Before we begin, I wrote about She-Hulk’s backstory and symbolism over on RogerEbert.com. You should read it—if you wanna.
/ / / disclaimer / / /
I am a She-Hulk fan. It is not normal nor is it reasonable but it is real. Therefore, I cannot objectively review this new series. . .but I do need to talk about it.
Despite the whining from fanboys, who have only watched the MCU movies and therefore aren’t familiar with the history, She-Hulk is not a new character built to annoy them with her femininity. (The preceding sentence is written in sarcasm font.) She-Hulk was born in 1980 to proud parents Stan Lee and John Buscema, but she was raised by John Byrne later in that same decade when he made her Sensational. Since then “Shulkie” has been a feminist icon. She may have started out as the mild-mannered attorney, Jen Walters, but once she discovered her true self, she never back-stepped. (Until Jason Aaron started writing her but, due to my rage, we won’t speak about that…yet). Byrne gave the character her core personality: the ability to control her changes, her winking fourth wall breaks, and her love of self (correction: Roger Stern added the self-love starting in Avengers #227). Both understood that Shulkie was a character who could not be made to conform, she would never bow to patriarchal controls.
Writer, Dan Slott saw her clearly as well, when he took the helm of her stories in 2004 and introduced the concept of Superhuman Law. This allowed She-Hulk, not Jen Walters, to express the totality of her identity. Other writers like Charles Soule and G. Willow Wilson continued to carry her forward as a down-on-her-luck attorney and a team leader. They understood the assignment and so did the illustrators who worked with them, creating a dynamic character as recognizable for her way of moving through the world—her perspective and personality—as for her 7’ form, emerald skin, and undeniably smart-sexiness.
Then came the regression I mentioned, when Jason Aaron decided such a woman must hate herself. In what read, to me, as a misguided man’s view on womanhood, Aaron reframed Shulkie as someone who longed to be like The Hulk, yearning for the freedom to be monstrous and brainless. He must’ve believed he’d created a clever take. Nah. The truth is, Jen embraced the monster long ago and decided She-Hulk is who she is. Why would a woman hate being sexy and brilliant and strong enough to punch a planet? Why? Only Jason Aaron knows.
Leading up to the new Disney+ series, writer Rainbow Rowell, alongside artist Rogê Antônio, tried to remix everything that came before into a more bubbly comic that ends up giving us a fairly accurate preview of the sitcom: She-Hulk: Attorney at Law created by Jessica Gao.
Now that we’re here, going forward, I will attempt to guess how you will feel about the first four episodes versus how I feel about them now. Let’s see if it works.
YOU are likely to find the series relatable from the first frame when we are introduced to Jen Walters (Tatiana Maslany). She is practicing her closing arguments for a case and is told “more smiles” or “too wordy” by an offscreen male voice. That voice belongs to the most bacon-wrapped, lard-fried, male chauvinist pig who ever uttered an oink. This guy is the apotheosis of misogyny. He’s meant to be a rallying point for us, as we nudge each other and say, “This guy. Amirite?” It’s the same as when Jen and her paralegal friend Nikki (Ginger Gonzaga) roll their eyes. We’ve all been faced with guys like these.
ME, I found it a bit too on the nose and it worried me. I thought of Captain Marvel and the ways that film seemed to roar, “Women, rah!” in our faces with no true examination of women’s issues.
YOU are likely to find the series charming because all the actors are great and it truly becomes a legal sitcom by episode 3. Jen has jokes and She-Hulk has fourth wall breaks. And you are going to love the guest actors and cameos. There’s Tim Roth as Abomination with a smirk, Jameela Jamil as Titania (She-Hulk’s main bad-baddie), and Benedict Wong delivers the juicy Wong goodness we crave. There are other surprises that I honestly can’t wait for you to see (update: MEGAN THEE STALLION in Ep 3). The guests are the secret sauce of the show. For comics fans, it’s good to see Pug (Josh Segarra) and Mallory Book (Renée Elise Goldsberry)—hopefully we’ll have an Awesome Andy sighting. There is also the enjoyable bickering between Shulkie and her cousin Smart Hulk (aka The Hulk aka Bruce Banner) that anyone who has a sibling will recognize. Jen also speaks to the repressed rage that women are forced to deal with in a male-dominated society. This is a solid way of framing her ability to control her transformations without needing to go on the long spiritual journey Bruce had to.
While I agree with all of that, for ME, it’s a misstep to treat those training segments between Smart Hulk and Jen-Hulk as mansplaining the way the series does. It is far more likely he is worried for his cousin and what being a Hulk will do to her. He has suffered so much pain and loss because of his gamma radiation-induced rage monster and he doesn’t want his cousin to suffer through the same. So, he tries to give her the benefit of everything he has learned. He probably feels a level of guilt too. Unfortunately, while cute and snarky, she mocks him throughout and it slightly diminishes them both. Even though their fights are fun.
YOU will probably enjoy watching Jen attempt to carry on the everyday minutiae of life while sidestepping her Hulk (as though it’s an unfortunate green puddle) as Jessica Gao intended. It is pretty comical. Scenes involving her family play out about as you’d expect when there are two big green branches in the tree. Jen doesn’t want to be She-Hulk, she hates the name, she hates the attention, and she hates the disruption it causes to her mundania.
For ME, that’s not the She-Hulk way (see the introduction) but I have hopes the series will take her on a journey of acceptance and even joy. Otherwise, it should have been called JEN-WALTERS: ATTORNEY AT LAW – NOW WITH MILD GREEN FLAVOR. This was my worry from the start, Maslany is a magnificent actress but her casting led me to worry this show would be more Jen and less Shulkie. I wasn’t wrong. In an interview with Variety, Jessica Gao shares:
“I was told, ‘Can you cut more She-Hulk scenes? Can you change more She-Hulk scenes to Jen? Can she be Jen in more scenes?’ There were a lot of things that then had to be changed at the last minute to go from She-Hulk to Jen. Even in post, you know, we had to cut a lot of shots by virtue just because it was She-Hulk.”
The CGI issues might have been avoided had She-Hulk been cast rather than Jen. Kind of like Steve Rogers before the Super Soldier Serum. Or perhaps the method from the 80s TV series might’ve worked better. There Bruce and The Hulk were two different actors. Of course, you’d flip it so She-Hulk takes the majority of the screen time since that suits the character and her story better.
Throughout the first four episodes, we are shown a variety of “female trials and tribulations” ranging from mansplaining to men not appreciating the “real Jen”. Including a weird bathroom scene with four women that feels frivolous and deeply wrong at the same time—like “a misguided man’s view on womanhood.” Many of YOU will feel seen because those instances are so recognizable and magnified. For ME, those examples have the depth of a fingernail and speak to something I call hot-pink glitter faux feminism—it’s sparkly but it has no substance and like glitter it quickly becomes annoying. Also, if you notice the first sentence in this paragraph, every choice Jen makes pertaining to She-Hulk is forced on her by men. The Hulk wants her to be a Hulk. Some random male journalist names her. Her new bossman demands she be She-Hulk in court. The boys don’t like Jen so she has to be She-Hulk. The men make the decisions for her, stripping Jen-Hulk of her autonomy. Although it seems to be a reflection of the real world on the surface, it is actually disempowering and reduces this body, brains, and sex-positive character to a backseat driver on a ride that’s meant to be hers.
My Screen Rant colleague and Geek Girl Riot guest-host, Mae Abdulbaki mentioned not connecting with the character because, “everything is sort of happening to her and not through choices she makes.” Mae also gave insight into another developmental hitch in the story, “Jen wants to be normal, but I feel like we didn’t get to know her or her life before she was transformed, so even that argument doesn’t land.”
I agree. In the first four episodes, the character is stuck in a state of arrested development, sacrificing what Jen wants out of life in favor of sitcom laughs. It’s funny but it’s not fulfilling. And it could’ve been both. idobi host and writer, Julian Lytle suggested the creators of the series don’t have a lot of respect for the character. Again, I agree. She-Hulk has jokes, most certainly, but she’s so much more than the laughs. She is the superhero women, girls, and femmes need right now and I hope She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, in its final five episodes, realizes the power of this icon.
In the end, this Jen is not my She-Hulk but it might be yours. If so, I’ll raise a glass to your enjoyment while I cry into my beer (and smile because I’ll always have the comics).