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'She-Hulk' on Disney Plus: What's Up With That Origin Story?

Commentary: In the new Marvel show, Jen Walters' backstory is so weirdly perfunctory it's almost slapdash.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films | TV | Movies | Television | Technology
Richard Trenholm
5 min read
She-Hulk, a woman with green skin and superpowers.

That's how she got her powers? Really?

Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel

If you know anything about superheroes, it's probably the origin stories. Spider-Man's spider, Superman's planet, Batman's parents. An origins story is the defining event looming large over a hero's life, a catalyzing single incident that crystallizes the themes in every story the character faces. 

Unless it's She-Hulk, apparently.

New series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is streaming now on Disney Plus. Episode 1 shows how the Marvel Cinematic Universe's newest recruit got her powers. And what was this defining event, this unresolvable trauma that catapults her onto a new character arc, this mythic incident that haunts our lead character's every dilemma and decision?

Her cousin is the Hulk and she got some of his blood on her.

Whaaaaat? That's it? That's the origin story? 

Gaining superpowers is a huge transformation, and to understand the enormity of that change it helps to at least have a snapshot of who the character was before. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law muddles that up by introducing Jen in the middle of her transformation: When we first meet her, she has powers but hasn't used them.

Then the show flashes back to the incident itself, but this glimpse of her former life tells us basically nothing. All we know is that Jen eats Cheetos with chopsticks -- OK, so she's a genius -- and she's going on a road trip with her cousin Bruce. What does this scene tell us about her life, her dreams, her flaws, even her attitude to superheroes? Very little. Where are Jen and Bruce even going? Who knows? Doesn't matter, apparently! 

The all-important origin comes when Jen swerves to avoid an out-of-nowhere spaceship and crashes the car, and the two characters just kind of fall on each other. It's so perfunctory it's bordering on half-assed. What does this random event say about the character? 

In the comics, Jen gains superpowers after Bruce gives her a life-saving blood transfusion. It's not as sexy as a radioactive spider or pearls scattering across rain-slicked Gotham asphalt. But at least it's a character making a decision that leads to compelling consequences.

For an example of an origin that says something about the character, look at another MCU superhero forged in a car crash: Doctor Strange. In his first film, Benedict Cumberbatch's arrogant surgeon was superciliously examining X-rays while speeding in his Lamborghini, so when he crashed it was a study in hubris that shattered the character's carefully constructed ego and set him on a journey to spiritual awakening. Hits different than if he was, like, randomly rear-ended in traffic, right?

For me, She-Hulk's biggest problem is that the show comes so fast after the utter delight that was Ms. Marvel. The creators of that show carefully finetuned the powers and origins of lead character Kamala Khan to bring out the themes of the character and the series. Admittedly, getting a bracelet in the mail isn't exactly up there with a whole entire planet going boom. But crucially Kamala's powers in the TV show are awakened within her rather than bestowed upon her, while at the same time drawing on a tradition and heritage passed down by the women in her family. It's sublimely thoughtful and intentional, and drives everything that happens in the series.

To complicate things slightly, it seems She-Hulk's TV origin may have been lost in translation somewhere between script and screen. In an interview with Variety, showrunner Jessica Gao outlined the compromises she and the writing team had to make as part of the Marvel machine, from budgets to visual effects. She revealed that the origin story was supposed to come as a reveal in episode 8, which makes you wonder how it had to be rejiggered to fit into the first episode. But even if it had come later, the car crash is still frustratingly random.

Then again, maybe the pointless is the point. This is a show that doesn't so much wear its feminist subtext on its sleeve as allows its feminist themes to swell up, turn green and tear the finely tailored sleeve right off. In a line that defines the show's scathing perspective on the experience of being a woman, Jen fires back at Bruce's Hulksplaining by saying that rage and fear are the baseline of a woman's everyday emotions. In the first episode and throughout the series, this savagely expressed viewpoint provides a smart underpinning that carries the show's lackluster stretches.

Looking at it from that point of view, the randomness of the origin becomes something more tragic. You could view it as about a random accident leaving Jen with unwanted and life-long consequences. There's no subtext in a story about a woman infected by a man's blood. It wouldn't be the first time a man ruins a woman's life, whether it's a car crash or medical condition or an unplanned pregnancy. And as the show unfolds, She-Hulk is a story about a woman whose body is no longer her own. Which is a powerful and timely theme in the US in the wake of recent changes to abortion legislation.

Whatever you think of that theory, it does show the strength of a good origin story and a good superhero: You can read what you want into them. I've never been bitten by an irradiated arachnid or exiled from a dying alien world, but at their heart those iconic origins are universally identifiable. We're all scared of losing our parents, of being lost far from home, of gaining the world but losing our souls. She-Hulk is clearly a show with something to say, so I wish that the superhero elements strived for the resonance that Ms. Marvel and other stories show the genre is capable of.

There is, of course, the possibility that I'm overthinking it. Maybe, just maybe, the creators of She-Hulk are simply willing to say something the superhero genre usually can't admit:

Origin stories are boring.

We know those iconic origin stories because we've seen them so many times. Spider bite, parents, superstrength, we get it. Start punching some bad guys in themed outfits already! Except She-Hulk offers a different viewpoint on the superhero experience, and that's the best thing about it. So as we head into episode 2, let go of how it started and watch how it's going.

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