I have written more pieces than I care to count about the frustrating fact that the movie-making arms of Marvel and DC can have Norse gods, a talking raccoon and reanimated World War II veterans as heroes but somehow cannot manage to tell a story about a superpowered woman. But, periodically, I get a reminder that, given some of the people in positions of creative power at these companies, it might be better to have no superheroines than the versions of superheroines they might come up with.
The most recent person to dampen my enthusiasm is David S. Goyer, the writer behind Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder’s new Superman franchise — in other words, the dominant voice defining the movies adapted from the stable of DC Comics characters. In a since-deleted podcast, transcribed by bloggers at the genre fiction site the Mary Sue, Goyer tried to explain the appeal of the Marvel character She-Hulk.
Created in 1980, the character is the alter ego of Jennifer Walters, a lawyer and cousin to scientist Bruce Banner. Walters gained the ability to get big, green and mean after Banner gave her a transfusion of his own blood after she was shot. But unlike the Hulk, who turns into a mindless animal when Banner transforms, She-Hulk stays perfectly rational, even acquiring a witty, cutting edge and a confident approach to sex and dating. At her best, she is what women might be if they were freed from fears of judgment and the threat of physical danger.
So it is awfully depressing to hear Goyer’s theory of She-Hulk’s ongoing appeal.
“The Hulk was this classic male power fantasy. It’s like, most of the people reading comic books were these people like me who were just these little kids getting the s— kicked out of them every day,” he expounded. “She-Hulk was the extension of the male power fantasy. So it’s like if I’m going to be this geek who becomes the Hulk then let’s create a giant green porn star” sexually reserved for the Hulk (a strange idea, since the characters are cousins).
Goyer is not wrong that She-Hulk, like pretty much every other female character in comics, has been given impractical costumes given her crime-fighting vocation. Plenty of readers and artists project their sexual desires onto a physically powerful but safely fictional woman. But it is depressing to hear Goyer, who is charged with shepherding a huge franchise into theaters for years to come, skip all the other reasons that fans, male and female, might be attached to She-Hulk.
My gateway to She-Hulk was writer Dan Slott’s run on the character, in a story arc called “Single Green Female.” In those comics, She-Hulk is simultaneously kicked out of the Avengers’ Mansion because her partying has become too disruptive and fired as a prosecutor because her side gig as a superheroine is seen as a prejudicial force in her trials. “Single Green Female” was a wickedly funny riff on the ways women get punished for succeeding professionally and for having fun personally.
Slott was not the only man who managed to work on She-Hulk stories without drooling all over himself. In 1980, her creators, Stan Lee and John Buscema, intended her as Marvel’s answer to the success of “The Bionic Woman” on television. The men who handled her story going forward, writer David Anthony Kraft, penciller Mike Vosburg and inker Frank Springer, focused on She-Hulk’s physical strength rather than on turning her into some sort of sexpot. In one issue, She-Hulk not only bested Iron Man in a fight, but she also surprised him by proving more rational and less bestial than her cousin.
From the very start, She-Hulk was recognizable as a manifestation of a particularly female dilemma that persists today. She is an expression of how terrific it would be not to have to censor yourself, to be allowed to be angry without some man declaring you unladylike.
She-Hulk was sexy, too, of course. But what Goyer seems to miss is that in her earliest and best story lines, She-Hulk’s sexuality is her own. She is not some brain-dead courtesan, but a swashbuckling heart-breaker. Her first love interest is a neighboring medical student, a younger hunk. In Slott’s “Single Green Female” stories, Shulkie brings home a male super-model and then has to figure out how to make sure her Adonis does not get too attached.
The best She-Hulk sex and romance stories succeed because they make an important distinction. She-Hulk is not a male fantasy of how sexual liberation works, where women focus more on making men happy than on their own pleasure. Rather, she is an adventuress with a clear sense of her own gratification and joy.
Marvel, at least, seems to understand why She-Hulk has a devoted fan base and is trying to grow it through spin-offs such as “The She-Hulk Diaries,” a 2013 novel by Marta Acosta. That book is soapier than the comics, turning the supervillain Doctor Doom into a peskily persistent suitor for She-Hulk and treating her human identity, Jennifer Walters, like a slightly stereotypical mousy romantic comedy heroine. But the book and a new line of She-Hulk comics are an acknowledgement that women are a market for comics and comics adaptations, too.
Geek culture and the people who make it are in a strange place at this moment. You cannot ask for recognition as serious art while treating your medium as candy for sex addicts. If our choice is superheroine movies made by people like Goyer, people who think She-Hulk’s value rests only in her exposed green skin, or no female-driven comics movies at all, I am happy for She-Hulk to continue living out her vibrant, feminist life on the small page rather than see her destroyed on the big screen.