When I heard Disney was doing a She-Hulk series I was ecstatic and very, very worried. Not that I spent a whole lot of emotional energy on it, but I really loved She-Hulk in the comics when I discovered her during John Byrne’s fantastic run. JB’s She-Hulk was comedy gold. She-Hulk was the “Anti-Hulk.” She loved loved loved being big and green, loved the celebrity it brought her, mostly shrugged off the annoyances, and was completely self-aware about being a comic book character. She was in no way a tragic character. Long before Deadpool made a habit of regularly breaking the Fourth Wall, She-Hulk regularly chatted (or complained) to the reader and even argued with John Byrne. In one memorable skit, she stalked off the comic panels to confront him in his own “white space.” She-Hulk was just as self-aware of all the female superhero tropes, and the comics gleefully deconstructed them even while playing to them. I loved it.
Yes, Jennifer Walters also shared an adventure with that “right jolly old elf.” I’m sure the Disney series isn’t going to go that far, but my point is She-Hulk was silly and fun. Again, I’m really only talking about the Byrne run here; She-Hulk has been portrayed more seriously by other writers, especially when in other comics. Her original portrayal was much more serious. Compare these two #1 covers.
So I came to the new show as a She-Hulk fan, ready to be pleased, worried that Disney would screw it up.
My verdict? Having only seen the first episode, I am very, very happy. Could it have been better? Sure. Especially as a writer, I tend to take mental notes where I think the writing has fallen short. Which doesn’t mean I could have done it better, that’s just Monday-morning quarterbacking. But for overall tone and delivery, I thought She-Hulk: Attorney At Law nailed it.
So imagine my surprise when I heard rumblings of discontent from Marvel online fandom. After a great deal of thought, I’ve decided that it’s mostly due to an overreaction to a mistaken perception and a scene of bad dialogue. At the risk of being cast out for heresy by both sides of this argument, I’ll briefly dip into it here and explain why it didn’t kill the good vibes for me.
“The writers paint She-Hulk as better than Hulk in every way, a feminist fantasy of ‘Anything you can do, I can do better.“
There’s a training smash-cut of Bruce showing Jennifer the ropes of handling her new big green body. He does a yoga pose, she does an amazing acrobatic display. He throws a boulder, she throws a boulder further. (Then he cuts loose and throws a boulder into orbit, burning it up on the way.) Later, they get into a fight (because they’re superheroes and it’s a trope), where Jen at least holds her own, possibly scores more on points. Some critics of the show have pointed to this with the above complaint, and I just don’t think it’s valid.
Bruce truly cuts loose only once, with the reverse-meteor, but Hulk is still clearly the strongest superhuman on Earth. Jen doesn’t even try and match his stunt. Okay, Jen’s more limber, that’s fine. During their fight, Bruce was holding back, controlling himself at all times even when both of them were roaring at each other. In any case, I consider this the lesser, easily dismissed criticism. The show didn’t break Marvel canon here.
The biggest criticism is over Jen’s rant about anger. Explaining to Bruce why she can control her big green rage form, she says;
“Here’s the thing Bruce, I’m great at controlling my anger. I do it all the time. When I’m catcalled in the street, when incompetent men explain my own area of expertise to me, I do it pretty much every day because if I don’t I will get called emotional, or difficult, or might just get murdered. So I’m an expert at controlling my anger because I do it infinitely more than you.”
Many viewers ate this up. Check out The Mary Sue’s squee-rant about it. To them it’s a grand feminist “In your face!” moment. Many other viewers found this incredibly off-putting, evidence of a “feminist woke agenda.” What it is, is a true in-character moment that, because of our current culture wars, is stupefyingly polarizing.
First, I know Jen. I know professional women who have experienced just the kind of male condescension Jen’s talking about. Not so much from men her own age; western society today is doing a better job turning out new humans with fewer preconceptions and prejudices regarding the sexes (or different ones, anyway), so most of that comes from older “dinosaurs,” but still. Jen is relating her truth, her “lived experience” with condescension and swallowing her anger. That resonates with lots of viewers, and rightly so.
Where she’s wrong is with her last claim “So I’m an expert at controlling my anger because I do it infinitely more than you.”
It’s obvious Jen doesn’t know something very important, something that, to be fair, Bruce himself hasn’t figured out. Bruce has had a lifetime of swallowing his anger, but it’s much worse than that; for him it was pathological. Bruce was an abused child. His father, who was very good at acting like a fine upstanding pater-familia publicly, was a secret rage-monster who abused the crap out of Bruce and his mom and blamed his helpless victims. “Don’t make me angry!” Bruce learned to fear all expressions of anger, to the point of suppressing it in himself and pushing it off onto a subconscious alter-ego. When he mutated himself into the Hulk, he couldn’t suppress the “roid rage” that came with the transformation and it broke his mind, pushing his alter-ego to the front.
After that, of course, he had even more cause to be angry, not only rage at himself, his self-loathing of his own new monstrous form and actions, but with the US government’s pursuit that forced him to abandon all family and professional ties and hide out in Third World countries for years.
By the time of Avengers 1, he’d made huge progress and was able to accept the fact that he felt anger at all: “I’m always angry.” But he still had a split-personality, one that he spent years accepting and reintegrating into himself through cognitive therapy.
Now along comes Jen, and Bruce is astounded that she doesn’t “Hulk out” when she Hulks up (though she still has moments of “Grrr” when pushed into it). But it’s not because she’s been swallowing female rage all of her life, it’s because she wasn’t a horribly abused child who developed an alter-ego that became a complete split personality. She experienced her transformation as an emotionally normal human being, Bruce faced his with an undiagnosed preexisting psychosis.
I’m not sure Bruce has figured out how psychologically unstable he was before his transformation. Even so, to me his treatment of Jen never came across as male condescension. At first he justifiably believes that she’s going to have the same problem he did, and is astounded when she doesn’t. He’s even a little envious. But mostly he’s concerned that she not go through the same experience he did of being branded a monster (not to mention having to live with guilt if her She-Hulk persona kills a bunch of people). It takes a knock-down-drag-out fight between the two of them, during which both retain complete control, to convince him she’s “safe” for herself and others.
So both Jen and Bruce got it wrong, but her rant was totally in-character given her history and professional frustrations. To be honest, I’m not sure the writers intended it this way, but both Bruce and Jen are “unreliable narrators” when it comes to talking about themselves. But this is normal of all of us, so I took Jen’s rant as both truthful and unaware, and Bruce’s insistence as wrong but completely justified and well-intended.
In other words, both were being human. So it worked for me.
Mind you, I’ve only seen Episode 1, we’ll see how it plays out. But I’m looking forward to, rather than dreading, each new episode.