As Wonder Woman lasso-of-truthed into theaters on June 2nd, film and comic geeks alike waited with bated breath. Not since the abysmally conceived Catwoman in 2004 had the silver screen been alight with a super heroine of such ready household recognisability and, needless to say, there was a lot resting on the Amazon’s sculpted shoulders. Fortunately, the reviews were sparkling and audiences came out in droves, resulting in a $223 million worldwide opening which is, as stated by Forbes: “an all-time record for a female director and the biggest gross by far for a female comic book superhero movie and a DC Comics movie that didn’t star Batman or Superman.” [1] Director Patty Jenkins (2003’s Monster) managed to stick the landing and silence the protests of the fragilely masculine studio heads who for decades have claimed that a female superhero is too hard a sell. Hopefully, Wonder Woman will usher in a new era of womanly cinematic derring-do—giving female heroes the grand treatment that’s been withheld from them for so long.

Somewhat humiliatingly, Marvel Studios has yet to produce a female lead film, despite the fact that their “cinematic universe” has dominated the box office since Iron Man kicked it off in 2008. It was feebly announced earlier this year that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow will be headlining her own feature, despite proving, thus far, to be a character of little personality and somewhat troublesome characterisation. Next, recent Oscar winner Brie Larson will star in the upcoming Captain Marvel. Though the former Ms. Marvel is a fine character (and a burgeoning feminist icon in her own right), the brand recognisability of her name and the way she so easily bestrides both the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy teams feels both too tidy and too safe. Lacking an ultra recognisable heroine and already behind the curve, Marvel would do well to choose wisely and pick a character that fits within their established universe while injecting a necessary dose of life to the rapidly aging franchise and openly embracing female empowerment with a fresh edge to best DC’s Wonder Woman. The perfect character to do so? Jennifer Walters, AKA The She-Hulk.

 

Beast to Beauty

 

Though lacking the kinky, historically significant background of Wonder Woman, She-Hulk has   proven to be surprisingly resilient and adaptable—emerging as the finest female hero in Marvel’s massive canon. Her beginnings may have been humble, but She-Hulk has grown to be one of the most popular and influential characters in the comic’s juggernaut’s entire library. Created by Stan Lee in 1980, her initial function was to secure a copyright. Based on the success of The Hulk TV show, Marvel knew it was only a matter of time before someone else tried to capitalise on a female version of the character, as had occurred when the Six Million Dollar Man gave rise to The Bionic Woman in the late seventies. Stan Lee created The She-Hulk to protect Marvel’s intellectual property, nothing more.

Her origin story is as derivative as her initial creation: Born of an emergency blood transfusion from her cousin Bruce Banner (The Hulk), lawyer Jennifer Walters mutates into a savage green beast. Aping the Jekyll and Hyde-like story of her more popular cousin, Jennifer struggles maintaining her job as a lawyer and her hulky freak outs for twenty-five issues. Much like Spiderman in his initial run, Jennifer’s alter-ego was a fugitive from the law, and frequently hunted by police—including her own father, L.A. County Sheriff William Walters. Late in the run, when Jen’s best friend dies as an indirect result of her gamma-irradiated transformations, she fakes her own death. By the time The Savage She-Hulk folded, Jen had found a cure that allowed her transform at will. Preferring the freedom afforded her by her alter-ego, the series ends with Jen vowing to remain the She-Hulk forever, an essential decision that would go a long way towards molding the character’s personality and carving a unique niche for her in the crowded superhero firmament.

After the cancellation of her first self-titled series, She-Hulk would continue making guest appearances, teaming up with both The Avengers and The Fantastic Four. Interestingly, her appearance in Avengers #233 was drawn by John Byrne, who would re-imagine the character in 1989 with her literally boundary-breaking second self-titled series, The Sensational She-Hulk. Running for sixty issues (making her the Marvel heroine with the longest running solo title up until that point) Byrne revolutionized comic books by using the Jade Giantess to satirise the medium itself. Jennifer Walters was suddenly aware that she was a comic book character and took every opportunity offered to mock the writers and artists mercilessly for their treatment of her, the stories they chose to tell, and the manner in which they were told. Oftentimes, she even went rogue, seeming to tear straight through entire pages of story to hide out in the solicitations section. Byrne specifically picked the lamest of villains from comics history to pit her against (from Mole Man to Spragg the Living Hill) a source of endless irritation to Jennifer and hilarity to her audience. Suddenly, Jennifer wasn’t at all tortured by her transformation, which had become more supermodel than monster. When she’s told that she’s permanently hulkified she responds with a coy: “So what’s the bad news?” Donald E Palumbo encapsulates the appeal of this new take nicely in his essay Metafiction in Comics: The Sensational She-Hulk:

“She-Hulk resurfaces as a big, green sex-pot who is wryly aware that she is a comic book heroine—who reads and shamelessly plugs her own books, chronicles her life in terms of issue numbers, refers jeeringly to her editor, invokes the comics code to prevent a villain from ripping off her sweater, notes how many pages of the story are left, and talks directly to her audience. Sensational She-Hulk #1 features a cover on which a voluptuous She-Hulk in skin-tight action-wear brandishes a coy of Savage She-Hulk #1 and threatens, ‘This is your second chance. If you don’t buy my book this time I’m gonna come to your house and rip up all your X-Men.’ This cover heralds the two critical reversals in the She-Hulk’s new treatment—that she has transformed from self-doubting monster to self-confident sex-goddess, and that she has acquired an awareness that she is a comic-book heroine. Both these reversals are developed exhaustively in the next fifty-nine issues. Such a heroine’s adventures, almost of necessity, must become absurdist and comic (with liberal doses of parody), rather than remain merely melodramatic, if they are to cohere with this postmodern characterization; not only is she gorgeous and invulnerable, after all, but the new She-Hulk also knows that she’s in a comic book, so why should she take anything seriously. And this reinvented She-Hulk vehicle succeeds precisely because it is absurdist and comic.” [2] 

Most revolutionary was her disparaging, often tongue-in-cheek attitude towards the male gaze. Though a feminist icon from her inception, Wonder Woman is, and always has been, a more subtle bastion of girl power—a slyly subversive tool of female empowerment bedecked in the raiments of a pinup girl. This is largely due to the fact that she made her first appearance in 1941. Though her creator (the polyamorous inventor to the polygraph test) William Moulton Marston had lived during the heyday of the Suffragette movement and had seen women’s rights grow massively, he still knew that there was a long way to go. He created Diana of paradise Island to further his feminist agenda. In 1945 he said: “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”[3] Marston’s intentions were noble, and Wonder Woman would, indeed become a role model for women for decades to come. Unfortunately, his depiction of the Amazon as a symbol of femininity has grown increasingly threadbare almost eighty years on. He wrote in 1946:

“Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”[4]

His seeming belief in the essential tender, submissive, and peace-loving nature of the female proved prophetic as these notions reached a fever pitch in the 1960s when second wave feminism stormed the American stage. By the 1980s, however, the idea an essential feminine moral and ethical superiority was old hat and this isn’t a past that Wonder Woman has ever been able to outrun. Through many incarnations and countless re-imaginings, Diana’s homeland (eventually renamed Themyscira) has largely stayed the bastion of womanly goodness and strength—each author buying into the idea that a society of females would be inherently better than the man-centric one we inhabit. This accuracy of this notion can be debated ad nauseam. An accepted fact, however is that Diana has always lacked a roundness of character due to her original inception as a largely pacifistic and symbolic beacon.

The Sensational She-Hulk seems to pick up where Marston left off, using a post-modern self-awareness to explore what it means to be an objectified female in the waning days of the twentieth century. In this way, Byrne’s prophetic powers seem to mirror Marston’s, his She-Hulk embodying the third wave’s ideals before they had even crystallised:

The third phase of feminism began in the mid-90s and is informed by post-colonial and post-modern thinking. In this phase many constructs have been destabilized, including the notions of ‘universal womanhood,’ body, gender, sexuality and heteronormativity. An aspect of third phase feminism that mystifies the mothers of the earlier feminist movement is the readoption by young feminists of the very lip-stick, high-heels, and cleavage proudly exposed by low cut necklines that the first two phases of the movement identified with male oppression. Pinkfloor expressed this new position when she said; ‘It’s possible to have a push-up bra and a brain at the same time.’”[5] 

Unlike the vast majority of super heroines, She-Hulk wasn’t created as cheesecake. Penciller Mike Vosburg had this to say about he and inker Frank Springer’s work on her first run: “The oddest thing about that book was that Frank drew really beautiful women, I drew really beautiful women, and yet, the She-Hulk was never overly attractive.”[6] Unburdened by a built-in expectation to titillate, artists from then until the present day have reshaped She-Hulk as they saw fit—from the bodybuilder curves of Juan Bobillo’s depiction, to Javier Pulido’s froggy, almost muppet-like incarnation—proving that the character could survive even without appealing to the sexual urges of the mostly-male comic book consuming audience.

Burn’s Sensational She-Hulk, however is the most overtly sexualised manifestation of the character and drips with irony and smarm. On the cover of issue #43, a windblown Shuklie is shown disrobing, the speech bubbles reading: “Okay, I’ll admit this cover has nothing to do with the story this month…but I’ve got to do something sell this book!”[7] On another, a tousled She-Hulk clutches a newspaper against her naked body asking: “You’re kidding right?” as a masculine hand brandishes a jump-rope and responds: “Quit stalling, Shulkie! We’ve got twenty-two pages to fill!”[8] On yet another, she holds a beach ball against her stomach (parodying Demi Moore’s famous Vanity Fair pregnancy shoot) while intoning: “It’s not fair to accuse me of vanity! I just thrive on controversy!”[9] Issue #38 begins with a negligee adorned Shulkie prancing around her New York apartment before she informs the reader that she has “done enough gratuitous lounging around in my skimpies.”[10]

Each of these covers (and the stories contained between them) serve as both a celebration and criticism of titillation. Byrne’s She-Hulk dares the drooling male masses to look and blithely berates them for doing so. Her sexual mockery extends to Marvel itself, openly discussing the sleaziness of the studio’s annual swimsuit issue between bouts of fisticuffs. The aforementioned covers even pushed forcibly against the puritanical and then still powerful Comics Code (which Authority (which by the 1980s had grown lax concerning violence but still raised an eyebrow at healthy sexuality) the arbiters of which she frequently intones as the reason for the mind-boggling indestructibility of her battle-worn clothing. In issue #44, She-Hulk appears bundled head to tow in winter gear, only her eyes showing. The reason being that “the powers that be” have warned her that she’s been “pushing it”[11] on her last few covers. All of this, combined with the breaking down and parodying of the very art of comics itself makes The Sensational She-Hulk a book more of our current time than the one in which it was created. Though much of the bawdy humor feels a tad dated in this era of fervently male-gaze averse feminism, the power of Byrne’s relentless titillate, humiliate, repeat approach is still unrivaled—Deadpool’s entire persona is built on ground that She-Hulk tilled. Palumbo again summarises just how revolutionary this new She-Hulk was:

“Not only is she woman-as-victor, and not (as she was portrayed originally) woman-as-victim, but she also possesses an almost unique insight into the nature of her existence—a special, ontological superiority. While it provides seemingly endless opportunities for absurdist metafictional comedy, the innate one-upmanship of this existential awareness combines with the revamped She-Hulk’s self-confident, in-control, woman-as-victory persona to make her appealing as a strong female character to a contemporary audience. How this all works out as a politically correct move, though, is a thorny issue for another article—by someone else.”[12]

He lands a small barb of a joke worthy of Byrne’s She-Hulk herself, acknowledging that, though she may be a tad problematic, she’s in control, methods be damned. Though she was late to the party Wonder Woman threw, Jennifer far surpassed the amazon in terms of both feminine power and comics entertainment. Despite her symbolic power, Wonder Woman’s sexiness has grown troublesome as time has passed. Jenkin’s film was heralded as “a masterpiece of subversive feminism,”[13] by The Guardian, while Christina Cauterucci of Slate, complains of “its prevailing occupation with the titular heroine’s sex appeal.”[14] This argument began even before the film’s release, when the blogosphere erupted when the first trailer premiered due to Diana’s shaved armpits. The New York Times explored this objection, summarising it as: “the lack of body hair on the female warrior makes us wonder if feminism was swept aside in favor of achieving the ideal female aesthetic.”[15]

These complaints and differing interpretations are frustrating, but such is the nature of the culture in which we live. Though a She-Hulk film would, naturally, be met with similar criticism, Jennifer (at least in her Byrne incarnation) is always fully intentional in the presentation of her image—whether she chooses to wear nothing or a snowsuit. For many, Jenkin’s Wonder Woman will be enough, simply because it exists. Many more, however, are thirsty for a heroine more actively involved in her perception, and She-Hulk, even at her most archly humorous or brazenly seductive, can fill that need.

Dan Slott’s fan-favorite early 2000s run with the character presents another alternative for Marvel—a brilliant lawyer and party girl who perfectly mirrors the millennial generation’s dedication to social justice and self-fulfillment.

 

Easy to Be Green

“If Superman expresses the male power fantasy, She-Hulk represents the ideal for women of the internet era; pragmatic, funny, hopeful, engaged, and near infinitely able to punch injustice in the face.”[16]

In the first few panels of Dan Slott’s 2004 inaugural run with She-Hulk, the reader witnesses Jennifer’s law-school graduation (with honors) in which her former classmates don’t even recognise the unremarkable bookworm. Jump forward to the title page which depicts a wall in the Avengers Mansion liberally decorated with snapshots chronicling the many remarkable deeds of “the world’s sexiest, sassiest, and strongest superheroine” Immediately following a very un-hulklike Jennifer is depicted in a disaster-zone of a room, snoozing beneath the well-muscled arm of the hunky model she bedded the night before. She stirs and thinks: “Ohmigosh. I’ve done it again! I’m with one of People Magazine’s ten sexiest men…and I’ve changed back into Jen Walters.” After a failed attempt to shift his considerable bulk off of her, she continues: “Got to do something before it happens. Before he gives me the look. The I-went-home-with-She-Hulk-but-woke-up-to-this look.” With an onomatopoeic SPROING, Jen’s conquest is rocketed off the bed as the mousy lawyer is replaced with the viridescent glamazon. The baffled model says simply: “Your bed should come with airbags.”[17]

In a few short pages the dichotomy that Slott will explore for the bulk of his run is summarised: the struggle between Jen the human and Jen the so-much-more-than human. As in Sensational, Jennifer chooses to remain in her superhero form as much as possible, but in Slott’s more earnest (but still deeply hilarious) take, this desire to bury her humanness is cast as a denial of the true self—an inner conflict that serves as the jumping off point for Jen’s emotional journey. After one too many nights of hard-partying, Jen is kicked out of the Avengers mansion. She’s then fired from her law-firm because of her ballooning celebrity status and an incident with a copy machine.

The issue concludes with a drunken Shulkie being approached by former competitor, Holden Holliway who offers her a job at his firm (Goodman, Lieber, Kurtzberg, & Holliway) in the superhuman law department. There’s only one catch: Holliway wants to hire Jen Walters, not the She-Hulk. Jen accepts with: “Fine. I can do this. I can stand to be her again.”[18] Of course, this will prove to be more difficult than she originally thought.

The brilliance of Dan Slott’s run is that it builds upon the humorous skewering of the superhero genre that was present in Byrne’s The Sensational She-Hulk while inspecting the duality of character that was present way back in her Savage days. While Byrne’s wall-smashing comedy was more focused on the technical hows and whys of the comic book industry, Slott turns his gently incisive pen on the fantasy world presented in those same books and follows its various idiosyncrasies to their logical conclusions. Aside from the hilarious cover incident, when Jen is let go during her first issue, her employer tells her that her last case ended in a mistrial because: “You and the Avengers saved the lives of everyone on Earth. That included your last jury. It could be argued this gave you undue leverage over them, and would explain their speedy verdict. It’s a dangerous precedent, Jen. And could open a lot of old doors.”[19] This sharp depiction of navigating a reality in which a lawyer can be prosecuting one minute and saving humanity the next is the meat and potatoes of Slott’s run and provides entertainment that’s both intelligent and satirical—a perfect reflection to the dual sides of the heroine at its centre. Furthermore, the cases she partakes in are equally clever and contemporarily relevant—from a ghost suing his own assassin issue #3 to Jen being tasked with defending fellow Avenger Starfox who’s being tried for sexual assault due to his notorious erotically-charged superpowers. Jennifer even introduces comics from Marvel’s vault as evidence in a nod to her character’s meta-fictional history. Jennifer has always been a character fiercely devoted to justice, but Slott’s version is especially piquant.

Slott’s take on the nature of super heroism itself is still fresh today, even more so in an industry still recovering from its grim Christopher Nolan hangover. Most comic books are fraught with the gargantuan weight of being a hero—Uncle Ben’s “With great power…” speech repeated in various different ways. Slott’s She-Hulk is a character head-over-heels in love with her alter-ego. As She-Hulk, she can do all the things that Jen can’t—She’s built like an especially curvy green tank, gets to travel the world and bed countless Marvel A-Listers from Tony Stark to Juggernaut. Being tasked with presenting herself as plain old Jen, however, is what scares her more than facing down an entire rogues gallery of baddies. Dan Slott’s She-Hulk is one of the most relatable in comics because she knows the real struggle is to be human.

Jenkin’s Wonder Woman portrayed the character’s journey toward protector of humankind wonderfully—showing her initial disappointment and horror at the folly of man giving way to being moved our capacity for love and joy. This, however, is a notion that we’ve been fed over and over in everything from The Lord of The Rings to Doctor Who—humans are terrible, but they’re also pretty amazing underneath it all. Though Slott’s She-Hulk ultimately arrives at the same conclusion, it makes the message ring clearer because Jen so deeply enjoys her life as the Jade Giantess. Only through being forced to rely on her smarts as a human does she come to appreciate both how difficult it is to be vulnerable and how wonderful it is to find strength within despite a physical form that’s largely weak and unremarkable. Slott shows us the fantasy of the Superhero and the deeply human insecurity lurking beneath it and through that insecurity he proves that we really do have the power to enact change—big green muscles or no.

An Icon of a Different Hue

 

The success of Mariko Tamaki’s new take on Jen is yet to be seen, but She-Hulk is once again at the forefront of comic womanhood. Since Bruce Banner’s death in Marvel’s Civil War II event, Jennifer is now the only Hulk in town. Though many female stars are taking up the mantle of their male counterparts (from a lady wolverine to a goddess of thunder) this move suits Jen best of all. Published December 28th 2016, Hulk #1 has again re-invented the hero for a new era, bringing her into the fold of more serious books by focusing on her damaged psyche after her cousin’s death. Tamaki’s take is stark departure from the She-Hulk of the last three decades—likely introducing her to a brand new audience that never would have picked up a Hulk book that was preceded by a “She”. Though many fans (myself included) are sad to see the lighter, brighter, feisty, green (this new She-Hulk is apish and grey) brawler disappear, the character is, and always has been about charting new directions and this just may be the dose of grimdark she needs to make Marvel Studios take the character seriously.

Former She-Hulk writer Peter David once said:

“She-Hulk has the potential to be our Wonder Woman. A powerful female with a strong moral center and a determination to do what’s right. She’s also a unique combination of brains and brawn. The ideal She-Hulk story is one that plays on both aspects of her make-up, the intelligence combined with her strength.”[20]

This is a largely true if overly simplified version of the character’s titanic appeal. After all, Diana herself has both brains and brawn to spare. What makes She-Hulk more compelling than Wonder Woman is her overwhelming humanity. Though Jenkin’s film had a good deal of humor in it, by and large DC has managed to pump out joyless, relentlessly dark and overwrought cinematic visions. Even their Suicide Squad (which suffered many reshoots to add more “fun” to the mix) is more obnoxious than enjoyable. Marvel has smartly built its films around character more than style, and would do well to choose a female protagonist with personality in spades. This is why the She-Hulk is the perfect choice.

From her monstrous beginnings, to her revolutionary fourth wall breaking, to her besotted celebrity lawyering and all the way to today when she’s dropped the “She” and has returned to her darker roots, Jen has proven to be a character both adaptable and incorruptible—her essential heroic persona unwavering even as she’s changed with the times. Furthermore, She-Hulk’s ability to comment on the nature of super-heroism itself (whether mocking it or living the fantasy a little too hard) would provide a unique take on a film genre that is already growing stale and could use a little trenchant self-commentary to add fresh flavor to the mix.

Wonder Woman is a massive step in the right direction for female representation in the action film, but it’s merely one step. Though it’s unfortunate that the powers-that-be at Marvel are behind the curve, they need only take a leap of faith with their greatest big green asset to dominate the cultural conversation and chart the course for super heroines on film for decades to come.

 

[1] Scott, Mendelson, “Box Office: Why ‘Wonder Woman’ Soared While ‘Green Lantern’ Bombed” Forbes Magazine 5th June 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2017/06/05/box-office-why-wonder-woman-soared-while-green-lantern-bombed/#c6987897976a

[2] Donald E. Palumbo, “Metafiction in the Comics: The Sensational She-Hulk”, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts Vol. 8 No. 3 (1997): 310-30

[3]Jill Lepore,”The Surprising Origin Story of Wonder Woman.” Smithsonian Institution 1st October 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/origin-story-wonder-woman-180952710/

[4]Teresa Jusino, “Wonder Woman and Feminism: Gender Balance as the Key to Gender Equality” The Mary Sue, 24th June 2016. https://www.themarysue.com/wonder-woman-and-feminism/

[5] Martha Rampton, “Four Waves of Feminism” Pacific University 25th October 201 https://www.pacificu.edu/about-us/news-events/four-waves-feminism

[6] Michael Aushenker, “From Vixens to Villains: Mike Vosburg”. Back Issue! #35, TwoMorrows Publishing (2009): 32–38

[7] John Byrne, The Sensational She-Hulk: Issue 43, September 1992

[8] John Byrne, The Sensational She-Hulk: Issue 40, June 1992

[9] John Byrne, The Sensational She-Hulk: Issue 34, December 1991

[10] John Byrne, The Sensational She-Hulk: Issue 38, 1-4. April 1992

[11] John Byrne, The Sensational She-Hulk: Issue 44, October 1992

[12] Donald E. Palumbo, “Metafiction in the Comics: The Sensational She-Hulk”, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts Vol. 8 No. 3 (1997): 310-30

[13] Zoe Williams, “Why Wonder Woman Is a Masterpiece of Subversive Feminism” The Guardian 5th June 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jun/05/why-wonder-woman-is-a-masterpiece-of-subversive-feminism

[14] Christina Cauterucci, “I Wish Wonder Woman Were as Feminist as It Thinks It Is.” Slate Magazine 2nd June 2017. http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2017/06/02/i_wish_wonder_woman_were_as_feminist_as_it_thinks_it_is.html

[15] Meredith Daugherty, “Wonder Woman’s Lack of Armpit Hair Sparks Feminist Debate” The New York Times 23rd March 2017. http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2017/03/23/wonder-womans-lack-of-armpit-hair-sparks-feminist-debate/

[16] “Heroine Addiction: She-Hulk”, Reviews by Lantern Light: Hop Burns Bright 16th July 2014

https://hopeburnsbright.wordpress.com/2014/07/16/heroine-addiction-she-hulk/

[17]She-Hulk issue #1, 10th March, 2004:1-5

[18] She-Hulk, issue #1, 10th March, 2004: 22

[19] She-Hulk, issue #1, 10th March 10, 2004:17

[20] E. Winston, “How SHE-HULK Could Be The ‘Sex And the City’ of the MCU”, Movie Pilot 12th August 2015 https://moviepilot.com/posts/3386564

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