‘She-Hulk’ Has Broken Marvel’s “Illusion of Change”

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[This story contains spoilers for She-Hulk episode three.]

The Abomination is back in a big way. The third episode of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, directed by Kat Coiro and written by Francesca Gailes & Jacqueline J. Gailes, centers on Jennifer Walters’ (Tatiana Maslany) defense of Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), aka the Abomination, to the parole board. Of course, nothing is ever simple for Jennifer. Her defense is thrown for a loop after footage is released of Blonksy’s recent escape, and his friendly cage match with Wong (Benedict Wong), as seen in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The return of the Abomination has been one of the most anticipated elements of She-Hulk, following his surprise reappearance after 13 years in Shang-Chi. Roth’s return is rewarding for long-term MCU audiences and defenders of The Incredible Hulk, myself included. But it also speaks to the importance of continuity as a large part of the MCU’s success and why evolution matters, even if it happens offscreen.

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Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk was overshadowed by Iron Man in the summer of 2008, saddled with limited marketing from Universal and mixed reviews. It remains, to date, the lowest-grossing movie in the MCU. The film’s standing wasn’t helped by star Edward Norton’s disagreement over the handling of the character and his eventually being replaced with Mark Ruffalo. Outside of a few references to the Hulk breaking Harlem, attempts to re-create the Super Soldier Serum, and the continued presence of Secretary Ross (William Hurt), events depicted in The Incredible Hulk have largely been omitted from the MCU narrative. But that hasn’t kept the film from earning a growing following over the years, and positioning it, if such a thing can exist, as the MCU’s cult entry.

When the Abomination’s story was wrapped up at the end of The Incredible Hulk, he was sent to maximum security prison the Raft. And for over a decade, fans have been waiting for the character to make a surprise appearance — perhaps in Agents of SHIELD (back when its place in continuity was less of a question mark), or Captain America: Civil War (2016), which sees a number of Avengers locked in the Raft. No one could have predicted Shang-Chi was where the character would reappear, given that he has no connection to those characters in the comics. But his presence in that film and now in She-Hulk speaks to an evolution of the character, and not just the physical one that has more closely aligned his appearance with that in the comics.

You might say that Blonsky has softened to a surprising degree when we meet him in She-Hulk. Roth plays him as something of a New Age Lothario, a far cry from the military-bred, overcompensating war dog we met in The Incredible Hulk. There are several reasons for this, of course. Firstly, the show is a comedy and Roth leans into that tone. Secondly, Blonsky had 14 years to stew in a cage. It’s more interesting that we now return to him as different, rather than as the same individual. It’s the kind of progress that is allowed by film and television that isn’t permitted in quite the same way as the comics, which operate under what Stan Lee referred to as the “illusion of change.”

Even as one of Hulk’s most frequently appearing comic book adversaries, the Abomination remains largely the same as he did when he was first introduced in 1967. This is true for most of the characters in the MCU compared to their comic counterparts, but the difference is that Hulk, and his supporting cast, didn’t have a film trilogy to chart that evolution, so each time we return to them, be it Smart Hulk or this most recent version of the Abomination, there’s a bit of whiplash.

So, what does it mean that the Abomination is not so villainous 14 years later? Does it rob us of a rematch between him and the Hulk? Perhaps, as both characters seem to have put their pasts behind them. But it also opens the door up for new stories that make the most of the character’s evolution. My bet is that Blonksy ends up on the roster of the Thunderbolts, and in their self-titled film set for July 26, 2024. To expand on this consideration a little, it’s obvious we’ll never see direct sequels to The Incredible Hulk. And we might not even see any of those characters in a future Hulk film, should one get made. Still, the MCU still has an opportunity to bring back characters like Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell) and Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) and do more than pick up on their stories from the same relative place we left them.

There’s something essential in She-Hulk’s approach to returning characters, something that will likely be evident when Daredevil (Matt Murdock) makes his return in the series as well. Audiences want to see long-absent characters return, but perhaps the most meaningful way to do that is to give narrative purpose to that absence, and permit the actors to find new ways into the character. Whether that’s in the gamma-inflicted forms of Harpy, Doc Samson and the Leader for Betty, Leonard and Sterns, or something else, remains to (hopefully) be seen. But as the MCU’s commitment to continuity continues to surprise audiences, there’s value in casting away illusions and remaining committed to transformation.

‘She-Hulk’ Has Broken Marvel’s “Illusion of Change”

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