[Warning: Mild spoilers for all of “Jessica Jones” Season 1 below.]
With the premiere of “Jessica Jones'” just last month, Netflix and the larger MCU continued its “The Defenders” campaign, which will eventually unite Jones with Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.
Though “Daredevil” was well-received for its lushly realized vision of the gritty and violent streets of Hell’s Kitchen, its ground-level sister “Jessica Jones” has been heaped with unprecedented praise, especially considering Jones’ lesser-known status prior to its release. And while much of the coverage devoted to “Jessica Jones” has celebrated the show’s comprehensibility outside of the Marvel Universe, making it easily digestible even if you’ve never heard of Asgard, the series still works within Marvel’s typical story format, albeit featuring a far-less-than-typical approach to hero work. Following the same structure as “Daredevil” by functioning as a protracted origin story, “Jessica Jones” isn’t so much a superhero show as it is an interrogation of the very structure of a typical origin story, overtly rejecting the assumption that superpowers can provide a necessary salve to life-inflicted wounds.
Jessica Jones’ origin story is certainly darker than most, the most disturbing element of which involves her history with supervillain Kilgrave, which left her a disillusioned rape survivor with PTSD. The show is quick to point out that Jones’ powers never gave provided her any safety — in fact, the powers that might have rendered her a victor instead made her a delicious target for Kilgrave, her powers of super strength and endurance drawing her deeper into Kilgrave’s warped cosmos. Shortly after the first episode’s shocking climax, Jones’ surrogate younger self and fellow ex-Kilgrave captor Hope Schlottman sits down with Jones to tell her about her suffering at the hands of Kilgrave. “Are you a good jumper?” she asks her, sickeningly confiding how Kilgrave condemned her to jump as high as she could for hours, only leading him to conclude that her work was nothing compared to Jessica’s talents.
The opportunity to turn to heroism had been afforded Jessica before — by the time we meet her, she’s had enough origin stories to kick start a few superheroes: gifted with powers after the tragic loss of her parents, Jones endured a hellish childhood as the adopted daughter of a show mom from hell, and eventually met what might have been her end in her first and earth-shattering experience of Kilgrave’s abuse. But what might have been caused violence-rousing vengeance for some drove Jessica into fast retreat, turning to sleuthing to reassemble her life on her own terms, even if that means packing a Kleen Kanteen full of whiskey to take on her overnight stakeout.
Though “Jessica Jones” largely follows the trauma-tale structure set by “Daredevil,” creator Melissa Rosenberg separates the shows with her approach to the ideas of hero work and its often related violence. And while it’s fair to approach any comparison to Matt Murdock/Daredevil (a Marvel character largely categorized as the chaotic good of MCU’s roster) with a fair amount of ambivalence, their close proximity and eventual pairing make it difficult not to speak about them both in the same breath.
Characterized by the city streets and thematic grime that the Netflix/Marvel partnership has proffered, the pilot of “Daredevil” picks up with hero Murdock in a similarly dark place: possessing already honed powers of his own after a traumatic childhood incident, Murdock spends his days at a law firm, righting wrongs on the streets of New York. But each of their free hours are spent markedly differently: while Murdock laces up to toss baddies into walls, Jessica’s evenings are spent on research or occasional undercover tailing.
Jessica’s powers aren’t even acknowledged until after one of these evenings, well into the first episode, when Jessica chucks a bag at her ceiling only to crack the molding, an apt visual metaphor for how much help her powers have provided her in the past. In the business of sleuthing (because “booze costs money”) Jessica employs her powers largely to catch various jerks in Porsches and defend her newfound lover Luke Cage in senseless bar fights. And considering a history of victimization by a villain with powers of his own, as well as a history of exploitation, Jessica’s reverence for violence and the damage her powers can cause sets her refreshingly apart from many of the current highly-trafficked Marvel properties.
“Daredevil” has seen its fair share of criticism for its apparently laissez-faire approach to violence and human suffering, preferring instead to devote a large amount of its philosophical hand-wringing to the prospect of murder. And about halfway through “Jessica Jones,” a similar dialogue breaks out. Previously averse to using any significant violence to get ahead (though Kilgrave’s hired hands take a bit of a beating), Jessica finds herself with a chance to trap Kilgrave, only prompting questions from close friends as to why she refuses to simply take his life. Driven largely to protect the people Kilgrave has tossed off in his wake, she’s initially seduced by the idea of torture and total domination; finding herself aggressively trouncing Kilgrave in a violent outburst of unmitigated control. But it’s immediately after that scene that Jones steps away, finding herself terrified at the vengeful actions she’s taken, and burdened by the obvious impact that her power can have on other prone bodies.
In “Alias,” the comic by Brian Michael Bendis that “Jessica Jones” is based on, Jessica is given an early superhero origin as the costumed Jewel, a spunky and naive superhero partly drawn into hero work due to a teenage infatuation with Peter Parker. Thankfully, Rosenberg hastily jettisons the comic’s narrative in favor of a different and more consistent confrontation for Jones’ could-be alter-ego. As the ever-upbeat Trish attempts to cajole the wine-toting Jessica into hero work with a mock-up of a plasticine Jewel costume, she responds by casually balking, at once pushing away the idea that hero work is something easily taken on and the prospect of wearing a tube top in combat. (Because really, is there anything less impossible?)
Around the halfway point of the series, Jessica scoffs, “Men and power. It’s seriously a disease,” a line that cuts to the quick of what makes “Jessica Jones” such an interesting and ultimately, responsible property. While it makes way for the super, “Jones” also separates itself from years of Marvel’s male superhero equivalencies, by separating the notion of power from the concept of the super. In the world of Marvel, nearly every road leaves to villainy or heroism, but the route that “Jessica Jones” travels is certainly one less taken. For Jessica, backgrounds of trauma and respect color her autonomous choices: sure, “with great power comes great responsibility,” but sometimes power brings the risk of everything come undone.
Rather than a reactionary fantasy of physical power, “Jessica Jones” gives us an autonomous look at the origin story. And though it’s certainly not less violent or dark than any other, its sense of responsibility: to women, to victims, to concepts of violence, is admirable. And in an era in which senseless violence seems to close in each day, affecting those close and far away, “Jessica Jones’s” ambivalence to violence is fresher and immediate than ever. Aware of the pain of the consequence of a single careless movement, Jones’s origin expresses a reverence for the impact of violence in a way few have done before. Because until it hits you, you have no idea what pain is.
“Marvel’s Jessica Jones” is streaming now on Netflix.