The Sublime Darkness of Jessica Jones
Netflix’s latest collaboration with Marvel centers around a superpowered private investigator.
When viewers first meet the private investigator Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), she’s throwing a client through her front-door window. Things only go downhill from there. Marvel’s newest hero, whose eponymous series debuts on Netflix this Friday, might be its most flawed, but she’s also its most fascinating, and her show marks an evolutionary leap forward for the brand’s expansive collection of movies and TV shows, deftly exploring themes of trauma, abuse, and prejudice. It’s taken too long to get here, but Jessica Jones is exactly what the overwhelmingly male Marvel Universe has been crying out for.
The show is as marked a sea change as the comic-book title on which it’s based—Alias, created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos in 2001, which was the first “Marvel MAX” book, a work that could depict explicit sex, language, and violence. Jessica Jones is the second Marvel series to air on Netflix after Daredevil, but while that show was dark and violent, its hero was still a traditional do-gooder looking to take down a big bad gangster. From minute one, Jessica Jones operates in shades of grey, offering a complex character who’s haunted by a scarily mundane supervillain, and working through tribulations in sometimes ill-advised ways. It’s different, but it’s one of the best things Marvel Studios has released.
As created by Bendis, the character of Jessica operates as a sort of dark commentary on superhero fandom. She’s a normal high-school student and admirer (from afar) of Peter Parker’s until an industrial accident gives her super-strength and the ability to fly. She tries to become a costumed do-gooder, but an encounter with a powerful villain, Zebediah Killgrave, puts an end to that. So she starts a detective agency, trying to overcome both her experience with Killgrave and her ineffectiveness as a “traditional” hero.
The show largely clings to that story but simplifies its elements—while Bendis was creating a character who pushed back against 60 years of Marvel tradition, Melissa Rosenberg (who adapted the show for television) has to keep things a little more grounded. Jessica Jones isn’t the procedural mystery it might have been had it aired on ABC (for which it was first developed). It’s focused on just one case—Jessica’s dogged pursuit of Killgrave, a mercurial sadist who formerly kept her captive and subjected her to prolonged emotional torture. Ritter (Breaking Bad, Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23) plays Jessica as a tough, pugnacious heroine who’s as aggressive in her romantic pursuits as she is on the job.
But she’s also troubled by her past experiences, about which details are carefully doled out episode by episode. Killgrave (David Tennant) lurks in the margins of the story, glimpsed more often through the people he controls than in person. The show does a meticulous job building up its big bad, taking advantage of Netflix’s natural inclination towards serialization, and while the season arc plods a bit at times, it’s carried by the electric work done by Ritter and Tennant. Tennant is helped by the sheer amount of menace the show imbues his character with before he even appears onscreen, but resists going over the top—like Vincent D’Onofrio in Daredevil, he’s finding new angles on roles that lesser actors would have just chewed scenery for.
Ritter conveys Jessica’s vulnerability without ever making her seem helpless, or losing her sense of the show’s dark humor. This is a show about a survivor of rape and abuse, and although it occasionally dances around definitive language on the subject matter, its engagement with it is sensitively done and powerfully affecting. This is perhaps surprising for a Marvel show—from a studio that still hasn’t released a film with a female protagonist—but Rosenberg fleshes out Jessica’s inner demons without losing sight of the fact that this is a superhero drama. The fight scenes are effortlessly cool and casual—not the elaborately choreographed martial-arts routines of Daredevil, but a looser version, obviously fueled by Jessica’s barely sublimated rage.
Jessica Jones is technically related to Daredevil, but the show is thankfully its own beast, bearing little connection so far beyond the Hell’s Kitchen setting. It does, however, feature Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a famed Marvel character who will have his own show on Netflix next year. Even on these more grounded shows, Marvel’s ploy of drawing the viewer into spinoff properties remains in effect, and there are rumored plans for more direct crossovers in the future. But forget that for now: Jessica Jones stands by itself as a fascinating work of TV, and represents the evolutionary leap Marvel has been waiting to take in terms of telling a wider variety of stories. You can enjoy it without knowing a thing about any other comic-book title, on the page or on the screen, and that’s just about the highest praise one can bestow on a Marvel property.