When Netflix announced that it would be producing a series of series featuring characters from the Marvel universe, one of the few things we were promised was that these series would be considerably darker than the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And when “Daredevil” premiered this spring, they delivered on that promise. A gritty, “Wire”-inspired take on the Hell’s Kitchen crime and corruption Matt Murdock put on a mask to fight, “Daredevil” didn’t skimp on the blood or brutality on screen, leading to a series that showrunner Steven S. DeKnight described as “PG-15.”
But Netflix’s next entry in this initiative, “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” might take that grim approach to a new whole new level.
“Jessica Jones” is based on a comic book series called “Alias,” written by Brian Michael Bendis and published by Marvel under the adult-rated Marvel “Max” banner. This meant that “Alias,” which ran for 28 issues from 2001 to 2004, was free to be a graphic, sex-and-profanity-filled look at the life of Jessica Jones, a retired superhero turned private detective. Over the course of the series, compiled originally as four trade paperbacks and recently republished as a hardback omnibus, Jessica got drunk, had inappropriate sex and used her superpowers to dish out some hardcore violence — while also coping with the extreme PTSD that led her to quit the superhero game.
It. Was. Great. And also, it felt like perfect fodder for a television show, which was first developed in 2010 before getting folded into the Netflix plan. Starring Krysten Ritter (the titular “B” of “Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23,” and an overall delight), “Jessica Jones” is maybe my most-anticipated premiere yet to come in 2015.
However, during a roundtable interview at the TCA Press Tour this year, executive producer Jeph Loeb and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg revealed something key about the series that has some pretty serious implications. And it all has to do with a key secondary character.
“When we first sat down and started talking about ‘Daredevil,’ what we said was, for all intents and purposes, it was a crime drama first and a superhero show second,” Loeb told the room. “One of the things we’ve talked a lot about is that ‘Jessica’ is in many ways a psychological thriller first and then a superhero show second.”
And the source for that thriller element may end up being drawn from a key element of Jessica’s backstory. If you haven’t read the comics (which really are worth checking out; beyond the introduction of one of Marvel’s most complicated female characters, there’s some great, smart storytelling there), here’s the least spoiler-y way of describing what happened: Jessica, while operating under the superhero name Jewel (in the present, she often reflects on how silly her alias and costume were), fell into the clutches of Kilgrave, AKA the Purple Man.
The Purple Man is so named because, well, he’s purple. But while that might seem like a joke, his mind control powers are serious business, and for months Jessica was trapped, doing his bidding; a deeply traumatic experience that did include a sexual component. The Purple Man is a monster…
And in “Jessica Jones,” he’s one of the stars of the show.
When David Tennant was cast in the role of Kilgrave earlier this year, those familiar with the range of his talent got pretty excited. Because if you only know Tennant’s work as either a madcap time traveler or moody detective investigating child murder, trust me: He’s more than capable of demonstrating a dark side. Not only was he first spotted by most American audiences as Death Eater Barty Crouch Jr. in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” but his body of work features no shortage of creepy roles. As just one example, here’s a scene from a 2005 miniseries entitled “Secret Smile” that’s haunted me for the last 10 years (NSFW for language/your fond feelings towards David Tennant):
Now Tennant’s playing a major villain, and, according to Loeb, that major villain is a major component of the series. “In the same kind of way Vincent D’Onofrio owned his half of ‘Daredevil,'” he said, “you’ll see David Tennant own his half of ‘Jessica Jones.'”
Loeb then went on to say that Tennant’s role in the show would be a key part of what differentiates “Jessica Jones” from other superhero series: “What you get out of ‘Jessica’ is a sort of hold-your-breath tension as to what’s going to happen. When you see the dynamic between Krysten Ritter and David Tennant… that question of ‘What’s going to happen next?’ and ‘What could happen next?’ and how that’s driven by character is something that is so important to not just the scripts but also the way the show is shot, and the way that everyone reacts, and the way those two react with each other.”
Promising that Tennant’s role in “Jessica Jones” will be as substantial as D’Onofrio’s role in “Daredevil” then implies how much of the first season, at least, will be devoted to the relationship between Jessica and Kilgrave. Which is interesting, because in the “Alias” comics he does not become a key player until the fourth of four trade paperbacks. Jessica, already set up as a very private person even with the audience, takes her time in revealing all her secrets, and Kilgrave is the big one; the reason why she abandoned the superhero game, the reason why she’s brittle. But we first get to know the character on her own terms. And it never feels like she’s sharing the stage with her abuser.
Here is an important disclaimer to make at this point: There is no way of knowing how closely the series will hew to the original comics. Not only that, but the series is under no obligation to do so. Kilgrave could have a very different back story and relationship with Jessica in the show.
But original creator Brian Michael Bendis has already blogged his support for what he’s seen of “Jessica Jones” thus far, saying that: “The show is so good. I have seen the first couple of episodes and because I didn’t work on it directly i can say this with full no ego fanfare: I loved it!! […] it is faithful and lively and everything that I could personally have wanted from the show.”
So that’s good news… though we could be in for a show that’s largely about the relationship between a woman and her rapist. Fortunately, rape is territory that other Netflix shows have established a track record for exploring in a serious way. (Unlike, say, a certain HBO series.)
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” might be a comedy, but it’s a comedy that’s never shied away from the depth of pain that its protagonist internalized during 15 years of captivity in an underground bunker, where as she once confessed there was “weird sex stuff.” And “Orange is the New Black” became real about rape this year in a new way, but in a way that was also incredibly sensitive to the victim.
What’s the unifying element there? It probably doesn’t hurt that both shows have female showrunners at the helm. And Rosenberg has been involved with the project for years, since the earliest days of its development. No one can deny that she knows the material well.
In fact, hearing her talk about Jessica during the roundtable was a treat. “Jessica is about paying rent, getting the next client. She’s dealing with a fairly dark past. She’s trying to get through the day. She’s not really trying to save the city, she’s trying to save her apartment,” she said. “At her core, she wants to do something good. She wants to contribute to the world. But there are a lot of personality issues for her that can get in the way.”
“Jessica Jones is a brawler. She gets drunk, she gets pissed off, and boom, you’re down. She doesn’t wear a costume, she doesn’t have a mask. She’s just who she is,” she added.
And I’m very excited to see how that plays. But for Jessica’s sake, I’m also still just a little bit nervous.