Hulking Out

Soooo. She-Hulk: Attorney At Law’s first season is over, with quit the final episode, too. And what’s my verdict? Well . . . I give it 3 out of 5 stars. And yes, this puts me at odds with Marvel fans on both sides, the fans (and writers) who have been boosting SHAAL as a Female-Power! victory and the fans who’ve been calling the show a dumpster fire. (And the Female-Power! fans calling all the less than happy fans “toxic fandom.”) So I’ll preemptively defend myself.

First, I wanted SHAAL to succeed and succeed hugely. As mentioned many times before, I’m a big fan of the She-Hulk comic, especially under the art/writing of the great John Byrne. Byrne took a “standard female superhero clone” and made her funny and sexy and subversive, poking fun at the superhero tropes taken so seriously elsewhere. He took away the typical “superhero angst,” made her completely self-aware of her reality as a comic-book character, and wrote playful, witty stories. You never knew what was going to happen, but you knew it would be funny.

And it looked like SHAAL intended to follow in Byrne’s footsteps, at least to some degree. The studio clearly spelled out that it wasn’t going to be your typical superhero story with the title, She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, and we were informed it would follow more of a sitcom story line.

So, judging by these expectations, how did it do?

Well . . .

First off, Season One’s nine half-hour episodes did have a good strong character arc. It loosely follows the traditional “hero’s journey” formula; Jen begins in a good place, happy with her life and her professional career as a state prosecutor senior enough to have her own legal assistant and lead in arguing the state’s high-profile cases. Not bad for a thirty-something! Then she becomes She-Hulk and must fight to prove to Bruce that she’s “safe” and can continue her life as planned. That victory under her belt, she gets outed as She-Hulk, becomes a huge media sensation . . . and loses her career because her boss realizes (quite rightly) that keeping her on as a trial-lawyer for the state opens them up to huge risk of declared mistrials. He realizes this because the case she should have won gets declared a mistrial, and any defense lawyer worth their salt will always move for a mistrial when their client is being prosecuted by a celebrity, purely on grounds of jury bias.

So Jen drinks and whines, then squares her shoulders and gets her resume out there again. Only to find out that most law firms share the state attorneys office’s concerns for bias. She’s in a worse job-hunting position than a newly minted lawyer out of law school. But then! Jen gets an offer, from a high-end firm opening a division for superhuman law, and her new boss wants her to helm it. The only fly in the ointment is she gets the job because of She-Hulk, rather than on her own merits. They want She-Hulk, not Jen, and that doesn’t sit right with her. (She still takes it, she’s not crazy.)

The rest of Season One is all about Jen finding her balance with a big green celebrity alter-ego, and as the episodes progress she comes to terms with She-Hulk, even starts enjoying being big and green. Then it all gets taken away with a sex-tape and triggered “rampage” that costs her both her new career and She-Hulk, the BIG TWIST threatening to take away everything she’s worked for. And it does take it away for awhile; she even has to move back in with her parents. Then of course we have the final episode where the villain is revealed and Jen is triumphant. She gets her career back and in the last scene we see her quite comfortable being She-Hulk: Attorney At Law.

So that’s Jen’s arc. Pretty standard, and competently executed. That’s why I give it a three out of five.

Why not four or five out of five?

Because despite doing some things I’d really been hoping to see, especially all the fourth-wall braking (loved her marching off the show and into Marvel Studios at the end), the series didn’t do a lot that grabbed me. A show can’t ride just on the protagonist; supporting characters also need to be strong, and there really weren’t any that stood out to me (until Matt Murdock showed up in Episode 8 there weren’t even any decent male characters). Speaking of Murdock, the legal side of it was similarly uninspired, the writing team needed better consultants (or needed to listen to them).

Attorney At Law being in the title, you would have also expected more legal realism.

Why was Titania not behind bars after crashing through a courtroom and nearly killing or maiming a box full of jury? If not then, then why not in jail for assaulting Jen at the wedding? Nobody’s lawyers are that good and the writers should have at least lamp-shaded her Get Out Of Jail Free card if they intended to give her cell a revolving door. She goes on two rampages, and is still a free girl and a celebrity, where Jen goes on one that only results in property damage (under severe provocation) and she’s fired and gets her power shackled, again with no explanation for why the cases are different. As She-Hulk, Jen is also surprisingly dismissive of property damage to the point of throwing a million-dollar car down the street to stop someone from running, and we never see or hear of any repercussions from that particular incident.

And then there’s the problem of the choice of antagonist, Intelligencia.

I think SHAAL’s writers made a real mistake by deciding to go meta and “troll the trolls.” SHAAL was, again, billed as a comedy. But although it delivers chuckle-worthy moments, making her antagonist a secret group of misogynists didn’t exactly make for comedy, nor does the way Intelligencia went after her. And their motive didn’t make any sense; why were they enraged by her, exactly? In the big Sex Tape Scene, they claimed she “stole” her powers and was unworthy of them. Because she’s a slut, apparently. In the final episode the motive of their secret leader, Hulk King, is revealed as 1) jealousy, and 2) ego (she won’t date him). He’s got to prove his superiority and grind her down, but at least for him it’s personal in a twisted way; his secret collective, in the dialogue they’re given, reveal themselves to be stand ins for certain toxic elements of Marvel fandom. This is the writers taking shots directly at fandom.

So the big villain is a psychotically insecure loser and his minions are apparently a bunch of misogynists. Okay, I won’t argue over the motivation for this. I can even say it’s clever. But I will say it’s a bit dark for a comedy and it left no room for better villains or stories. It didn’t fit the vibe of the show. There’s a kind of writing that, when aware of it, writers usually try and avoid. TV Tropes refers to it as Writer on Board. With SHAAL the writers have pretty much come out and said “Yup, we meant to do that! We owned the trolls!” Well, good for them. But I’d much rather have seen a better story.

My hot-take on it? The villain should have been Emil Blonsky, The Abomination, and the Intelligencia group his “soul mates.” Blonsky sat in prison for decades, while, after The Battle of New York, Banner became an international hero. Sure Bruce then disappeared for awhile (after another city-destroying rampage), but then he came back as Smart Hulk and everybody loved him while Blonsky stayed in prison. Then She-Hulk came along, making it even worse. So he stewed, and he plotted, and his soul-mates helped him craft sweet revenge. Hulk had disappeared again, but She-Hulk would do, so he set out to rob her of her public acceptance and celebrity, and even of her freedom. Then, with a true power-inhibitor keeping her from changing, he’d become The Abomination again, monologue, and kill her.

They’d barely have had to change the details at all.

So, kudos for lots of stuff, but a “meh” on much of the writing and poor choice of villains. I do look forward to Season Two, however. They really should switch to one-hour episodes, though; a lot of my criticisms could be easily fixed by just having more story time.


22 thoughts on “Hulking Out

  1. I was put off it merely by hearing the description of how she ranted to Bruce about her superior ability to control her temper, without the show treating it either as a comic lack of self-awareness or as hubris tempting nemesis.

    Bruce was a battered child. He has a lot more history controlling his temper, the problem is that his means were deeply pathological.

    1. I’d like to think it was a case of lack of self-awareness (that’s how I intentionally read it), but since her mistake was never called, I do think it was another case of Writer on Board.

    2. The battered child backstory is a retcon in the books; there’s been no indication it applies in the MCU. It was plainly obvious that Jen reacted differently to her power boost. His insistence that she treat it exactly the same as his was pure mansplaining.

      1. There’s no indication that it doesn’t apply.

        She just assumes that being a man means she has more to anger her, and her saying so is pure womansplaining.

      2. There’s no indication either way, so using it as a point of discussion is irrelevant. There was nothing wrong with her speech, and his smug “I’m a man, so I know better ” expression during the scene just clinches it.

      3. Unearned claims of superiority are a Chekhov’s gun, regardless of claims about expressions.

        The idea that he doesn’t know more about hulking than she does is absurd, and your attributing it to sexism is sexism

      4. He knows what it’s like for *him* to Hulk out. Assuming that therefore her experience will be identical is short-sighted. The whole point of the show *is* that she’s not a carbon-copy, but her own person.

        And calling that sexism is outright confusing.

      5. Given that the entire data set consists of him thus far, it’s the only rational assumption, even if he turns out to be wrong. Not to mention that it’s a lot more costly if he’s wrong the other way.

        And if you are confused, you need to re-read what you wrote.

      6. I don’t normally jump in on these sorts of “debates” but here it’s gone away from discussion of actual in-show events and towards useless labeling. So.

        Nestor, you can call what Bruce was doing being condescending, but you can’t call it mansplaining. For that you need the “I’m a man, so I know better” element you clearly stated and it simply wasn’t there.

        Ask yourself this; if Jen had been Bruce’s cousin John, would his attitude have been any different? I don’t think so. Remember, up until their dialogue at his retreat, he’d seen Jen transform four times and the first two times she went all “roar!” and had a blacked-out rage episode (once she roared and ran off into the woods, then she Hulked up, roared, and nearly turned four jerks into parking lot pizza). The third time, in his lab, she transformed, went all “roar” again, but then calmed down instead of continuing on with another episode.

        The conclusion to be drawn is that Jen’s body was adapting very quickly, so that every transformation was a bit less episode-inducing than the last one. But Jen didn’t start with control and until she conclusively demonstrated her control there’s no reason Bruce should have expected her transformations to be much different from his. That smug expression on his face was him watching Jen going big and green with anger as he expected her to do, proving his point. It turned to quite a surprised look when she simply dialed it back, but until then, based on his own experience and the evidence of Jen’s first few transformations, he expected her to have a problem she’d need help dealing with.

        “The idea that he doesn’t know more about hulking than she does is absurd, and your attributing it to sexism is sexism.”

        I don’t think it’s sexist to attribute Bruce’s attitude to sexism. I do, however, think it’s a reading not based on the actual scene but rather on the meta-conversation that’s been swirling around all of this.

        On the other hand, what Jen did was very much womansplaining, dismissing Bruce’s decade-plus of experience and assuming that she controls her anger “infinitely more than you!” based on nothing more than her being a woman while he is a man. That’s sexism almost by definition. The truth is, it had nothing to do with their respective capabilities with anger and control; as Bruce had said earlier, Jen’s body was handling the gamma radiation differently.

        Does that make Jen sexist? Again, no. It does mean she’s bought into a narrative of “female anger” though. Or rather, in this case she’s been fed lines by a Writer On Board (see above).

      7. The thing is, none of what Jen said in that scene was inaccurate. And being called sexist for acknowledging that is truly perplexing.

        But whatever. Bruce came across as a bit of a dick through the whole episode. Criticizing Jen for getting pissed off after Bruce essentially tried to kill her seems overblown, but then I have a very low threshold of tolerance for practical jokes.

      8. Nowhere do I criticize Jen for “getting pissed off after Bruce essentially tries to kill her.” But the more questionable line is: “The thing is, none of what Jen said in that scene was inaccurate.”

        Which scene? The one where she said that she is an expert at controlling her anger “because I do it infinitely more than you!”? Because here Jen’s asserting that, because she’s a woman and because every day there are occasions where, as a woman, she must control her anger, she is infinitely more experienced at controlling her anger than Bruce.

        Think about that for a moment; she’s claiming that her life experience, as a woman, has had infinitely more occasions for anger than Bruce’s, because he’s a man. Really? A man with Bruce’s history? This has nothing to do with Bruce being a man, but rather Bruce being The Hulk. He spent years before that suppressing anger and disassociating from it to the point where his Hulk transformation created an alter-ego to deal with it. Then ears more tamping down every angry thought because any escalation could lead to a transformation and rampage (and doing this while a fugitive pursued by the US Army). Then years more coming to grips with his anger and accepting it as he reintegrates his two selves. Objectively, who has more life experience controlling their anger? Jen, or Bruce who’s twice her age and has been wrestling with the Hulk for far longer than she’s been an adult?

        Which doesn’t mean that Jen wasn’t sincere about her own anger; that’s her own lived experience. However that does not make her right, here. Now Bruce coming across as a dick through the whole episode? That’s certainly a valid if subjective opinion.

      9. Okay, let me put it to you this way. Bruce spent years learning to control his anger. Jen, like any other woman, has had to do so *all* her life. When Bruce lost his temper, he became this immensely strong and tough being. If Jen, or most women, let their temper get the best of them, they ran a real risk of getting killed.
        We can argue all night as to who had it worst, and frankly get nowhere. I’d rather not waste my time. You have your opinion, I have mine. Let’s just agree to disagree.

      10. That is a stunningly sexist comment.

        The vast majority of all people, of both sexes, are in no danger of being killed when they lose their temper. And yet everyone has to learn to control their anger all their lives.

      11. Wow, just wow. I acknowledge the fact that our society has an intrinsic gender disparity and am accused of being sexist because of it. We’ve entered Orwellian double-speak territory.
        I suppose you should count yourself lucky that you’ve had such a sheltered life where you’ve never experienced the double-standard women live under.
        At this point, I’ll tell you the same thing I told George. You have your opinion and I have mine. It’s painfully obvious any further discussion will achieve nothing. Let’s just agree to disagree and move on.

      12. And behold manspalining in all its glory.

        You here are doing exactly what you accuse Bruce of doing. (And calling that “acknowledging” is particularly bad. No, your theory is not so established that you are entitled to dismiss me and my views and my actual experience with contempt for not fitting it.)

      13. First you claim that he said something because he was a man.

        Then you put on this claim that you were just saying that what she said was accurate, and you are bewildered that you are called because of that.

        If you can’t defend your actual claim, why do you think that falsely claiming the charge was about something else will help?

      1. Just saw the notice on your and Mary’s final replies ( and have no idea why they took this long to pop up in my email). Don’t thank me and “Sheesh” wasn’t called for, either. My whole takeaway in all this was 1) Bruce was wrong but not “mansplaining,” and 2) Jen was wrong but in-character (though with dialogue likely shaped by a Writer On Board).

        I called a stop because at that point you and Mary were simply talking past each other trying to get the last word, and I hadn’t even seen Mary’s last two replies.

        I made one last comment on She-Hulk today, in the form of sharing the She-Hulk Pitch Meeting posted on YouTube, and I’m done with the subject. Any more comments here I’m just deleting and you can both be pissed at me.

  2. Nod.

    When talking about books/movies/TV series, the most important thing to remember is YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

    People will disagree with “you” about that work of entertainment and THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT!

  3. I have grown disappointed in Marvel in general. At least they have kept my favorite character (Firestar). However, both the MCU and the print comics lake any sort of depth and the storylines are still either too extreme or they are not focused, possibly both.

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