By now, most of you have met Jessica Jones, the new Marvel superhero whose very own TV show on Netflix debuted in full on Friday. It’s the second installment of the Marvel-Netflix team-up, and its highest achievement is how much lower it is to the ground, making us feel even closer to its characters than “Daredevil” (reviewed here) and, as a result, assimilating us even further to this particular corner of the MCU. And I won’t lie; Melissa Rosenberg‘s name flashed a few red flags when I heard that she was the showrunner, what with her CV being overshadowed by her work in the “Twilight” series. But, flags be damned because she does an excellent job of creating something wholly different and refreshing with Brian Michael Bendis‘ and Michael Gaydos‘ foul-mouthed, damaged, aspiring-superhero-turned-disenchanted-private-investigator from “Alias.” It was Marvel’s first strictly adult-oriented comic book, and – maybe even more significantly – it’s the youngest publication (2001) we’ve seen adapted for the MCU (Marvel’s imprints not included). “Jessica Jones” doesn’t have the decades-heavy weight of source material to live up to, allowing the story to skid over tropes with a liberating free spirit, wonderfully embodied in the central reluctant hero. Joined by a strong ensemble of actors led by Krysten Ritter, Rosenberg remains faithful to the spirit of the source material and takes an unconventional approach to the notions of the hero, the stakes, and the villain that we’ve been slightly suffocated by throughout Marvel’s first two Phases. So, toss away any reservations you might have and enjoy a remarkably revivifying new installment in the superhero game because “Jessica Jones” is a triumph.
We’re back in Hell’s Kitchen, this time following ex-superhero PI Jessica Jones (Ritter) as she callously makes ends meet by digging up dirt on cheating husbands and wives. In classic film noir fashion, she oozes confidence and loves her independence, relying more on wits and whiskey than superpowers to get her through the day. A recent traumatic event has left a hefty psychological toll on her, as we see her licking her wounds and powering through bouts of PTSD from the very first episode. Some of the fallout from this personal tragedy includes her stalking the local dive bar owner Luke Cage (Michael Colter), and maintaining a safe distance from her one true friend, ex-child star and popular radio talk show host Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). But when two worried parents hire Jessica to find their daughter Hope (Erin Moriarty), her supposed-to-be-super-dead archenemy Kilgrave (David Tennant) resurfaces. A sociopathic mind-controller with an affinity for purple, fine dining, and doing whatever the hell he wants, Kilgrave is the bane of Jessica’s existence and the cause of all her recent turmoil. By the tragic climax of Episode 1, when we get our first taste of Kilgrave’s immense power through Hope, Jessica becomes determined to face her foe head-on and stop him for good, rekindling her close bond with Trish in the process.
Rounding out the major supporting assortment of characters who at times help Jessica, and at times just get in her way, are her junkie neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville), steely defense attorney Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Will Simpson (Wil Traval), a stubborn NYPD Sergeant who gets in way over his head. All three of these people are, at one point or another, “Kilgraved” — a term that becomes colloquial by Episode 6 — along with Cage, Trish, and basically everyone else who gets close to Jessica. Her hardened facade hides, or tries to in any case, a terrible insecurity over the notion of heroism; this idea that the powers she never asked to have somehow obligate her to help other people, but as more and more people around her get hurt, she opts for the heroically obvious and rises to the occasion. Totally cliché, right? But, what makes her different is that – unlike Matt Murdock who is burdened by guilt and his father’s death – Jessica’s biggest burden is getting over her dislike of people in general, noting that “sometimes giving a damn” is her one major weakness. Yeah, she’s kind of an asshole.
If one were to go inside her head a la “Inside Out,” the emotion at the controls would undoubtedly be Disgust, while Joy remains tied-up and knocked out somewhere in the corner. With a central character so down-to-earth — opting for jeans and black hoodies over capes and silly masks, while not giving two shits about hiding a secret identity — the greatest appeal in “Jessica Jones” is the pulpy practicality it pumps into the irrational world of superheroes. That’s what’s so great in her laidback chat with Cage in Episode 3 about not really knowing what to do with their powers or why they have them in the first place, or the Audrey Eastman case in Episode 4 — featuring Jessica Hecht in a scene-stealing guest appearance — when the collateral damage of The Avenger’s NYC alien battle is still very much felt. These grounded moments, seeping through every aspect of the show, make for one of the most compelling storylines to come out of any Marvel Studio, and certainly the best in 2015.
This girl is messed up. Her fallibility and understated emphasis on her acquired powers makes her an intensely empathetic hero. She’s strong, yes, but it’s a strength she mostly uses to open locked doors. She can’t fly, “it’s more like jumping and falling down.” She doesn’t even have Trish’s supermodel good looks, and is rarely the brightest bulb in the room. She constantly gets outsmarted by her enemy, fails to think ahead on a number of crucial occasions, and processes events as they occur to her like an alcoholic experiencing moments of clarity. Luke Cage sums her up best when he describes her as “a hard-drinking, short-fused, mess of a woman. But not a piece of shit.” And this is why she’s so easy to root for and love. However, I found myself not embracing her completely, partly due to Ritter’s performance and partly due to how the character is written for the screen. Her cynical facade is at times unbelievable because it’s fairly obvious that she does want to help people, however much she feigns not liking to do it, and on a number of occasions she simply fails to convince as someone who doesn’t think they’re not the hero the world thinks they are. That said, I definitely don’t want to take too much away from Ritter; her performance is a bit see-through when Jessica acts tough as nails, but she excels in every other dimension of the character. Her handling of Jessica’s damaged past, repairing her close relationship with Trish, falling out with Luke, or wrapping her head around the idea of stopping Kilgrave, sees Ritter at her career-best. Not to mention her marvelous talent for delivering witty comebacks. “I wish I had a Mother Of The Year award, so I can bludgeon you with it,” is easily my favorite line of any MCU property this year, and that’s mostly thanks to Ritter.
We’re in Hell’s Kitchen again, but, unlike “Daredevil,” the neighbourhood is more backdrop than motivational engine. A positive reinforcement born out of the idea that Jessica Jones is very much a modern superhero — essentially a retcon in the traditional world of Marvel — is the lack of an overpowering sense of obligation for keeping her city safe. Instead, the thematic meat of “Jessica Jones” is found in the relationships between the characters, and one woman’s path to recovery from mental and physical abuse. In this way, the stakes raised are fundamentally more personal, and the scale of the main battlefield is concentrated in one woman’s questionable state of mind. Because the tone is edgy and dark throughout, once the central conflict bubbles up to the surface, emotional investment is at maximum capacity. What with Malcolm’s drug addiction and withdrawal symptoms, her neighbour Ruben’s (Kieran Mulcare) run-in with Kilgrave, Hope’s entire arc, and Simpson’s twisted (albeit, somewhat rushed) turn for the worse; “Jessica Jones” is psychologically bleak as all hell, an atmosphere which finds its way to the smallest of scenes and to the most emotionally-stirring of themes. An early moment in Episode 2 is one of my favorite examples of this tone, and how subtly it permeates. Jessica visits one of Kilgrave’s victims, stuck to a dialysis machine for life and it quickly becomes clear that, while the devil runs amok, God is nowhere to be found.
Now, about this particular devil. Rosenberg and co. smartly opted for a grittier approach to the villain known as “The Purple Man” in the comics, distinguished by his purple skin. Instead of a grape-coloured version of Nightcrawler, we get David Tennant’s British-coloured, exceedingly charismatic, and frighteningly charming Kilgrave, easily the most fascinating, memorable, and delectable super-villain we’ve seen so for in the MCU. His power of mind-control paralyzes those closest to him into a monomaniacal state of executing his every command (the nastiest you can imagine), which you’d figure any one-dimensional villain would use for a power-thirsty gulp of dominion over the world, or even just the neighbourhood. There’s none of that here. It isn’t until Episode 7 that we find out the raison d’être of Kilgrave’s villainy, which has nothing to do with world domination, Hell’s Kitchen, or that age-old motive of revenge. What makes him so plausible and well rounded is that his motives are purely personal, and ultimately (however demented) quite human. The only other two MCU villains that can come close to comparison are Loki (Tom Hiddelston) and The Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio), and he’s way more fun to watch than either of those brooding mugs.
Though both have their depth, the aristocratic sense of “kneel before me or perish” with Loki, and Wilson Fisk’s mob boss persona keep the two villains slightly alienated from the viewer. Kilgrave, on the other hand, with his coherent motives, chilling unpredictability, and boyish relish of his superpower, makes us sit up in full attention whenever he’s seen or heard on screen. Take the “Everybody quiet!” coffee shop moment in Episode 6, and tell me that’s not the best way to summarize what most of us would do with his kind of power. He’s a bit like if The Joker had Professor X’s powers of persuasion, which is why three key climactic confrontations featuring him and Jessica — their police station meeting in Episode 7, the adrenalized confrontation that concludes Episode 9, and the powerful gut-puncher in the restaurant scene of Episode 10 — together make up the season’s brightest highlights, cement David Tennant as the show’s assured MVP, and confirm Kilgrave as MCU’s greatest villain to date. Alas, all of this makes the (anti-)climactic meeting in Episode 13 somewhat disappointing.
Through its unconventional twists of traditional tropes with the notions of the hero, the stakes, and the villain, “Jessica Jones” rejuvenates some life into a stagnant MCU, with an even bigger impact than “Daredevil,” as the latter is more of a technical wonder and an introduction of how comic book material comes alive in the Netflix format. The biggest kick in the ass the MCU gets with “Jessica Jones,” though, and what snaps us out most readily from our fatigue with superheroes in general, is the female voice. Even when it was being shopped around for ABC, Melissa Rosenberg’s goal from the start was to do a credible story centered on a three-dimensional, independent, and hard-knuckled woman. With a team of female directors and writers behind her (including S. J. Clarkson, Liz Fieldman, Dana Baratta, Uta Briesewitz, among others), Rosenberg gives us something that’s been sorely missing in any comic book universe on screen; strong women, strong female relationships (Trish and Jessica’s friendship is one of the biggest emotional cores in the story), and the heart-wrenching theme of physical, sexual, and mental abuse from a purely feminine perspective. This is the greatest contribution Rosenberg makes to the Bendis-Gaydos material from “Alias,” especially in terms of Kilgrave’s villainy and its association to rape, which is tiptoed around in the comics but tackled head-on in the show. It’s something that, again, reminds me of how Jessica Jones is 21st century material and how much more grounded, intimate, and realistic the story is because of it. Even the gender switch of Moss’ character is an inspired choice that works in the show’s favour, and makes Jeri Hogarth more interesting as an antagonistic protagonist.
It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. Certain methods of handling things in “Jessica Jones” prompt me to advise viewers to still seek out “Alias.” Jessica’s own insecurities and the explanation of Kilgrave’s power over someone’s mind is better handled by Bendis and Gaydos, whereas with Ritter and Rosenberg’s adaptation, it’s a little harder to understand why, for example, Jessica has such a big problem telling Luke about his wife. A lot of the subplots end up dragging the pace, especially Hogarth’s personal issues with a vindictive soon-to-be ex-wife (Robin Weigert) and the tonally discordant characterization of Robyn (Colbie Minifie) — a future super-villain in the making if I ever saw one. While the performances from Ritter, Tennant, Moss, Tyler, and Colter range from impressive to fantastic, Wil Traval’s Simpson (“Nuke” for nerds) rusts the overall steel-clad ensemble. All of that coupled with a gross misuse of Clarke Peters, some inconsistent character decisions, and a wavering belief in Ritter’s detective as a truly broken person, and “Jessica Jones” loses some storytelling points. Fortunately, though, the leftover positives in the writing and the execution (including David Mack‘s absolutely killer opening credit design, and Sean Callary‘s super-smooth jazz-inspired score throughout) render all objections weak and categorically minor.
With this sophomore effort by the Netflix-Marvel collaboration, head TV honcho Jeph Loeb should feel mighty proud of what’s getting accomplished on the small screen in Marvel’s name. Not only does “Jessica Jones” prove to be a first-rate companion piece to “Daredevil,” and a more intimate observation into the ordinary lives of reluctant heroes, but it revs up anticipation for the next installment, “Luke Cage,” thanks to Colter’s affable screen presence, and the 100% believable connection he’s got with Ritter’s Jessica. The show is also, hopefully, a sign of things to come in terms of comic book films featuring strong, intelligibly written, female characters. In that aspect, what is still sorely missing from any comic book universe (but especially the MCU) is a memorable female villain. DC‘s “Suicide Squad” is coming out next year, yes, but I’m talking about a stand-alone female villain that goes head-to-head with a classic superhero. Because, even in a show so determined and successful at raising the bar of female representation, it’s still Tennant’s harrowingly entertaining baddie who walks away as the most memorable character of them all. The more avid comic book readers out there are invited to give any suggestions in the comments below as far as who this future villain could be. In the meantime, while Marvel’s broad brushstrokes continue to tire us out on the big screen, we can safely look to Netflix and shows like “Jessica Jones” for some much-needed inoculation against the reoccurring bout of superhero fatigue. [B+]