Along with introducing the world to Jennifer Walters, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law’s first episode, “A Normal Amount of Rage,” caught up with its star’s well-known cousin to give the show its first of many direct connections to the larger MCU. As an older, more experienced Hulk, Bruce Banner as Smart Hulk seems like he would be the ideal person to give Jennifer a crash course in living the gamma-irradiated life. But just as it seems She-Hulk’s just going to put its heroine through her paces with a straightforward origin story episode establishing Smart Hulk as her mentor, Jennifer breaks the fourth wall to make it very clear that while she can appreciate that kind of show, this isn’t one of them.
This post contains spoilers for the first episode of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.
In Avengers: Endgame, “Smart Hulk’s” relatively newfound ability to tap into his Hulk powers while retaining Bruce Banner’s genius intellect was Marvel’s way of illustrating just how much the character had evolved since first appearing in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Before Smart Hulk got wrapped up in the Avengers’ plan to plan to defeat Thanos, Endgame hinted at how big a celebrity Banner had become since learning to live as a Hulk full time, and that fame seems like it’s still part of his life when we meet him again in She-Hulk.
Soon after the fateful accident that exposes Jennifer (Tatiana Maslany) to Bruce’s (Mark Ruffalo) blood and leaves her with a host of Hulk powers similar to his, he whisks her away to a remote beachside lab in Mexico both to study his cousin and to give her a chance to recuperate from her first transformation. Though Jen can’t really recall the specifics of how she wakes up in Bruce’s combination bunker / lab — the place where he first learned how to integrate his Hulk and Banner selves — she rolls with the situation and handles it surprisingly well when he begins to fill her in.
It’s easy for Jen to wrap her mind around the idea of becoming a Hulk, and she isn’t all that worried at first because she knows that Bruce is probably capable of building devices to help her control her powers. But Jen’s devastated when Bruce tells her he estimates it’ll take about 15 years for her to fully gain control of the raging Hulk persona now living within her. Despite her shock, though, Jen can understand why it’s important for her to learn more about her new self, and rather than wallowing in the tragedy of her circumstances, she dives right into a training montage that reveals how much better at being a Hulk she is than Bruce.
While She-Hulk’s first season is full of living, breathing villains who all want to tussle with Jen, the real big bad spotlighted in “A Normal Amount of Rage” is a set of ideas rather than a person. Despite Jen’s insistence that she feels fine and the variety of ways she demonstrates a rather quick mastery of her new Hulk body, Bruce is reluctant to take her at her word or to consider the possibility of there being some important differences between their powers. To a certain extent, Bruce’s concern is understandable, considering the outsized amount of harm he knows himself to be capable of as a Hulk. But what becomes clear as you watch “A Normal Amount of Rage” is just how in control Jen seems to be as She-Hulk and how deeply that frustrates Bruce.
As a soft-spoken PhD with a chip on his shoulder, the MCU’s Bruce Banner would probably never think of himself as being at all sexist or small-minded about women. But there is a kind of casual, almost passive sexism at work in how Bruce assumes that Jennifer’s experience as a Hulk will be exactly the same as his. Because it took him years to learn how to control his Hulk, he reasons it’ll be the same for Jen, and he can’t even consider that not being the case because doing so would require him to fundamentally reconsider the way he looks at the world.
When Jen explains to Bruce how anger and fear are emotions that women are forced to contend with on a daily basis, she isn’t just talking about how often women have to think about their safety. She’s also talking about interactions with men like Bruce, who refuse to genuinely listen to what women have to say about their own lived experiences.
In the same way that Jen can easily understand that her body processes gamma radiation differently than Bruce’s does, she can also clock that he doesn’t exactly want her to return to her normal life because he’s been alone and alienated from the world for so long. Whether Jen was always more perceptive than Bruce about what’s going on in other people’s heads is impossible to tell. But what’s very clear is that becoming a Hulk left Jen with a unique way of understanding the world in a way that’s going to be fascinating to watch She-Hulk play with over the course of its first season.
What’s clever about the way She-Hulk uses Smart Hulk in “A Normal Amount of Rage” is how it sets up the introduction of Jennifer’s ability to break the fourth wall of whatever medium she’s in. She can see that being fully honest with Bruce about how much help he still needs might not be the best idea, and so (much to her own surprise) she instead tells the audience by speaking directly to the camera.
Jen’s awareness of her existence as a fictional character’s been a part of her whole deal since John Byrne’s Sensational She-Hulk comics from the late ’80s, where it first manifested as Jen taking control of the story she was in by choosing to tear through its pages. Though She-Hulk’s mostly used that power to quip about her show not being like other MCU shows, “A Normal Amount of Rage” almost frames it as Jen’s answer to Bruce’s Hulk rage. Much in the same way that Bruce was stunned to have his spirit snatched out of him in Avengers: Endgame, it gives Jen pause when she realizes who she’s talking to when she’s speaking to the camera. But it truly is just a pause, and almost immediately after Jen breaks the fourth wall for the first time, she’s right back in the swing of things because she’s a busy woman with a life to get back to.
It’s because Jen’s so exasperated with Bruce and his inability to articulate his feelings that she ends up venting to the audience, and that venting is what puts the two cousins in the right headspace to actually be there for one another in ways they need. Jen might not have Bruce’s medical training or the exact same kind of instinct for heroism that made him a great Avenger, but the combination of She-Hulk’s strength and powers of perception make her every bit the force to be reckoned with that Smart Hulk is — if not an even bigger one.