Since her 1980 debut, She-Hulk has reveled in the lowbrow delights of comic book modernism. Introduced as the Hulk’s cousin, attorney Jennifer Walters receives a life-saving transfusion of his blood, instantly becoming the green goddess of bodybuilding. From the jump, the premise of an emerald-skinned superhero lawyer, in heels and sensible suits, could only be played for the absurd. She-Hulk would soon be in on the joke of her own circumstances: not one of Marvel’s feature attractions, but a cousin in the bargain bins. By the time of her late ’80s series, she’d be breaking the fourth wall, nagging her readers for her declining sales.
She would return with a new series in 2004, during the golden age of “single girl superhero” comics, inspired by Charlie’s Angels and Sex and the City, which featured cosmopolitan women schlepping to Justice League meetings, talking about Batman’s ass over coffee, and high-kicking bad guys at nightclubs. Those were good times. The icons of the era included the neurotic private investigator Jessica Jones, in Alias; the cigarette-smoking prosecutor Kate Bishop, of Manhunter; the celebrity superheroines of Ultra; and the best girlfriends of Birds of Prey. Under the stewardship of writer Dan Slott, Jennifer would try to comport herself like any great Law and Order: SVU district attorney, while a panoply of Marvel’s most pitiful third-tier characters dragged down her credibility. Walters was a serious woman in a silly universe, who would never cut the big time; while Emma Frost took on Magneto, she’d babysit the loser characters the ’70s forgot. This was Marvel’s version of My Life on the D-List, and its self-aware, long-suffering heroine was more Fleabag than Deadpool.
She-Hulk, like Doctor Strange and Moon Knight, was never meant to be a hit character, but an experiment for the fringe freaks; the stoned college students with a sharp sensibility, and their chic feminist professors. And yet, against any expectations, such sideshow acts have now been embraced and disseminated by the most risk-averse juggernaut in entertainment. How can the strangest of comics creations evolve in the sterile, tested-for-China, Comic Con-for-you-and-mom Marvel Cinematic Universe? What will Walters have to satirize, now that she’s the star of her own Disney+ series, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law?
She-Hulk, like Doctor Strange and Moon Knight, was never meant to be a hit character, but an experiment for the fringe freaks.
On its own merit, She-Hulk is certainly the most chipper entry in Marvel’s television canon. Head writer Jessica Gao keeps the proceedings brisk and easy, and doesn’t bother too much with the bloated build-up of previous series. This isn’t Marvel’s usual television-by-gunpoint fare, like Loki or WandaVision, in which audiences slog through a death march of continuity for the promises of unfulfilled cliffhangers and side-plots that may make it into the next movie, or the next, if you take exhausting notes. This Jennifer Walters wants us to have a laugh, and not worry about the fate of the multiverse, for once.
The titular giantess is brought to life by the metamorphic powerhouse Tatiana Maslany, who shifts, effortlessly, from pitiful prosecutor to emerald Amazon. The labors of green-screen, post-Avatar metahuman porno are nothing for Maslany, who earned an Emmy and a lifelong gay cult following playing a brood of clones on the philosophically expansive, ultimately schlocky hit Orphan Black. Unbound by the “badass” sterilization imposed on Brie Larson and Scarlett Johannsen, Maslany can more naturally embody the insecurity, ambivalence and occasional ecstasy of being both meek and invincible, small and titanic. Though it takes some initial trial and effort, Maslany picks up her comic book alter-ego’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall. Most enjoyable are her groans of disappointment when she is forced from a hot date into battle with demonic gremlins from another dimension.
But the space for Maslany, Gao and Walters to express their feminist sensibility is very small indeed, a surveilled sandbox in Marvel’s prison compound of a shared multiverse. Every episode must host another action figure from the boys’ toy box, including Mark Ruffalo, Benedict Wong and Tim Roth — all fine actors playing characters none of us ever need to see again. With every appearance from one of the graying old-timers, so tightens the grip of Disney’s executive board, crazed to keep its fans appeased, crippling She-Hulk’s style. As a vaunted member of the single girl superhero pantheon, with a pedigree of self-aware humor, She-Hulk could have her own TV audience of smart women viewers. Why must she bend backwards to keep the man-boys watching?
It could be argued that Marvel’s Stalinistic assembly line is at the will of its fans, the same ones who scoffed at one of the studio’s only truly great movies, Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, and lit virtual tiki torches in response to the first original Star Wars entry in decades, The Last Jedi. But the studio’s attempts to please this ever-amassing army are built on specious statistics: How do you quantify who the “real” fans are? If my Disney+ app is paid through my Verizon bill, on a phone which I use to cruise for gay sex, is it worth the same as that of some straight Redditor who will not shut up? And what unnecessary authority is given to those who actually read comic books, the basement baby of specialty publishing? Who cares if I was buying She-Hulk comics in high school? Can’t the question be: is the show any good?
Ultimately, these series and movies depend on a mass audience, not on the hardcore minority, unless you cheered for that Oscar clip from Zack Snyder’s Justice League. For Marvel to ensure vitality without having to take risks, it has instituted a campaign of large-scale — stick with me here — gaslighting, convincing the common viewer that every character is important to the larger saga, that Ant Man is as valuable as Captain America, only you don’t know enough about the source text to appreciate them. Only real fans, those who have gobbled up every Marvel entry, can be “in” on the secret. This strategy helped the studio soar in Hollywood’s most cynical era, filling seats on an ever-unkept promise that the more you view, the more authentic your identity as a fan will be — it’s Sea Org for the cineplex.
In the years when Marvel Studios has lacked access to the publisher’s heaviest hitting characters — i.e. the X-Men, and with them the greatest library of women characters in comics — it has doubled-down on this tactic to sell B-listers like Captain Marvel, C-listers like Hawkeye, and D-listers like Shang Chi. All this would be fine if it weren’t on a horizontal factory line of quality and aesthetics. Everything must look and feel the same, which guarantees a general slop of mediocrity, and rarely allows for spectacular — or even abysmal — work to emerge.
At their best, superhero stories reinvent ancient archetypes into pop futurity, producing symbols of mass appeal and modern mythmaking. But some risk is required when spelunking into the cultural consciousness. Though DC has become the Joker corporation of late, its pendulum of abject failures (Supergirl, with Faye Dunaway, and Suicide Squad) and immortal classics ( Superman and Batman Returns ) reveals a real history, and legacy, of performances, costumes and moments which inspired the collective imagination, or disappointed it massively. In the rare cases when Marvel has taken a risk, it’s paid off, as with Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, superhero culture’s most exciting debut since Tobey McGuire avenged 9/11 in 2002’s Spider-Man. What the studio lacks are those decadent failures which become camp history: I’d rather watch Kristen Wiig give her all in a bad Wonder Woman sequel, or Halle Berry beat the shit out of Sharon Stone in Catwoman, than squirm as great actresses like Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson constrain themselves to the sexless ideal of the tweeting man baby, per Marvel’s demands.
Everything must look and feel the same, which guarantees a general slop of mediocrity, and rarely allows for spectacular—or even abysmal—work to emerge.
She-Hulk, like the lovely Ms. Marvel before it, is plenty of fun, and shows promise of memorable, hopeful, complicated women in the Marvel canon. But if my niece asks what she and her friends should watch at her next slumber party, I’ll send her to DC’s Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, from the lost month of February 2020. This is a movie made for girls, a fantasy of spectacularly outfitted women antiheroes bashing bad guys in a swirl of pigment makeup, Hot Topic aesthetics and high fives. The plot is a mess, and as a franchise entry, it’s a non-starter, but as an experiment in superhero expression, it feels unique.
She-Hulk was never made to be one of the marquee attractions, but to make fun of them. Her audience was always a bit too smart for the big time. If Marvel wants to invest in its women characters, creators and audiences, it owes them the freedom to cultivate their own style, to strike out, to go big, and to sometimes fly too close to the sun. She-Hulk, like its comic book heroine, has emerged with the spunk and self-awareness to satirize her corporate jailers. Do they have the guts to be the butt of the joke?
David Odyssey is a writer and performer based in New York City. He has covered culture, queer life and astrology for publications including Time Out New York, DAZED, Vulture and Entertainment Weekly. He has an ongoing column at NYLON.