Cards on the table: While I’ve largely liked and enjoyed (nearly) all of Marvel’s combined movies (that would be the Iron Man/Captain America/Avengers oeuvre that regularly dominates the world’s box offices), I’ve never loved any of them. They’re too slick, too formulaic, too safe. They’re solid entertainment, surely, but there’s never any thought that they’re anything other than animated picture books with no real stakes or consequences for any of the characters. Marvel’s TV shows have done a better job at building actual characters, but I’ve still been hard-pressed to watch any of them and really commit.
All that said, I frickin’ love Jessica Jones. I’m not sure how they pulled it off, but the show’s creators came up with a series that fleshes out the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a believable and interesting way while subverting that universe at the same time. And it’s incredible to watch.
Break out your Veronica Mars references. They're all accurate.
Before I say more, here’s the requisite backstory you need if you’re not steeped in these characters: Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is a sorta superhero who tried to make a go of being heroic at one time and it just never really worked out for her. She now uses her smarts, considerable strength, and not-at-all mastered ability of flight (she calls it “more like controlled falling”) as a private eye, albeit one who has yet to make too much of an impact. As such, she is outside the superhero game. She has no costume, no fancy globe-trotting adventure fighting large Evil Empires. What she does have is an enemy in the form of Kilgrave (David Tennant) who can compel anyone listening to his voice to do whatever he tells them to do. Jessica herself is a former victim of Kilgrave’s, having been compelled to be his companion before breaking free.
And right there you have the seeds of what makes Jessica Jones so interesting to watch. This is a show about a hero who has PTSD and has turned into her own best self-destruction machine trying to deal with it, hiding her damage in violence, cynicism, detachment, and literally gallons of hard alcohol. And while both the noir and superhero genres have their fair share of heroes with a dark past, Jessica Jones elevates both by calling out the horrors of her past more than is typically done. She’s a rape survivor, the only member of her family to make it out of a fatal accident, and a manipulator who veers closely to doing to others what was done to her.
Actual excerpt from the comic detailing Jessica and Kilgrave's interactions. Archie, it ain't.
Jessica as a character fits nicely into the anti-hero trope, but the show consistently moves her beyond a caricature and into someone who feels real. Her rape is a great example; writers often make the mistake of using a female character’s rape as a way of depowering her to exploit her vulnerability. In a lot of writer’s minds, rape = Strong Female Character. Jessica Jones avoids this by exploring how affected Jessica as a person is by her captivity, particularly given that it was a captivity that invaded her mind first and foremost. Her physical and mental rape isn’t something that motivates her; if anything she’s running from it. Which is to say, she’s behaving like a real human person and not a convenient backstory generator.
A show anchored by a fully-fleshed out female character is, by itself, almost unseen even in our supposedly enlightened times. Now consider that the other lead characters in this show are a black man (Luke Cage, a perfectly cast Mike Colter), a second white woman (Trish Walker played by Rachel Taylor), a lesbian woman (Carrie-Anne Moss), and another black man (Eka Darville) with a primary assist from a Latina woman (Rosario Dawson, reprising her Daredevil role) and you’ve got a cast not normally assembled. Only one main character is a white man with one other white man in a supporting role. For the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has too often veered into looking like it was filmed in the same New York that was occupied by the cast of Friends, this is remarkable. And like Jessica, the other characters more often than not defy the traditional ways that they are represented, allowing them to have their own stories.
Consider this: the show has a woman and a black man, two populations that are traditionally expected to be docile and unobtrusive in “polite” society, to actually get violently angry. Jessica doesn’t just fight to protect herself; sometimes she does it simply because she’s pissed and needs to hit someone. Her on-again, off-again love interest Luke’s anger is portrayed more righteously, but just the image of a large, intimidating black man being mad is itself subversive given that it’s shown to a presumably majority white audience. (It’s worth noting that this same construction was illustrated even more explicitly this fall in DC’s Supergirl in what was probably one of the best scenes that show has put out yet.)
That sound you're hearing is Donald Trump supporters freaking out over this.
The feminist interpretations of this show are clearly everywhere. The motif of Kilgrave’s commands to Jessica that she smile more will on their own launch a thousand women’s studies theses. What really made me fall for the show though had to do with how they integrated this punky little story into the larger MCU narrative. I said earlier that the show both made the Marvel universe bigger while subtly smacking it across the face at the same time. It accomplished this by allowing consequences to actions that actually raise the stakes of the story and establish tension. Unlike the big movies, you can watch Jessica Jones and not be sure what’s going to happen to the characters. Survival isn’t an assured outcome and even if a character lives, he or she may not be able to overcome what has happened. Jessica and her compatriots are underdogs in the truest sense. They’re the characters literally crushed by their big screen counterpart’s actions, as several characters make clear when they outline the people they lost in the Avengers’ destruct-a-thon battle for New York in their movie. The show is an antidote to the high-contrast, fluffy spectacle of the movies. If the Marvel movies feel like they’re written by comic book writers, Jessica Jones feels like it’s written by the staff of Orphan Black. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s also worth mentioning that this is the first, yes first, of all of Marvel’s productions to feature a female lead character. Scarlet Johannsen’s Black Widow hasn’t even managed to get her own movie yet.
"We're both multi-faceted adults with independent stories. So, should we talk about a man right now or...?"
To be sure, Jessica Jones has its flaws. The story takes off like a rocket and finishes like an explosion, but unfortunately there’s a little sputtering in the middle when the show seems to circle itself needlessly. A few storylines never quite take off; Kilgrave wants photos of Jessica enough that he manipulates the people around her to provide him with them covertly but once he’s found out the reason for this is never really allowed to breathe. Likewise, some of Jessica’s neighbors seem tossed in more to provide things for the show to do rather than actually serve the narrative. In general, the pacing of the show can become uneven at times. For what the show manages to pull off, however, it’s kind of brilliant.
So far, Marvel/Netflix have been mum on whether or not they’ll green light a second season for the show. Netflix is notorious for keeping its ratings close to its chest, so it’s hard to get a sense of how well the show performed in the traditional sense, although critical response has been largely very positive and the fan response was equally upbeat. What it will likely come down to is the extent to which Marvel is willing to deviate from its established schedule of shows with Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and Daredevil’s second season already in the pipeline. And while Jessica has been intended to play a role in the upcoming The Defenders series, it’s still unclear of the next time we’ll see her or get more from her story.