For eight out of nine episodes, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law wields its meta nature like a finely honed Tumblr tag from 2012. Clever, insightful, earnest, and cutting when need be, these self-referential tangents were still always in service of adding to the narrative. That chaotic and delicate balance is part of what made the debut of Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) — as the cousin of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who accidentally came in contact with his blood and became She-Hulk as well as an attorney for a superhuman division of a massive firm — so successful. Every time Jen broke the fourth wall to complain about dating in her 30s, did her Smug Hulk impression, or whipped out a TED Talk on Captain America’s virginity, MCU fans who were Very Online in the Avengers heyday, including myself, were reminded that this show, more than any other Marvel series, was for us.
The show as a whole made room for our hero to experience joy — not just the kind that comes from discovering her powers, but also that which comes from everyday moments. The kind of joy Marvel movies only touch upon fleetingly due to the sheer volume of information that needs to be communicated to fans and dozens of characters who have to be introduced. But She-Hulk’s season finale missed the mark however, falling into the classic MCU trap of teasing out what’s next at the expense of character development. With that, one of Marvel’s best and brightest origin stories became part of a depressing trend in which the studio throws away human moments that make superheroes worthy of our attention in the first place in favor of repetitive high-budget spectacle that’s primarily focused on setting up new players and plots for projects that are years away from release.
While rage is very much not She-Hulk’s thing, it is Jennifer Walters’s thing. Outside of her initial transformation in the pilot where she’s overwhelmed by the experience, Jen is always in control of her Hulk self in the series. As she tells Bruce, women control their anger every day — and while the inherent bullshit of men around her makes Jen want to scream, she doesn’t; she just lets her work and her actions speak for her. She’s not surprised that after a quick training montage, Jen is instantaneously able to control her Hulk transformation. Much like Bruce, Jen’s always angry, but she’s also always been better at knowing how and when to wield it. Roasting terrible first dates, yes, involving herself in office politics, no.
What happens when a woman who’s learned to control her anger loses it anyway?
However, in the penultimate episode of She-Hulk, Jen’s anger boils over in a way she hadn’t expressed before. At a gala to receive her award for Female Lawyer of the Year, a Discord-inspired troll with the goofy-ass moniker of HulkKing (Jon Bass) interrupts her acceptance speech by streaming a nude video of her filmed without her knowledge or consent on the screens surrounding the stage. Jen smashes the screens at the awards ceremony, sending everyone fleeing a rampaging Hulk as she chases down the masked man she assumes is HulkKing. Just as she catches up with him, law enforcement surrounds her, and Jen realizes the police were trying to contain her the whole time. She-Hulk finally asks the questions we were heading toward the whole series: What happens when a woman who’s learned to control her anger loses it anyway? And for a reason that would make anyone who’s ever taken a nude go nuclear?
The series up until that point had been a delightful romp about one woman’s Sisyphean efforts to juggle her mean, green alter ego with her everyday life as an ambitious attorney. The finale was primed to explore what happens when that fragile balance is smashed and Jen’s life actually spirals out of control. And while the finale started out promisingly with Jen in a supermax prison for enhanced beings, making bail on the condition that she wears an inhibitor that prevents her from turning into She-Hulk, the episode quickly finds its way to a climax place that Jen hates.
Out on bail, Jen tries to determine HulkKing’s identity. She seeks out one of her clients, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), aka Abomination, and heads to his meditation retreat to get some advice. (For those who don’t remember, Jen secured Emil’s early parole when he was incarcerated for the fight he had with Hulk in Harlem waaaay back in that 2008 Edward Norton movie we don’t talk about.) But once Jen’s there, she discovers Abomination speaking at a secret meeting of HulkKing’s rabid followers. Jen confronts HulkKing, who is revealed to be a total creep she went on a date with earlier in the season, as he takes a shot of serum synthesized from her blood — stolen by another date of Jen’s, a full-on HulkKing henchman. Then, every superpowered being in the show smashes into frame. HulkKing tries to fight Jen, Hulk tries to fight Abomination, Titania (Jameela Jamil) crashes through a wall to beat up minions; it’s a CGI clusterfuck only Marvel could afford.
“We’re not actually doing this. This can’t possibly be where the season is going. … This is a mess. None of these storylines make any sense. Is this working for you?” Jen says as she straight-up quits the episode. Ripping off her inhibitor, Jen hulks her way through the Disney+ menu, jumps into a behind-the-scenes show, and makes her way to the She-Hulk writers room. Her complaints about the episode are met with a cultlike response: This is the story K.E.V.I.N. wants. One requisite fight scene later, She-Hulk finally meets K.E.V.I.N., an AI and meta insert of the real-life president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, aka the man behind the curtain. Jen presents her closing argument; her perfect finale includes cutting the throwdown between the super enhanced beings, ensuring HulkKing never gets creepy blood-based superpowers, Abomination holding himself accountable for his parole violation, and of course more thotty Daredevil (Charlie Cox). With that laundry list, Jen takes back her show.
The big, flashy spectacle of a Hulk-versus-Hulk fight and a high-stakes, but derivative, plot about a knockoff super serum “distracts from the story, which is that my life fell apart right when I was learning to be both Jen and She-Hulk,” Jen says. “Those are my stakes, K.E.V.I.N.”
She-Hulk’s finale ends with She-Hulk (inhibitor gone and cleared of all charges) giving a quick, rote interview on the courthouse steps in which she pledges to use both the law and her powers to seek justice. In doing so, the entire meta portion of the finale sets up Jen’s final confrontation not with HulkKing, the season-long villain, but with the corporate entity of Marvel itself. That would have been a wildly interesting twist if She-Hulk was a series that mainly parodied commercialization and franchising. But when Jen convinces K.E.V.I.N. to tell the kind of story she wants and technically triumphs in the final narrative conflict of the show, the series falls into the same trap as most Marvel projects: trading their protagonists’ emotional resolutions for whatever shiny, explosive superpowers are coming up next. In the last 10 minutes of the finale alone, a joke about how expensive She-Hulk is to animate hints the VFX team has moved on to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; Jen asks the eternal MCU question: when are we going to see the X-Men; K.E.V.I.N. confirms that She-Hulk won’t be in any of the upcoming movies (at least in this current MCU phase); Hulk brings his alien son, Skar (also a Hulk!), home to meet the family; and Abomination escapes prison to seek refuge in Kamar Taj.
She-Hulk’s final fight should have been Jen Walters versus HulkKing, but she never gets a chance to slay her dragon. Not because Jen’s wrong about skipping an overstuffed, action-packed, mostly animated finale; she’s 100% correct. But if that final showdown had been in a courtroom instead of a meta cutaway, She-Hulk would have nailed the human stakes that defined the series’s ideal of a hero. After all, receiving online harassment and unmitigated vitriol is a common experience for many women, and so is the nonconsensual sharing of sexual images. Fast forwarding past Jen’s moment to tell the world how ongoing harassment made her feel, how it affected her life, and what a guilty sentence would mean to her (especially considering how hard it is to get convictions) robs her of her hero moment. And it robs the audience of a crucial lesson: how we mere mortals can make a difference by doing something as simple as standing up and telling our truths.
If that final showdown had been in a courtroom instead of a meta cutaway, She-Hulk would have nailed the human stakes that defined the series’s ideal of a hero.
Many, including Tatiana Maslany in an Entertainment Weekly interview, point to Jen reclaiming her agency and her story from K.E.V.I.N. in the meta sequence as the climactic moment of her hero’s journey. However, from the moment the pilot kicks off, it’s clear Jen’s always known herself well enough (see: control over Hulk transformation) to understand exactly what she wants (justice). The stakes of her story never hinged on redefining who she is now that she has powers. The stakes were always about her learning to use new and old skills together to further her original goals. Allowing Jen to weaponize her rage from the witness stand, perhaps in a victim impact statement, would have been more than just a cathartic moment for viewers who are victims of sexual misconduct, many of whom will never get justice, or even an apology for daily harassment they experience. It would have also been a perfect climatic gut punch that showcased Jen’s ability to use her words as effectively as her fists when seeking justice.
Marvel’s obsession with interconnectedness is both the key to its success and its greatest flaw. Anybody who’s still fuming over the fallout of the original Avengers lineup knows what I’m talking about. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), for example, is introduced in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger as a clever, kind man whose empathy and determination make him worthy of his super strength. By the time we get to 2019 and Cap’s exit in Avengers: Endgame, he’s a narrative pawn completely divorced from his original motivations. In order to introduce new characters like the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and new plotlines like the Sokovia Accords, we’re supposed to believe he’s the kind of man perfectly comfortable keeping the truth of his friend’s parents’ murders a secret for years. And just to throw some extra salt on that gentle character assassination, Cap’s apology for that horrendous obstruction of justice and personal betrayal amounts to, I’m sorry your feelings were hurt. As a fan that’s watched Cap’s journey for roughly a decade, I shouldn’t feel relief at his exit. But the Steve Rogers who left the franchise bears only a superficial resemblance to the Steve Rogers who entered, and I was honestly glad to see him go while I could still appreciate America’s Ass and enjoy the caricature of the hero I used to respect.
Steve is a worst-case scenario. But every Marvel hero goes through their own iteration of this type of flattening. As each new protagonist is pushed beyond their origin stories and into the wider behemoth that is the franchise, there are inevitably fewer moments for introspection and growth, which can make each subsequent appearance feel like a screenshot of a screenshot. The overall effect is low-res as hell; fans have to squint to make sense of beloved characters. It suddenly becomes just as easy to fall out of love with a hero as it was to fall in love with them, which begs the question, Why do I keep coming back? Especially when I know there’s a 50/50 shot of any kind of personal, emotional payoff that anchors fantastical powers in each character’s humanity?
The answer is, Marvel’s still finding unique ways to tell stories in the superhero genre. She-Hulk, despite its finale, is one of them. Consider me a Jennifer Walters stan. I’ll revel in her presence every time she tallies the collective daddy issues of MCU, finds her light for a new dating app profile pic, drops it real low to “Body” with Megan Thee Stallion, and generally breezes through MCU like a breath of fresh air. But for a season finale appropriately titled “Whose Show Is This?” it’s unfortunate that the answer ends up being Kevin Feige. I just hope the next time we see her, Jen is given room to fight her own battle, grounded by her own personal stakes. I’m not ready to fall out of love with her yet. If K.E.V.I.N.’s meta Marvel roll call needs to be cut to make room for that, well, then blessings be upon the algorithm. ●
Krutika Mallikarjuna is an entertainment journalist with a deep love of pop culture and a healthy fear of horses. Catch her bylines at BuzzFeed, Teen Vogue, TV Guide, and more.