With its second original Netflix series, Marvel has again proven that the allowances it's making in the television medium are providing for far more interesting content than the assembly line, formula films it releases in theaters every year. With Jessica Jones, it goes darker, more noir, more sexual and far more challenging than anything it has yet to attach its name to, and even if the show isn't perfect in execution over these episodes, the cumulative effect and power of the show stays with you long after you've stopped thinking about the potentially wobbly plotting in the second half.
Jessica Jones is based on the comic book Alias, by Brian Michael Bendis, about a female ex-superhero turned private eye, who's taken herself out of the hero game due to a horrific personal experience. Krysten Ritter plays that heroine on this show, and her portrayal of the rather prickly, hard-drinking cynic Jessica Jones has a lot more in common with the private eyes of film noir, like Bogart or Mitchum or even Veronica Mars (there's a little bit of influence from that cult series here) than she does any of the Avengers. Set in the same Hell's Kitchen of Daredevil, Jessica spends her days tracking down cheating spouses while drowning her emotions in alcohol and casual sex, mostly to avoid dwelling on her traumatic history that gradually reveals itself over the course of the series. Ritter is a unique presence that grows on you, as does the show, which doesn't give away its mysteries all at once, but asks you to stick with it as it unravels. She's sarcastic, gruff, sometimes rude and yet her toughness is striking in its unusual depiction of female aggression. Despite her penchant for using sex as a means of avoidance and escape, there's no attempt to sexualize her through the typical objectification of women seen on far too much television. Jessica doesn't wear skirts, dresses and high heels every day, and even that tiny detail is attention-grabbing, forcing you to realize how often women are constantly dolled up for the viewer's pleasure, even in shows that target a predominantly female audience.
Jessica Jones is an overtly feminist show that is utterly unafraid to tackle themes of rape and sexual trauma, which is in fact what the series is literally about, metaphors be damned. In fact, I'd go so far as to say there are underlying messages condemning the violence and entitlement of white male privilege specifically. Every important, key character in the series is female, from Jessica to her best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), and her boss Hogarth (Carrie Anne Moss), whose identity was actually changed from male to female from the comics, and all are written as fully fleshed out, three dimensional characters with both dark sides and good, and complex relationships with each other. There are men on the show, and good men at that, but they are distinctly non-white, from Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Jessica's iconic comic book love interest and fellow superpowered hero, to her good deed doing neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville).
Even though some of these characters have superpowers, no one is wearing costumes in this dark and violent universe, and the troubles they are facing are decidedly not on such an apocalyptic level as those of their distinctly cartoony counterparts in the Avengers movies. This is another one that feels off when it makes an occasional reference to what's going on in that world, and Marvel's TV universe may actually benefit from simply being allowed to exist separately, which it essentially does at a 90% rate anyway. Jessica's trauma stems from a year held captive by the illusive Purple Man, also known as Kilgrave, played by David Tennant as a sociopathic sadist with the ability to mind control anyone he meets with any sentence spoken in the form of an order, or even a statement. He can take over anyone at any time, even fellow superpowered beings, and he uses his abilities for exactly the kinds of disturbing ends you'd think he would. His victims include countless innocent women and girls, and his obsession with Jessica is due to her own "gifts" of super strength and near flight (never shown onscreen but alluded to in a couple of cool moments), and Jessica's season long battle to ultimately reclaim herself from him and defeat Kilgrave is a dark, twisted and captivating saga that holds your attention even through the draggy moments, mostly because Tennant's performance is so arresting. He takes this horrifying character and runs with it, making him at turns scary, darkly comic, and always compellingly watchable from the moment he shows up, which, like Daredevil's Kingpin, isn't until a few episodes in.
It's Tennant who turns Kilgrave into the Marvel universe's best villain, next to Kingpin himself, and it's amazing that the two great villains to be depicted so far in the visual realm have been done on TV, not film. Can anyone name a Marvel villain from the movies that's the least bit memorable so far? Since Marvel Studios has existed, that is (Doc Ock is still pretty good from Spider-Man 2). I guess some would say Thor's Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but let's be honest, he's not that threatening or sinister. Kilgrave and Kingpin on the other hand, are the real deal, so much so that you also cannot imagine either of them showing up in the cinematic universe. If you want real threats, real fights, and real challenges, you have to turn to the shows.
The complicated realm of sexuality and consent may seem like odd material for a comic book show to confront, but that's exactly what makes Jessica Jones stand out so searingly. Not since the later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has the idea of sex and superheroes been explored like it is here. When Jessica and Luke have their marathon sex sessions the idea of not having to hold back with someone who is enhanced like you is directly explored, and let's face it, haven't you always wondered how characters with superhuman strength dealt with that issue anyway? Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg is totally up for diving into these ideas in a frank and candid manner, and the depth of Jessica's pain is clearly conveyed as we see how even someone as powerful as she is can be abused, manipulated and violated in ways that leave her controlled by a man both physically and mentally, and trapped in a permanent state of fear that sits right alongside her extraordinary strength. Many ordinary women will be able to relate.
I said the show wasn't perfect, and that in some ways relates to the staple of the Netflix model. The show is highly single-minded in its pursuit of Kilgrave, so much so that each episode feels more like the next chapter rather any kind of contained story, and this leads to some highly contrived plotting designed to keep Kilgrave on the loose for as long as possible to stretch these events out to thirteen episodes. The show might have been better served with ten hours with which to tell this story instead, or even some exploration of Jessica's job as a private investigator, which gets shafted pretty quickly in favor of the "all Kilgrave, all the time" setup. This might serve the needs of a binge-watching audience that doesn't want to be distracted by anything else, but I've always believed that the longform format is still best delivered with memorable episodic stories along the way, lest everything start to blend together, which is a bit what happens at times in this series, especially towards the end. The show is also slightly hindered by the restrictions Marvel did place on the content, which very obviously prohibits nudity (despite the heavy sex scenes) and the use of the f-word, which leaves us with an awful lot of noticeably placed "god damns" instead, which I think we all know is a less popular turn of phrase. I mean, who says "god damn" when a good old "fuck" will do, right? If we were using the ratings system, this show is a hard R in every instance, so to place obvious restrictions on only certain things just makes it stand out that such words/scenes are being held back.
Still, those caveats aside, the show is exciting, suspenseful and thought-provoking enough to make it worthwhile for anyone who's interested not only in comic books and superheroes, but especially for those who have been waiting for Marvel to focus one of its projects on a female heroine after all these years. This is the first to do so and because it was allowed to stray from the norms of formulaic action filmmaking, it is by far the most interesting, adult and provocative piece of entertainment that Marvel's ever produced.