Jessica Jones: Not Your Average Superhero (Review)
Jessica Jones isn’t your average superhero, and that’s what makes her so special. Unlike other superheroes, she sees sometimes giving a damn as her greatest weakness. To her, caring for others makes her vulnerable. Our heroine is a dark, flawed, and self-destructive anti-hero, but she’s also fierce, independent, and assertive. Although she doesn’t hide her abilities (super strength, endurance, and jumping and psionic defense), she also doesn’t use them to better society at all costs, like other heroes we’ve seen. She doesn’t web swing across the city like Spider-Man to put out fires or use heightened senses to stop street crime like Daredevil. She isn’t a combat expert, and she doesn’t fight crime in a spandex suit or impenetrable armor. Her clothing isn’t revealing or tight-fitted like we’ve seen with so many female leads. Wearing her normal, everyday clothes (jeans, a black tank top, black boots, and a leather jacket, frequently paired with a scarf), she challenges the mainstream and kicks total ass. Her fight scenes are gritty, raw, and real. She doesn’t disguise her appearance or pretend to be anything she’s not: she’s unapologetic, sarcastic, and tough as nails. This makes Jessica Jones relatable to men and woman alike. Any one of us can be a superhero. (But a bit of super strength would certainly help.)
Jessica Jones, the second of four Marvel Netflix Original shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist), is a brilliant adaptation of the comic book series Alias (Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos). Like Daredevil, it’s a binge-worthy masterpiece that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats episode to episode. While Melissa Rosenberg (Dexter, The O.C., and The Twilight Saga) and her team take creative license with some characters and plot lines, she interweaves real-world themes and manages to preserve the essence of the Marvel Universe.
Complete with melancholy pianos and brass instruments, artsy camera angles, nihilistic undertones, voice-over narration, and dark, foreboding scenes, the show positions Jessica as the embodiment of a noir detective. And Krysten Ritter, of Breaking Bad fame, plays Jessica flawlessly. Through beautifully shot scenes of New York City’s cityscape with lights bouncing off taxi windows and streets, the story follows Jessica, a retired superhero turned private investigator. Jessica uses her detective agency—Alias Investigations—to feel grounded and in control of her life. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after a months-long life-altering experience with the show’s main antagonist Kilgrave (Zebediah Killgrave, or the Purple Man, in the comics), played by Doctor Who’s David Tennant, Jessica works as a professional voyeur, photographing cheating spouses and other illicit activities. She turns to alcohol (whiskey is her drink of choice) and sex as temporary fixes to feel alive again. As she copes with tragedy and flashes back to Kilgrave’s psychological (and sometimes physical) torture, she repeats street names from her childhood (Birch Street, Main Street, Higgins Drive, and Cobalt Lane) to whisk her back to reality. The show’s depiction of PTSD—blurry vision, flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety—is spot on and allows viewers to empathize with Jessica and the abuse she suffered. Her pain is real and runs deep. As she states in the first episode, “In my line of work you gotta know when to walk away. But some cases just won’t let you go.”
Kilgrave, who has the power of mind control, is the epitome of a temper tantrum gone wrong—he doesn’t like hearing “no.” Mind control is his way of constantly controlling his environment. Taking autonomy and the ability to challenge him out of the equation, he demands, like a child, people to do what he wants, when he wants. His requests are usually sadistic and psychotic (and sometimes very literal) forms of self-torture, asking people to put their hand in a blender, throw coffee in their face, shoot themselves in the head, stab themselves with scissors, or even go f— themselves. His desire for women to smile, however harmless it may appear as compared to his other demands, exposes the everyday, and real, sexism women face. It’s as if his demands come from the deepest, darkest corner of the human psyche that’s void of all empathy and remorse. Nature versus nature is a major theme threaded throughout the season, especially in regard to Kilgrave’s erratic behavior—how much of it is innate, and how much is due to his socialization? As Jessica says, “Everyone is born a hero, but if you let it, life will push you over the line until you’re the villain.”
Tennant’s portrayal of the ruthless and disturbing, yet charming, Kilgrave is incredible. His longing for revenge, and unwillingness to move on from Jessica after she rejects his demented declarations of love, is the show’s main story arc. He makes Jessica feel like an infection, with everyone she comes in contact with dead and dying all around her. The plot’s intense focus on Kilgrave sometimes makes it feel a bit too tight and leads other storylines to appear like fillers rather than essential narratives. However, the constant twists and turns keep the show thrilling and engaging, even when the pacing slows down. When the show gets to be monotonous, something shocking is right around the corner.
Although Kilgrave’s skin isn’t purple, as it is in the comics, the show subtly weaves hues of purple throughout the show—from the title sequence, Kilgrave’s suits, and landscaping flowers to lighting, wall colors, and even Jessica’s flashbacks. She tells Kilgrave at one point that purple is not really her color and later notes the irony of the purple bruising on her ribs since it’s his favorite color. The symbolism of purple throughout is a nice touch and nod to the comic without being excessive.
Luke Cage (Mike Colter from The Good Wife and The Following), who will also get his own show come 2016, is Jessica’s love interest. A bartender in Hell’s Kitchen, Luke has special abilities of his own, which end up being a perfect match for Jessica. When we first meet Luke, Jessica is photographing him with another woman. It’s assumed a scorned husband is behind the photos, but it’s soon revealed that Jessica’s own obsession drove her to keep a close watch on him. Jessica’s obsession with Luke, related to a tragic bus accident, and Kilgrave’s obsession with Jessica is an interesting juxtaposition, with Kilgrave obviously going too far with his advances, and Jessica keeping her distance until she just can’t anymore. Rosenberg does not let the show fall prey to racial stereotypes or reinforce offensive tropes. The chemistry between Jessica and Luke oozes off the screen and has the viewer rooting for them from the onset. It treats two romantically involved people from different racial backgrounds as the nonissue it is. Rather, the show challenges race’s social construction, particularly when crazy upstairs neighbor Ruben tells Jessica that “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” in regard to Malcolm’s (Eka Darville) drug addiction. Realizing that society does indeed have misconceptions about race, unfortunately, Jessica uses it to her advantage in a hospital to acquire a drug to weaken Kilgrave. The hospital workers’ immediate acceptance of Malcolm as “bad” during the hospital scene exposes the major issue we face as a society and the repercussions it can cause.
As Jessica struggles to leave her past behind, she allows herself to be vulnerable with Luke but doesn’t let it last long. It’s a relief to see Jessica as a strong female character that doesn’t rely on a man to save her or win a fight. She’s tough without being tomboyish and isn’t afraid of her sexuality, as we see with Luke—yet she doesn’t let her relationship with him rule her life. She has a quick wit and great one-liners and quips throughout: “Self-respect! Get some” and “I’m rude to everyone.” Although we get to see her strength when she lifts up the backend of car with ease, rips padlocks off with one hand, breaks doors, bends chairs in half, and punches and throws bad guys through walls, I would’ve liked to see more crippling fight scenes. Often, the scenes are dark and shot so close that Jessica’s super strength isn’t as impressive as it could be. The inconsistency of her abilities is frustrating, as sometimes she can beat up multiple guys at a time and other times she has trouble. Additionally, toward the end of the season, Jessica tells Luke he’s stronger, even though she’s completely held her own and proven herself as an incredible force to be reckoned with. Perhaps this was mainly in regard to his mental strength, not completely his physical prowess, but I would’ve liked to see Jessica come out on top at any rate.
Rosenberg continues to lead viewers down a dark path through themes of alcoholism, rape, abuse, abortion, sexuality, race, drugs, eating disorders, and stalking. The show expertly threads the theme of survival throughout as characters battle to face their personal demons. Jessica states, “Knowing it’s real means you gotta make a decision. One, keep denying it, or two, do something about it.” And that’s just what they do—do something about it. Their ability to bounce back, even when the odds are against them, shows the power of human resilience—particularly for the female characters.
Patricia “Trish” Walker, played by Rachael Taylor (Transformers and Grey’s Anatomy), is Jessica’s best friend (a change from Carol Danvers, or Captain Marvel, in the comics). Marvel fans may recognize the name Patricia Walker from the comics of the 1940s through 1960s and her emergence as Hellcat in the 1970s. Trish is a former child star (on the show It’s Patsy) and has her own talk show: Trish Talk. As a child, Trish faced abuse at the hands of her helicopter mother, who adopted Jessica in a publicity stunt after she lost her parents in a car crash. Trish works through the torment with the help of her friend—and her superpowers. A trained krav maga fighter, Trish adds to the female empowerment through her teamwork with Jessica. The friendship between Jessica and Trish is the main relationship in the show, which is uplifting for a show with a female lead.
Jeri Hogarth takes the role of Jessica’s defense attorney, rather than Matt Murdoch (Daredevil) who plays a large role in the comics. Carrie-Anne Moss, perhaps best known as Trinity from The Matrix, plays the big-name, yet slimy, lawyer. Her storyline, particularly her divorce from her doctor wife Wendy (Deadwood’s Robin Weigert), ends up being integral to the plot. The refreshing depiction of the lesbian relationships, between Jeri and Wendy and Jeri and Pam (Susie Abromeit), is without the usual homophobic and stereotypical characteristics we’ve seen in the past. All three are professional women, and they’re treated with the respect they deserve.
The show isn’t completely devoid of the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. His friend and ally Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) makes an appearance near the end of the season. Rosenberg and Co. sprinkle references to Marvel throughout the show, which helps it stay true to the Marvel Universe. Luke says his comic book character’s catchphrase “Sweet Christmas” a couple times and refers to the Hulk and the Avengers as “the big green dude and his crew.” In a flashback, Trish tells Jessica that Jewel, her alias in the comics, is a great superhero name, although Jessica thinks it sounds quite stripper-y. The Chitauri invasion from Avengers is called “the incident” and a kid is spotted running around in a Captain America costume, or as “Flag Guy,” as he’s nicknamed on the show. Even the first scene, with Jessica throwing a testy client through her Alias Investigations window, is a nod to the early panels of Alias. And, of course, in classic Stan Lee fashion, he makes a cameo—in a framed photo on the wall of the police station.
Other important characters—Wil Traval as Will Simpson (whose identity just might be Nuke from the comics), Erin Moriarty as Hope Shlottman, and Eka Darville as Malcolm Ducasse—play their roles impeccably and are essential elements of the plot. While other characters—like wacky upstairs neighbors and twins Robyn and Ruben—end up being annoying and bring the show’s momentum to a halt. Even Jeri’s marriage troubles, no matter how integral to the plot, tend to get repetitive and feel superficial, once the motive for them is revealed.
Aside from some slow pacing and subpar subplots, Jessica Jones kept me eager for more after every episode. Its willingness to confront dark subject matter and step away from stereotypical, clichéd gender and racial norms are steps in the right direction. If Jessica Jones, and Daredevil before it, is any indication of what Marvel has in store for us with the next two shows on the slate, count me in.