A few weeks ago, I suggested that She-Hulk excels in world-building. I also expressed the hope that such world-building would pay off. Indeed, She-Hulk the final episodes of She-Hulk, especially the season finale, offered an inventive, enjoyable, creative conclusion to season 1. As part of this conclusion, Jennifer Walters (aka She-Hulk) rewrites the end of her episode with one universe’s Kevin Feige (i.e., Knowledge Enhanced Visual Interconnectivity Nexus). Aside from being an interesting way to build out the MCU world, the story telling raises some interesting conundrums and challenges: the relationship between an audience and the show’s creators and the nature of a text regarding truth.
The Audience and the Creators
Some shows include dialogue that often responds implicitly to audiences. In particular, I think of Stranger Things. At one point, Steve asks Dustin about the flashlights: “Where’d everyone get those?” Dustin replies, ““Do you need to be told everything? You’re not a child.” This line may well be a critique that the creators are raising against the audience. Indeed, events and choices should make sense in a story and a world, but good story telling does not involve revealing every single detail, explain why every single individual choice was made. Instead, Stranger Things says, “Hey, if you are a smart audience, you can fill the gaps of the narrative on your own!”
She-Hulk likewise makes implicit comments on the nature of the show itself. Indeed, Jennifer Walters is speaking to K.E.V.I.N., seemingly critiquing the AI; however, the critique seems more oriented toward the audience than to K.E.V.I.N. Consider this comment from Rotten Tomatoes: “If they make another season, I hope it’s better and sticks to more about She-Hulk and her life as a superhero instead of a lawyer” . This perspective on the show is precisely what the creators are critiquing about the audience: Must we also have a larger-than-life superhero fighting cosmic forces? Why can’t a show focus on the mundane of life? And Jennifer Walters suggests as much, arguing toward K.E.V.I.N. that the stakes of the show are her experiences, her life, her struggles. The show does not need to be about She-Hulk as a superhero but can rather complicate the relationship between one’s superhero and non-superhero personas.
And the show generally executes this division well. Aside from the explicit dialogue with Bruce Banner and Matt Murdock, as I write I find myself unsure whether to call the lead character She-Hulk or Jennifer Walters. Quite frankly, this division is an important challenge to folks in culture and society who either wrap their entire identities up into one thing they do (I see you academia) or expect others to have a simple, two-dimensional identity. In reality, humans are complex creatures, and we bring a range of experiences, activate different aspects of ourselves at different times, and sometimes struggle with differentiating between those aspects when social contexts overlap. For this reason, I appreciate She-Hulk and how it critiques the audience, the audience’s expectations, and what people in society expect of others more generally.
The Text and Truth
Although I appreciate She-Hulk in many respects, the show’s representation of K.E.V.I.N. left a bad taste in my mouth with regard to the lived experienced of creators. In the final scene, for example, K.E.V.I.N. comments that the animators and special effects folks moved onto another project. Therefore, She-Hulk needs to become Jennifer Walters off camera. If we take the text as face value, that is, the text the world constructs, the animation is simply a matter of people starting something else. The implication, perhaps, is that poor CGI is the result of Marvel Studios producing many films and TV shows. I wonder, though, if this text of She-Hulk is meant to reorient the audience from a serious problem in Marvel Studios.
Through July and August, many websites published about the ongoing controversy between third-party CGI animators and Marvel Studios. The VFX vendors argue that Marvel Studios overworks and underpays the workers, resulting in lower-quality shows . Thus, the claim that the VFX artists have simply moved onto another project at some level redirects the conversation away from VFX artists’ lived experiences.
Admittedly, this observation is on shaky grounds. I can’t prove that She-Hulk intended to redirect the conversation. My claim is very much conjectural. Nonetheless, we need to consider such issues when we watch media. How do the claims in the show interact with lived experiences? When using a meta approach to story telling, how does that shape not only how we see the story but also how we see the creators themselves? And to what extent does the story telling reframe how we see a multi-billion dollar corporation? And what real-world damage might such reframing do?