[This story contains spoilers for She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.]
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law head writer and EP Jessica Gao is grateful that Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige encouraged her and her writers room to flip the script on the typical Marvel ending. Instead of a CG showdown with a baddie, Jen Walters/She-Hulk (Tatiana Maslany) smashed the fourth wall and used the Disney+ interface to end up at Marvel Studios where she debated the show’s ending with a Kevin Feige-inspired AI named K.E.V.I.N.
Gao wrote at least 20 different versions of the finale episode, all of which featured a more conventional Marvel ending, but Feige ultimately freed her of that thinking.
“Kevin was the one who said, ‘There’s no reason to do a big Marvel ending. You’ve made a show that’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done before, so there’s absolutely no reason to treat it like a typical Marvel movie,’” Gao tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s really what got wheels turning about going really out of the box and doing something that was more true to this show, as opposed to what’s true to a typical Marvel project.”
However, the two creatives did butt heads over a detail involving K.E.V.I.N., as Gao felt that the robot should be wearing a hat that’s reminiscent of Feige’s own trademark caps. But Feige believed that the choice didn’t make sense for a robot, prompting Gao to stick to her guns and even consider exiting the project.
“I was incensed, and in this big meeting, in front of like 20 people, I said, ‘Kevin, if you don’t let me put a hat on that robot, then I quit,’” Gao recalls with a laugh. “And then there was a split second pause, and he just went, ‘Thank you very much, Jessica. You’ve done some great work for us, and we really appreciate everything.’”
Fortunately, Gao and Feige can now laugh about the dust-up as visual development supervisor Jackson Sze brokered an immediate compromise.
“Sweet Jackson Sze, who was head of the vis-dev team and ever the mediator, very gently suggested that they incorporate something into the design of the robot that would make it look like it was wearing a hat, and that was the perfect compromise,” Gao says.
In a recent conversation with THR, Gao also explains the creative choices behind Hulk’s son Skaar, as well as Blonsky and Wong’s latest prison bust.
Well, you told me previously that you love to bully Kevin Feige, and I have to imagine that the finale factored into that statement on some level. So how did Kevin first respond to being turned into AI?
(Laughs.) He was very supportive. He was all for it, and that scene is very much reflective of the relationship that I have with him. A lot of the conversation in that scene is taken from conversations that I’ve had with him, but the one sticking point that we had over this entire thing was whether or not the robot would be wearing a hat. In the first draft, I described the robot as an Akira meets a HAL 9000-like AI brain/robot, and the script specifically said that it’s wearing a little black baseball cap on top. And real-life Kevin said, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would a robot wear a hat?” And I said, “That’s the logic issue you have with this, Kevin? And not that [She-Hulk] breaks the ultimate fourth wall, comes to Marvel Studios, fights her way to meet you and you are an actual robot, but it’s the fact that the robot should not be wearing a hat?” And he said, “Yeah, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. So it shouldn’t have a hat.” So I was incensed, and in this big meeting, in front of like 20 people, I said, “Kevin, if you don’t let me put a hat on that robot, then I quit.” (Laughs.) And then there was a split second pause, and he just went, “Thank you very much, Jessica. You’ve done some great work for us, and we really appreciate everything.” (Laughs.)
Oh my God.
And then sweet Jackson Sze, who was head of the vis-dev team and ever the mediator, very gently suggested that they incorporate something into the design of the robot that would make it look like it was wearing a hat, and that was the perfect compromise. And Kevin was like, “Oh, well that’s fine because that makes sense.” And I said, “OK, great. As long as that makes sense.”
Breaking the fourth wall was always built into the character and the show, but what’s the origin story behind this degree of fourth-wall breaking?
It was a very, very, very long road. We went through so many different versions of this finale. I’ve probably written at least 20 versions. Initially, I approached it very mistakenly, thinking, “OK, now that it’s the finale, I have to make it a Marvel show. This is the point in which I have to follow the Marvel formula. We got to have our fun with the show. We got to do something different. But at the end of the day, there is a certain way that Marvel likes to end things, and that’s what I have to do.” So I tried so many versions of that and having a big fight with the big bad, but nothing ever felt right. There were double-digit versions of it, but nothing ever felt right.
And then Kevin was the one who said, “There’s no reason to do a big Marvel ending. This is not a Marvel movie. You’ve made a show that’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done before, so there’s absolutely no reason to treat it like a typical Marvel movie. Do the thing that this was always going to be.” And that was so freeing and inspirational. That’s really what got wheels turning about going really out of the box and doing something that was more true to this show, as opposed to what’s true to a typical Marvel project.
It’s commendable that Marvel had a sense of humor about having Jen run through a list of recurring critiques and questions about the MCU. Were you surprised that you got away with certain things?
Definitely. I’m surprised I got away with most of that conversation, but that’s the great thing about Kevin. He likes to have fun, and he has a good sense of humor, both about himself and about Marvel. And just in general.
Since I last spoke to you, Kevin hired yet another Ricky and Morty writer [Jeff Loveness for Avengers: The Kang Dynasty]. I believe Jeff is number three along with you and Michael Waldron. Have you asked Kevin about his preoccupation with you and your peers?
(Laughs.) It is an on joke that that’s where they go to mine writers, but it’s been working for them. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
In episode eight, you played the Daredevil series’ theme song, you re-created some of Daredevil’s old moves and you also paid homage to his hallway fight sequences. So is it the same Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), just on a new trajectory?
We were never told, definitively, to treat it one way or the other. The approach with Marvel has always been that they don’t really set limitations before we start working on something. They just let us pitch them what we want to do, and they say yes or no. So essentially, this is all just a result of having carte blanche to pitch them whatever we wanted, and then they would just say yes.
You set up a couple threads with Hulk and Skaar, as well as Blonsky and Wong. How much did Marvel tell you about where these characters are headed?
Well, with Blonsky and Wong, that was because it didn’t feel right that Blonsky would languish in prison. He took personal responsibility, and he ultimately ended up being mostly good. But regardless of how much good or bad he did on the show, his friendship with Jen was real. His relationship to Jen was real, and when he helps her during the retreat, that was for real as well. So because they do have this relationship and this intimacy through therapy, we just didn’t want to see him locked up forever. So that was really to just give Blonsky a happier ending.
And with Skaar, we talked a lot about a big, fun cameo that we could drop as a tag at the end, or doing the Marvel thing and teasing a new character. That would’ve been really cool, too. But ultimately, it was Kevin who decided that he wanted to introduce Skaar. So you’ll have to ask K.E.V.I.N. himself what his plans are for that.
Well, congratulations on a wonderful series, and I hope you bully Kevin into greenlighting season two.
(Laughs.) Thank you so much.
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is now available on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
‘She-Hulk’ Head Writer/EP Jessica Gao Nearly Quit Over a Kevin Feige Robot Detail