In 2005, a year after Stieg Larson died, his novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was published in Sweden. It was in 2008 that the novel would find itself translated into English and become an international bestseller. The trilogy of books Larson wrote all came with catchy titles, all based on that foundation of “The Girl”, except that’s not true for their original publications. For instance, the literal translation for the original title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women.
If there is any through line that connects the start of Jennifer Walters adventure as the superhero She-Hulk to the absolutely bonkers ending, it is the constant battle against misogyny. The rest of the show goes off to break expectations while also pointing out those expectations as they’re broken, so if you were expecting a superhero show where someone capable of throwing cars was going to be running around punching things, you came to the wrong place.
The opening episode does build expectations otherwise, with a story that does an excellent job blending super-heroics alongside its comedy. Jen begins the episode breaking the fourth wall, there’s her first transformation into She-Hulk, all capped off with a fight against the Hulk, another fight with Titania, and a long-awaited Captain America secret.
By the way, I think I’m going to have to stop right there.
I promise you there’s going to be some interesting passages about the problematic pacing of the show as well as the strength of its themes, but I know you won’t be able to go on and enjoy them if I don’t, at least once, mention the Twitter arguments the first episode caused. The issue came up when Jen revealed she could just turn from Jen to She-Hulk and back at will, unlike Bruce Banner, who had to hold back his anger or else you wouldn’t like him so much. She claimed that she was infinitely better at holding back her anger because of:
3. Men who would just kill her
Some fans took that to mean:
1. She-Hulk is better than regular Hulk
2. Marvel is saying that men are bad
Aside from taking the show’s bait, and aside from the fact that the Hulk was never very consistent on how much control he had when angry, see The Avengers (2012), and aside from the fact that this character could very easily be talking from inexperience, if you are in this group, have you heard of unreliable narrators? It seems like you haven’t, so I hired an unreliable narrator to explain what they are. Unreliable narrator, please explain to the audience what you are.
“Hi, like Nick said, I’m an unreliable narrator. What does that mean? Well, let’s break it down. The word unreliable is like the word uncanny in Uncanny X-Men, the prefix Un- just emphasizes how canny the X-Men are, so it’s safe to assume that an unreliable narrator such as myself is extremely reliable, due to the emphasis.”
Glad that’s out of the way, but where were we?
Oh yeah, I was talking about the dynamic between Jennifer Walters and her alter ego, the She-Hulk! Where most superheroes have clearer divisions between their civilian lives and their alter egos, the division between Jen and She-Hulk is blurrier, called to attention based on how the people in her life want to perceive her. Bruce Banner is the scientist, but the Hulk smashes. Matt Murdock is a lawyer by day, and by night he fights crime.
Because Jen is still Jen, regardless of whether she’s just Jen or has changed into She-Hulk, there’s a different dynamic between her two identities that the show uses to emphasize how other people want to perceive her. Her old boss wants to talk to her as Jen so that he could look down on her when he fires her. Her new boss wants her to work as She-Hulk at the office so that his superhero law division stands out. It is a constant theme throughout the show and is probably She-Hulk’s strongest aspect.
The themes of misogyny lead to She-Hulk’s darkest moments, but by no means is this a drama. This show is more like a sitcom that happens to have superheroes and occasionally dips into drama. Guest characters come and go as they please, side characters have their own extended hijinks, and occasionally court rooms are involved.
On one hand it keeps the pace of the show fast and fresh in a fashion that’s very different from most superhero stories these days. Any other show would be more interested in where the plot was going, while She-Hulk is happy to be where it is. The sudden appearance of demons from another dimension has no relevance after the fact, but Jen’s relationships with the people she meets does matter.
At the same time, the emphasis on hijinks over plot leads to side stories that just give characters something to do without developing them. It’s neat to be able to see Jen’s paralegal go out on her own and work with a different lawyer in her firm, but their case is just another self-contained story in a self-contained story. She-Hulk’s episodes already run shorter than most other superhero shows, and it still has its share of filler.
The finale gets dangerously close to making it seem like the individual stories that had moments of interconnectivity were leading up to something, before a completely unhinged fourth wall break reminds us that this isn’t the point of the show, for better or worse. At its heart She-Hulk is a sitcom that happens to be about a lawyer who happens to be a Hulk, unconcerned about its place in the overarching Marvel Universe. Like Jen’s own trip into the dating scene, She-Hulk just wants to have a good time, and to that end it does not disappoint.