Here’s an example of how blatantly obvious you have to be about something before everyone will get it: the entire time Jennifer Walters spent addressing the mysterious KEVIN in the finale episode, I kept thinking that it was a missed opportunity that they didn’t put a baseball hat on top of him. In fact, KEVIN was clearly, blatantly, designed to look like he was wearing a baseball hat, and this is shown on-screen for long stretches of time, but I completely missed it.1I read a segment from an interview with Kevin Feige in which he said his only push-back to that entire sequence presenting him as an all-controlling AI content generator was that the concept art put a baseball hat on top of the robot, and he pushed for the less silly but still overwhelmingly obvious version used in the show. Which just cements my respect for him and makes me even more convinced he deserves his success. I love the idea of someone becoming obscenely wealthy and powerful just by getting it.
I mention that as a disclaimer that all of the things I think are subtle about She-Hulk are probably not subtle at all. But really, that’s the thing that’s impressed me the most about the series as a whole: it hasn’t ever been subtle about telling the audience exactly what it’s about, but all of the gags and guest appearances and stunt casting and lamp-shading in-jokes haven’t been just a layer of frivolous comedy, skipping along the top to keep it from being too strident or too serious. Instead, they’ve been like a stage magician throwing out one misdirection after another, leaving it until the big finish to show that they’ve been one step ahead the entire time.
The final episode spins last week’s downer of an ending into an over-the-top barrage of self-aware parodies and silly gags. I think it would’ve been completely successful even if it had just stayed on that level, defiantly asserting itself as a light-hearted comedy series proudly existing in the middle of a superhero action-movie juggernaut. When you’re part of a franchise that makes literally billions of dollars, mostly by iterating on a template that’s known to be successful, it’s bold to be able to say, “Nah, we just want to be goofy.”
I admit that while I’ve been enjoying the series a lot — even the episodes that seemed the most frivolous and least “necessary” — it’s been bugging me how often Jennifer Walters seemed to be getting sidelined in her own series. They even had her acknowledge that early on in a fourth-wall break about the audience wanting to see more of Wong, but at the time I just assumed that was a semi-apologetic bit of self-awareness. “We’re going to keep doing this, but we want you to at least know that we’re aware that it’s at the expense of the main character’s story.” The introduction of Titania as an archenemy seemed to be a huge anti-climax and a waste of a hugely charismatic actress. Side characters like Madisynn came in and seemed to steal all the attention away from the lead character. It felt like the series was swimming against the current of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, still managing to be silly and fun, but with all of its franchise obligations keeping it from being as solid as it could’ve been.
The finale says not just that they’re aware of it, but that it was the point all along. Jen’s dream of a gender-swapped version of The Incredible Hulk‘s credit sequence works fine as just a gag parody, and it also works within the fiction: the injustice of her being perceived as a savage monster just for responding in anger to criminal levels of abuse. But it also fits into the theme of the episode and the series as a whole, repeating the question that Jen has been asking outright all along: why can’t she have an identity of her own outside of just being a lady version of a male character?2I learned from Nerdist’s recap videos that there’s an additional layer there: the whole reason the character exists was in response to The Incredible Hulk TV series, and Marvel’s fear that the producers would try to create a female-led spin-off of their own, as they had with The Bionic Woman.
By the end of the show, she’s not just re-writing her finale, but re-defining her whole character. She says outright that the finale was taking things in a weird direction, when it should’ve been about her being able to finally reconcile both of her identities. And that idea is plenty strong enough for a “legal comedy” (if that’s what you prefer to call it). But the finale also draws attention to how it’s spent the last nine episodes reconciling a character that’s been almost entirely defined by men, to one that can actually exist as a voice for women. Even the well-intentioned attempts to redefine or re-invent She-Hulk over the years have still resulted in her being an almost cartoonishly literal representation of “female empowerment.” This series says that instead of giving yet another version of the character that’s defined by how she reacts to sexism and anti-feminism, and how she reacts to the standard superhero cliches, why not just let her define herself?
The finale emphasizes that the audience has been focused on the wrong things all along. Instead of thinking of it as a superhero origin story that uses stolen blood and fight scenes as metaphors for a personal struggle, we should’ve recognized that all the “A plots” were just MCU connective tissue, vehicles for the real story about a woman who stops letting herself be defined by other people. It still works well as a story about a woman figuring out what it means to be a superhero, but I think it’s more interesting as a story about a woman figuring out what it means to be herself.
You can go back through the episodes and see how the stuff that might’ve seemed like meandering side-plots, or throwaway gags, or plot-lines that ended up fizzling out into disappointing anti-climaxes, were never the point in the first place. The first episode is about how women are taught that their anger and power are something they need to be ashamed of and keep under tight control. The second is about people trying to take advantage of her superhero status and exploit it for their own gain. Throughout, she’s trying to deal with the men who only want her as She-Hulk instead of Jen, before eventually being reminded that the problem is letting men define her self-worth. (I was especially happy that we never saw Josh in the finale; the victory wasn’t seeing him get his comeuppance, but in Jen’s finally realizing that he never actually mattered). Titania is set up to be her super-powered arch-nemesis, but instead ends up being an illustration of how powerful women are so frequently set up just to fight each other. And it might be a stretch, but I like the idea that Madisynn exists as an example of a big sloppy mess of a person who can enjoy herself without caring what anybody else thinks.
For a while it seemed like the series was in a weird position, where they were obligated to include fight scenes, even though the fight scenes didn’t fit thematically and were doomed to be anti-climactic when the main character is invulnerable. So I really liked that they gave Jen an obligatory “hallway fight” in which she’s fighting not against the incel bad guys, but against Marvel’s super secret strike force. The show confidently insists that the fights don’t matter, and the franchise tie-ins don’t matter, and then finds a way to include both, all on its own terms.
Since WandaVision was the first MCU TV series, Marvel’s already shown that they’re perfectly willing to indulge in some meta-storytelling. But I’d been assuming that She-Hulk‘s version was just meant to stay true to the comics and to keep the series feeling light and silly. There’s always a risk when you try to be too self-aware and break the fourth wall, that you’re dooming yourself to shallowness: if you’re coming right out and telling the audience what you’re doing, then you’re not leaving them with anything to interpret for themselves. So I’m really impressed that She-Hulk manages to have it both ways: keeping it fun and self-aware while also filling the series with valid-albeit-shallow “grrl power” messaging; but then also defying the template enough to invite you to go back and re-contextualize what the show’s been saying this whole time. This mediocre white man gives it a big thumbs up.
- 1I read a segment from an interview with Kevin Feige in which he said his only push-back to that entire sequence presenting him as an all-controlling AI content generator was that the concept art put a baseball hat on top of the robot, and he pushed for the less silly but still overwhelmingly obvious version used in the show. Which just cements my respect for him and makes me even more convinced he deserves his success. I love the idea of someone becoming obscenely wealthy and powerful just by getting it.
- 2I learned from Nerdist’s recap videos that there’s an additional layer there: the whole reason the character exists was in response to The Incredible Hulk TV series, and Marvel’s fear that the producers would try to create a female-led spin-off of their own, as they had with The Bionic Woman.