee Steinfeld as the female Hawkeye. The Kamala Khan version of Ms. Marvel was a bit of goofy fun. I recently watched Thor: Love and Thunder, and I liked the Jane Foster version of the Mighty Thor. I don’t even know what Spider-Gwen or Ironheart are all about, but bring ’em on.
Marvel is deliberately diversifying its roster of characters in terms of sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religious beliefs. Those who are adverse to this kind of change have more deep-seated problems than I’m equipped to discuss.
Having said that, let me tell you about some of the things I don’t love about this series. And I’ll warn you now, there will probably be some spoilers here.
The one thing that bothers me most about the show is how they have Jen regularly breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the viewer.
That may have been a regular motif of She-Hulk’s comic book run. I’ve told you that I read the issue containing her origin story, and that’s pretty much it. Stan Lee and John Buscema didn’t do the whole It’s Garry Shandling’s Show thing, having She-Hulk look at the reader and comment on the story-in-progress. At least, not that I recall. I know this was a regular thing with Deadpool in both the comics and in the movies. It never bothered me with Deadpool because the character is not exactly sane. He is an unreliable narrator, and we are never 100% certain that what he thinks is happening is, in fact, actually happening.
Having Jen break the fourth wall also breaks my willing suspension of disbelief, just a bit, reminding me that the show is something created by non-superpowered humans, a product rather than a story unfolding in realtime.
I’m not delusional. Of course I knew that this was all a fictional story. I just don’t like being reminded of that fact.
Aside from this meta aspect, I like this series a lot. I don’t have an issue with the CGI that some reviewers have. Yes, it can lapse into the cartoonish in some scenes, but the effects are beyond serviceable. I would go so far as to call them amazing. It’s just that we’ve become spoiled by excellent special effects and can be an unforgiving audience when they are less than perfect. A guy like me who remembers when the height of superhero special effects was having Bill Bixby turn into Lou Ferrigno might just be easy to please. This doesn’t seem to be the case with many younger viewers, however.
It’s good to want and expect more, I think. That’s how special effects have progressed to the heights they’ve reached currently. If She-Hulk: Attorney at Law gets a second season, the effects will be even better, I believe.
Let’s talk about the characters a bit more.
Jen Walters/She-Hulk is portrayed by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. One look at Ms. Maslany’s IMDb page informs me that I’ve seen the actress in other performances, even if I didn’t remember her face. Also, her breakout role was in the Canadian production Orphan Black, which has been on my TBW list for a long while. Now that I’ve been properly introduced to the actress, I’ll probably watch it sooner than later.
Maslany is terrific as both Jen and She-Hulk. In her introductory scenes with Cousin Bruce (Mark Ruffalo), both Jen and her green alterego are quickly differentiated from her more famous cousin. She quickly becomes her own character, rather than merely a female copy of Bruce Banner. She has no desire to be a superhero, a fact she makes clear early on. She just wants to be a lawyer.
After she is forced to reveal her Hulk persona when her archnemesis Titania (Jameela Jamil) crashes into the courtroom during a trial, she loses her job. She soon finds another position at an upscale law firm, GLK&H (Goldman, Leiber, Kurtzberg & Holliway – lots of Marvel Easter Eggs here), and she’s hired to lead up their new Superhuman Law division. The catch: They want She-Hulk the lawyer and not Jen.
This sets up a recurring theme about the two different lives Jen is required to lead in the series. Still, just two lives is probably an easier burden than the actress had to shoulder in Orphan Black. I understand that Tatiana Maslany played at least five main clone characters on that series.
Jen takes her BFF/paralegal Nikki Ramos (Ginger Gonzaga) with her to her new job. The character is witty and sarcastic. In many ways, she’s Jen Walters’ very own Jiminy Cricket, encouraging the lawyer to lead a life outside of her job. Over the course of the season it also becomes apparent that Nikki also represents the LGBTQ+ community.
One of She-Hulk’s first clients at GLK&H is Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), also known as the Abomination, a superhuman product of a modified super soldier serum and gamma radiation. Roth manages to make this former Hulk villain relatable and more fully dimensional. Jen’s work to get Blonsky paroled from prison is hampered by the actions of Wong (Benedict Wong), our current Sorceror Supreme, who temporarily breaks Blonsky out of jail to participate in a cage fighting tournament. Somehow, this was meant to be a part of Wong’s training. This seemed to strain credibility a bit for me, although I appreciated the humor that Wong was able to inject into the show.
I can’t mention Wong without talking about the wonderful Madisynn (Patty Guggenheim). Madisynn (with two Ns and a Y, but not where you think) seems to be a throwaway character at first, a permanently tipsy party girl of a certain age (I’ve vowed to never again use the M-word demographic cohort, but that’s what she is). But her chemistry with Wong—who she calls “Wongers”—is so off the charts that some fans are wishing for a buddy-comedy spinoff starring Madisynn and Wong.
In a later episode, Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) makes his first appearance in the MCU (as Daredevil, at any rate), which had to be the worst-kept secret in MCU history. I enjoyed his appearance and the burgeoning romance between these two superhero lawyer characters. But even more than that, the appearance of Daredevil —and the earlier appearance of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin in Hawkeye— gives me hope for the other Netflix Marvel characters (and actors) also coming to the MCU. I’m not a fan of Daredevil’s ketchup-and-mustard superhero suit, however.
I should probably mention how female-forward this series is. As if that wasn’t already apparent. The series was created by Jessica Gao, who also serves as head writer. The episodes are directed by women: Kat Coiro and Anu Valia. The screenwriters all seem to be female as well. It should be no surprise that the show features such strong women characters. I’ve mentioned Jen, Nikki, Titania and Madisynn, but there’s also lawyer Mallory Book (Renée Elise Goldsberry), another lawyer at GLK&H, and Megan Thee Stallion playing a version of herself.
The male characters in the series are all secondary, including Bruce Banner, but that’s okay. Jen Walters is the star of the show.
Jen is a superhuman, and this series is set in the MCU milieu where superheroes and supervillains are real things. I know this may seem a bit heretical to say, but I’m not sure that this is really a superhero show at all. It’s a comedic legal series, ala Ally McBeal maybe, with some superhero trappings. It’s a series where a villain’s parole hearing, the dating scene for 30-ish females, trademark infrigement cases, being a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding, and how to dress a 6’7” woman are given equal dramatic weight. To great success, I might add.
This is a wonderful series, and a great addition to MCU canon. Sure, we could sit around and bash some of the effects or the fourth-wall breaking, but story reigns supreme over spectacle here. This is what all of these superhero movies have been building up to, a comfortable place where CGI and other special effects serve the story and characters, rather than the other way around.
Some filmmakers have yet to learn this lesson. They should watch this series and take copious notes. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is not a blatant cash crab and Jen Walters is not a cheap, inferior female version of her more famous (before now) cousin. She is, in fact, She-Hulk, and she’s in a class all to herself.
Still a stupid name, though.
Firewater’s I’m-Not-a-Superhero-That’s-for-Billionaires-and-Narcissists-And-Adult-Orphans-for-Some-Reason Report Card: A
I’m already looking forward to Season 2.
What, are you still here? This is like a post-credit sequence, isn’t it?
Brief personal flashback. As far back as junior high school, my best friend J.B. and I would collaborate on stories together, usually written during our study hall period or lunch. We didn’t write together. Instead, we’d each write for a designated amount of time and then swap off. Eventually —and invariably— we’d end up writing ourselves into the story, breaking the fourth wall all the way down and making our “story” seem like an exercise in absurdity.
We hadn’t even heard of the word meta in those days. But that’s what we were.
The resulting creation was self-serving and self-indulgent. Selfish, even. Completely ruining any verisimilitude we may have established in the early goings. The “story,” which had the thinnest of plots and no true ending, began to feel like something made up rather than something that grew organically. Something true.
The final episode of this otherwise wonderful season made me feel a lot like this. The fourth wall is entirely demolished and She-Hulk goes to the writers room at Marvel Studios, and she also meets the “brains” behind the MCU, an advanced AI called K.E.V.I.N. The acronym stands for something, but all I could think at the time was “What does Kevin Feige think about all of this?”
The ending that happens after all of this feels a bit forced and completely made up. Also self-serving, self-indulgent and more than a little selfish. While this series was something refreshing and unexpected, and a lot of fun overall, I still feel like we deserved something just a little —I don’t know— better.
I’ve already given this series an A. I feel I’ve earned the right to complain a little.