Ask most comic book fans who Marvel’s most famous fourth-wall-breaking hero is and the answer would likely not have been She-Hulk. Since Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness’ fan-favorite run on Deadpool, the Merc With a Mouth has undoubtedly taken on the title of Marvel’s most meta hero.
But as Jen Walters’ fans know, she’s been breaking out of the gutters, talking to readers, and blurring the line between fiction and reality since the ’80s. The She-Hulk: Attorney at Law finale on Disney Plus, and its wildest acknowledgement yet of the MCU, is just the latest iteration. But how did She-Hulk’s quippy Fleabag-inspired first season compare to her comic book commentary? Let’s dig in.
She-Hulk’s (and Marvel’s) history of breaking the fourth wall
She-Hulk on Disney Plus has finally introduced fourth-wall-breaking meta-humor to the MCU. But it’s nothing new for the House of Ideas. From the earliest days of Marvel Comics, the fourth wall was being tested. In Fantastic Four #4 from 1962, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee depicted Johnny Storm reading a Sub-Mariner comic book from the 1940s. Soon after, Johnny discovered that a man sitting near him was in fact the very same Namor who appeared in the comic. In the following issue, Stan and Jack brought things up to modern times as Johnny read a copy of Incredible Hulk #1, an issue published by Marvel a mere month before FF #5.
This meta mentality was turned up to 11 by John Byrne in Marvel Comics Presents #18 from late 1988. The Christmas tale featured Jennifer Walters meditating on her own comic book history. It ends with She-Hulk opening up a Christmas gift from Marvel, a box full of Sensational She-Hulk #1 comics. The final panel features She-Hulk directly addressing the readers, obliterating the fourth wall completely as she lets fans know that her series will debut in the new year. And that only continued as Byrne took hold of She-Hulk and shifted the character forever.
Byrne reimagined She-Hulk as a constant bridge between the reader and the story. On her first cover, She-Hulk directly threatens anyone who picks up her comic that if we don’t buy it she’ll find us and rip up all of our X-Men comics. Her status as a fourth-wall breaker allowed Byrne to be in constant conversation with the reader, not just about the narrative but about the state of comics, the industry, and the way that fans interact with the stories that they read. It was a huge success, reshaping the hero and the nature of comic book storytelling. Combined with Grant Morrison’s iconic concurrent run on Animal Man at DC, it cemented a new level of meta-storytelling that took a tradition of placing creators next to their characters to another level.
Once Sensational She-Hulk ended in 1994, the meta-take lay dormant for a decade. In 2004, writer Dan Slott and artist Juan Bobillo resurrected She-Hulk’s self-referential tradition. Less focused on the nature of actually breaking the fourth wall, they instead had She-Hulk work for a law firm — GLK&H, the same one Jen works at in the show — where they used Marvel Comics as evidence. This took She-Hulk’s meta commentary to a whole new level, allowing her to directly comment on the content of other heroes’ stories rather than just her own. It also nicely connects back to the original Marvel fourth-wall break when we saw Johnny reading a Sub-Mariner comic in FF #4.
Disney Plus’ She-Hulk is echoing the comic origins
From the opening moments of the pilot, She-Hulk has leaned into breaking the fourth wall in a way that feels extremely evocative of the comics. The show begins with Jennifer prepping us with what’s to come, breaking out of a conversation with her bestie Nikki to reveal that she’s already a Hulk and we’re about to find out how that happened. Aside from exposition, this interaction sets up a commentary of the nature of the MCU and the expectations that fans have of projects within the connected universe. Of course, the audience wants to see a Bruce Banner cameo; both Jen and her writers know that. In classic She-Hulk fashion, they want us to know that they know. It’s an expansion of the conversation that Byrne established between readers and the creative team, but it’s been repositioned for the prestige TV “cinematic universe” age.
While the trappings and tropes of the MCU have long been a conversation starter — and ender — in the real world, the characters within the MCU have never had the chance to comment on them themselves. The closest we’ve gotten are moments like the one featured in Hawkeye where a fictionalized version of an MCU movie exists as a broadway show. There, Clint Barton gets slightly meta as he comments on the flaws of Rogers: The Musical and its inaccurate adaptation. But that’s still entirely within the world of the MCU. She-Hulk has no such constraints. Jen is constantly aware of the fact that she’s in a spinoff of a popular movie series and that she’s a lesser-known character. She regularly riffs on the fact that there are guest stars and more famous heroes, and that some viewers are likely watching the series because of them and not her. That commentary feels the most akin to the She-Hulk that comics readers know and love.
The show itself also leans into the larger meta-space featuring conversations and talking points that have been popular among viewers. Is Captain America a virgin? Do the Avengers have health care? These are fan theories, podcast conversations, and MCU thinkpieces made canon. Those themes are built out with the introduction of deep-cut characters who are knowingly introduced as such. Here’s Man Bull *nudge nudge wink wink* and El Aguila *viewer reaches for their phone*; you probably haven’t heard of them but they are perfectly fitting for a series about a hero who has historically represented some of the most underused, strange, and forgotten superpowered people that Marvel has to offer.
Disney Plus also positions Shulkie as a narrator, which we see in her Fleabag-influenced fourth-wall breaks that are more focused on the personal. When she wants to shade Bruce or react to a particularly bad date, we’re the ones that Jen turns to. Although the creative team looked to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s beloved series for our hero’s humorous narrative stylings, this is also totally in line with how Jen treats the reader in the comics. She often updates us on her thoughts about fellow heroes, strange situations, or odd interactions while her companions are none the wiser. It’s particularly effective on screen for She-Hulk as it’s so different from anything we’ve seen in the MCU. It lets us get closer to Jen than we have to any other hero before.
Though the first eight episodes added a new dimension for the MCU, they weren’t necessarily groundbreaking TV in a post-Deadpool and Fleabag world. After all fourth-wall breaking on screen goes back as far — if not further than — the Marx Brothers. While She-Hulk’s narration takes on the legacy of the comic book, in enacting a conversation with the audience it rarely breaks the convention of the prestige television format. It’s understandable, since comics as a medium make it easy to have characters literally break barriers — between panels, pages, and expectations — while the TV medium makes that far harder, and it seemed She-Hulk wasn’t going to change that. But the finale upended that expectation with a truly astonishing and ambitious take on the trope that singled it out from other fourth-wall-breaking shows and makes it stand alongside the groundbreaking fourth-wall breaking of She-Hulk’s comic book past.
The final episode of the season begins with a very fun meta-nod to the old Incredible Hulk show. Playing with our own understanding of who the Hulk is and blurring the line between our experience of the Hulk in our world and the way that the MCU brings the Hulks to life. But that is just a little taste of how She-Hulk is about to smash the fourth wall. The finale follows Jen as she has to wear an inhibitor and discovers the truth about the Intelligencia. After losing her job she heads to Emil Blonsky’s retreat for a “mental health break” after nudging the fourth wall by proclaiming, “We’re not doing narration; we’re not that off the rails.” And that thought foreshadows Jen’s growing discomfort with the direction that her finale is going. After a messy fight at Blonsky’s retreat, Jen has had enough, and she decides to do something about it.
As Jen rants about the fact that her one-time date Todd is actually HulkKing and is apparently getting Hulk powers from her stolen blood, the show returns to the Disney Plus home screen. From there, Jen smashes out of her tile to “our” world, heading to the Disney Lot in Los Angeles to confront the writers room, including creator Jessica Gao and writer Cody Ziglar. It’s classic She-Hulk, a throwback to when she would bother John Byrne for writing something she didn’t like.
But for viewers this is something entirely new. Fleabag’s fourth-wall breaking was for all intents and purposes a simple twist on narration, told through fourth-wall breaking and always within the world of the show. But as She-Hulk makes her way to KEVIN, a mechanical being in charge of the stories the MCU tells, the bit goes further. This is a big riff on the MCU’s head honcho Kevin Feige that allows the show to laugh at the critiques that fans often have. Jen complains that MCU movies always end the same way; she even asks when the X-Men will arrive in the franchise. This is Jen as our ultimate in character, acting as the audience, asking the powers that be all the things that we wonder, write about, and question.
The She-Hulk finale gave Jen agency over her own story, allowing her to control the narrative. Using the fourth wall to allow Jen to literally choose her own ending feels radical. There’s no lip service or semi-commitment to Jen’s agency here. Instead she literally takes control of her story, breaking out of the confines and expectations of what a superhero story should be and reshaping them. While we of course know that the creator of the show, Jessica Gao, was the one behind this in real life, in the context of the show it is all on Jen. It’s an interesting use of the fourth wall that expands the world of the MCU and acknowledges the reality of how it gets made. It also fits with what we know of She-Hulk and her comics history, using that to inform her story here in a more direct way than we’ve seen in most MCU projects.
Smashing the expectations and boundaries of what the fourth wall can be is something we can expect to see more of when Deadpool enters the MCU. But just like the comics, the MCU made sure that fans knew it was Jennifer Walters who did it first.