She-Hulk Smash Fourth Wall (But She Was Far from the First)
(Obligatory spoiler alert: We’re about to discuss that She-Hulk finale -- you know the one -- so log out of our virtual Intelligencia now if you haven’t watched.)
With savage Hulk-blood surging in her veins, Tatiana Maslany has been smashing the fourth wall throughout the debut season of Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney-At-Law. Then, in the season finale, she broke the Internet. And Disney+ for good measure.
That screen-busting finale was a massive swing by design, one that Maslany was certain would knock fandom on its collective butt. “And whether that’s a reaction like, ‘I don’t like this. This is betraying something,’ or, ‘I love this,’ it really is an exciting, complex moment,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
Even by MCU standards, things got weird in that finale. Jen Walters once again broke from what appeared to be the show’s climax to turn to us, faithful She-Hulk viewers, and declare that none of the storylines made any sense. With that, She-Hulk punched through the Disney + navigation screen, swung down to a behind-the-scenes tile, and leaped onto the Disney lot where the show was being created. After shaking up the writers’ room, She-Hulk confronted K.E.V.I.N. (a robotic stand-in for creative chief Kevin Feige with a passing resemblance to 1980s Fantastic Four member H.E.R.B.I.E.) for a very knowing discussion about common Marvel criticisms: the overworked CGI teams who occasionally had Jen looking like Shrek’s Princess Fiona, the numbing sameness of big-battle third acts, and cosmic stakes taking precedence over personal ones.
Maslany was right about that reaction -- reviewers either loved it (“Jennifer Walters made sure that the She-Hulk: Attorney at Law season finale stuck the landing by basically writing it herself,” said Vulture’s Leah Marilla Thomas in a five-star review) or hated it (MovieWeb’s Julian Roman called it “a painfully stupid ending”).
Most found it pretty funny, though. In keeping with its identity as the MCU’s first sitcom, all of She-Hulk’s meta-business is played for laughs. It's not just that she can see us, but that she knows she's in a superhero story with all the toxic fandom that entails. At one point, she acknowledges that an appearance by fan-fave Wong made the show Twitterproof for a week. But while Jen Walters might be the first superhero attorney, she was hardly a pioneer on the fourth-wall comedy front. (We see you, Deadpool stans.) Here are a few playful properties that set the table for She-Hulk’s panel-bursting antics.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
Shandling wasn’t the first comedian to break the fourth wall on television--that bit goes all the way back to George Burns on the old Burns and Allen show. But Garry was a pioneer in using the device to monkey around with sitcom conventions.
Garry knew the tropes of sitcoms all too well from writing by-the-numbers shows like Welcome Back, Kotter. That gave the comic “a certain love/hate relationship with what was the norm,” says writer and series co-creator Alan Zweibel. “It was time to put (the sitcom) on its ear just a little bit.”
So Garry would turn to the camera mid-scene and explain not only what was happening in the episode but the behind-the-scenes messes as well. “This is my best friend, Pete,” Shandling told everyone watching at home. “You were going to meet his son, Graham, we haven’t cast him yet.”
Like She-Hulk, Garry found laughs in letting us know that he knew how tired those old comedy cliches can be. There’s probably no better example than the show’s theme song, maybe TV sitcoms’ purest expression of meta.
“I had been kind of a nerdy student of comedy,” remembers Conan O’Brien about Shandling thumbing his nose at TV. “So I remembered thinking, This is cool.”
Perhaps this century’s closest comedy cousin to She-Hulk: Attorney-At-Law is Dan Harmon’s Community, another show that not only broke the fourth wall but assumed we knew a helluva lot about how comedy shows were made.
Harmon-proxy Abed was the character with the secret power to float in and out of the narrative, occasionally breaking that fourth wall to comment on story. Worried whether or not Community was going to make it back for that prophesied Season 6? Abed gave us the skinny in the Season 5 finale, “Basic Sandwich,” turning to camera and confiding:
"We'll definitely be back next year. If not, it'll be because an asteroid has destroyed all human civilization. And that's canon."
Like Jen Walters, Abed occasionally insisted on taking charge of the story itself. In Season 6’s (see, there was a Season 6!) “Basic RV Repair and Palmistry,” Abed, worried that the audience wouldn’t know how the gang got into a crazy situation, insists that the show “cut to three weeks earlier.” Throughout the episode, Abed employs his flashback abilities, a character taking the narrative into his own hands.
She-Hulk (the comic book)
You might think this talking-to-the-camera business was initiated in Superhero Land by fellow Marvel icon Deadpool--but you’d be wrong. The truest precursor to She-Hulk: Attorney-At-Law was She-Hulk herself.
“For me, John Byrne’s run in the comics was the iconic run of She-Hulk,” says the series’ showrunner Jessica Gao. “Anyone who’s read comics knows he’s the one who introduced the fourth-wall breaking and meta, self-aware nature of She-Hulk.”
That all came about when iconic comic creator Byrne was approached to do a new She-Hulk series with the directive “make it different.” “I took the subway home,” Byrne remembers, “and on the way I thought, she knows she’s in a comic book.”
In the author’s Sensational She-Hulk run, Jen could talk directly to readers, had copious knowledge of what was happening in other comic books, and often took issue with Byrne himself about less-than-satisfying storylines.
Director and producer Kat Coiro thought it was crucial that TV’s Jen be able to express herself to Kevin … er, K.E.V.I.N. in the same way. “It has to do with being aware of the narrative put upon you, and taking control,” she says. “So often in film and media, women are along for the ride. They’re not driving the story. Part of Jennifer Walters’ story is realizing that someone else’s hand is on the wheel, and she wants to control how she gets to where she gets.”
Where Jen ends up is undeniably funny and bizarre (when Jon “HulkBoss” Bass read the final script, he felt like “my mind was truly melting.") And whether or not you agree that the show’s loose ends were tied up in a satisfactory manner, more fourth-wall busting is on that emerald-hued horizon. “There’s no world where I see a She-Hulk show without using that part of her,” Gao says. “I don’t think she would be She-Hulk without it.”
Top image: Marvel