As Marvel Comics nears the tail end of its sweeping, multi-year cinematic master plan, it has begun to place bets on increasingly obscure characters from its extensive canon. With deep cuts like The Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man making box office bank, the multimedia empire is trusting audiences will be drawn in by compelling stories, not just recognizable names. Netflix made waves earlier this year with the fantastic Daredevil TV series, but that property has comics going back to 1964 as well as a mediocre 2003 Ben Affleck movie. For its follow-up, Netflix is taking a much greater risk on Jessica Jones, who made her comic debut just 14 years ago in 2001.
Alert: Minor spoilers of the show’s premise ahead.
Jessica Jones is grounded in characters first, with superheroics taking a more incidental and supportive role.
A one-time superhero who hung up her cape, Jessica is now trying to lay low as a New York private investigator. A gruff alcoholic with a tortured past, she mostly gets paid to catch cheating spouses in the act, only using her superhuman strength to break locks and occasionally intimidate someone. Jessica is somewhat blasé about her power, and the show accordingly does little to relish in it. In contrast to the slick presentation of Matt Murdoch’s blind-sight empowered martial arts in Daredevil, Jessica Jones is grounded in characters first, with superheroics taking a more incidental and supportive role.
Kristyn Ritter is compelling as the Jessica Jones’ eponymous lead. The show smartly avoids the pitfalls of making Jessica a so-called Strong Female Character (SFC), whose strength is ultimately fetishized and pigeonholed by the male gaze. Jessica Jones is not a Strong Female Character per se, but rather a character who is strong and female, among many other things. When Carina Chocano conceded in the New York Times that SFCs were “a kind of gateway drug to slightly more realistic — or at least representational — representations of women,” Jessica Jones is exactly the sort of well-painted character she was predicting. A self-loathing hot mess with a strong, but sometimes spotty, moral compass, she’s most clearly in the tradition of hardboiled noir detectives like Philip Marlowe, Rick Deckard, or Veronica Mars.
The show also flirts with, but never succumbs to, Trinity Syndrome, the pervasive trope of a Strong Female Character who only serves to support and motivate the man who ultimately saves the day, so named for Trinity in the Matrix trilogy. As if to underline the point, Carrie-Anne Moss is even in the series as Jeri Hogarth, a gender swap of the ethically-dubious lawyer that hires Jessica for PI work. Jessica relies on the help of a wide range of allies, both men and women, superhuman and average, but ultimately this is her story and the important choices are hers.
More than just dodging misogynist tropes, Jessica Jones savvily grapples with feminist issues head-on more than any superhero show before it (sorry, Supergirl). Rape, abusive relationships, and PTSD are all central topics in what is easily the darkest story yet told in the MCU. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg clearly put in the necessary research to handle these delicate topics unflinchingly with intelligence, grace, and respect. It explores these issues with empathy, like Law and Order: SVU, as opposed to shows like Game of Thrones that have caught flack for using sexual abuse plotlines as titillation at the expense of its female characters’ development.
Nowhere are these dynamics more interestingly present than in the show’s deeply-disturbing antagonist, Kilgrave, portrayed with unsettling charm by David Tennant. Known as the Purple Man in the original comics, Kilgrave has the terrifying ability of mind control, such that anyone who can hear the unmediated sound of his voice cannot resist his explicit commands. When the show begins, Jessica is still living in the post-traumatic wreckage of her life after she spent an extended period as his enslaved lover and superhuman puppet. Unlike the Kingpins and Lex Luthors of the world, Kilgrave’s motivations are small and human, far from designs on taking over the world (or even just Hell’s Kitchen). “Kilgrave wanted a leather jacket, cello music, and the smile of a pretty girl. What a waste,” Jeri quips after assembling a collection of his victims. While the comics paint the Purple Man as a more conventionally sinister villain, the show portrays him as an obsessed, controlling ex-boyfriend, simultaneously mundane and yet scarier for its prosaic familiarity.
Tennant also turns in a gripping performance as Kilgrave. An affable, sociopathic charmer, he bears a strong resemblance to Tennant’s most famous role as Doctor Who, down to his penchant for wearing sharply flamboyant suits and sweeping beautiful female companions out of their lives to join in his adventures. Kilgrave can get whatever he wants and convince anonymous people to do his bidding without repercussions, all while obliviously casting himself as the victim. Arthur Chu aptly describes him for Slate as a sort of Gamergater’s fantasy and every modern woman’s nightmare: a man who can effortlessly surveil you through anonymous legions, and when he tells you to smile it’s literally impossible to resist.
It’s no coincidence that Jessica Jones arrives as feminism has once again become a hot topic in public discourse. In the wake of Gamergate, Elliot Rodger, and the rise of MRAs, Jessica Jones is a powerful antidote. The superhero genre, traditionally the domain of male power fantasies, is used instead here to explore male entitlement.
In the wake of Gamergate, Elliot Rodger, and the rise of MRAs, Jessica Jones is a powerful antidote.
Moreover, it does all this without sacrificing everything that makes Marvel great. From its beautiful opening credits and jazzy soundtrack to its acerbically funny writing and gripping action, Jessica Jones is a stylish and engrossing superhero noir from start to finish.
Whether Netflix and Marvel will be able to continue this fantastic momentum with Luke Cage and Iron Fist into the eventual Defenders team-up is yet to be seen. Mike Colter’s performance as Cage in Jessica Jones is likable, but not scene-stealing, raising questions about whether he can carry a whole show. This is squarely Jessica’s story, however, and Netflix has earned ample trust in its ability to deliver a context in which Luke Cage might shine. Regardless, it is increasingly apparent that Netflix is carving out one of the most compelling corners of both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and genre television in general.