Tweetable Takeaway: Jessica Jones is the street-level, superhero story for grown-ups we all deserve.
It’s easy to take Marvel offerings for granted. There are a ton of them—our cultural consciousness is flooded with them and they tend to be, if not earth-shatteringly amazing, at least competently executed. Market saturation and the illusion of action-thriller sameness make them easy to dismiss as commercial garbage. That would be a mistake, especially in the case of JESSICA JONES.
I took a bit of damage from the masses for not falling to my knees and worshiping Daredevil as a masterpiece. I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t my thing. As an entry in the MCU, I found it frustratingly isolated and tone deaf. Jessica Jones takes every single issue that I had with Daredevil and repairs it completely. They might as well have been running down my list and checking things off systematically. This is how a premium-cable-style Marvel show should be—independent, yet connected enough to be plausible. Jessica Jones addresses the fact that it exists in a world where superheroes are real, where weird danger is a constant threat, and where even the people with powers don’t really know how to handle it. But it also recognizes that we’re all grown-ups here.
This is the second Marvel adaptation with a female lead and it does not disappoint. Agent Carter is heavily about being a woman navigating the pitfalls of a patriarchal society. Jessica Jones doesn’t hammer so hard, but makes its point equally well. The oppressive atmosphere is created entirely through a sense of entrapment. Every lead character is a woman except the villain. Women run this story, but not this world. None of them are portrayed as victims, none of them need men to save them, and all of them insist on their agency.
Agency, here, is key. That’s the entire point of the series, and why Kilgrave is such a perfect villain. Kilgrave steals agency, not just from women but from everyone, forcing even men to deal with the powerlessness that follows. The devastating fallout from and the inherent terror in that loss of control is what lends the show its dark overtones. Trish is the moral center, though she’s traumatized by a childhood where she was forced to conform to feminine ideals. It’s also notable that Trish hosts the most popular talk show in the city—she has a voice with huge reach. Jessica is agency incarnate, which is how she manages to help so many people despite claiming misanthropy. Hogarth is unsavory and described as a “shark” on multiple occasions, but it’s Hogarth who has the official power within the system. Hope is the easiest to cast as the victim, yet even while incarcerated, Hope desperately retains control of her body at all times. After her initial victimization by Kilgrave, everything that happens to Hope is her choice. Even Claire Temple from Daredevil makes an appearance, which is not only a delightfully concrete tie to the Marvel microcosm that exists within the confines of Netflix, it lets her actually be more than just the love object with handy medical skills. Which is fitting, since Jessica Jones is a deliberately open space where every woman on the screen is allowed to be their own, individual, well-rounded person in every capacity. Some of them are good. Some of them are cruel. Some kind and some ruthless. Some are a mix of everything. But all of them are vibrant and all of them are alive.
As an extension of the lady-love, the dudes are just as well done. Simpson, in particular, was remarkable to me. He enters the series as just another passing victim of Kilgrave. But, because this show is astounding in its refusal to discard anyone as simply collateral damage, Simpson sticks around and shows how much of a sweetheart he is. Yet, hit with desperation in the face of his helplessness, he starts popping pills that turn him into a hyper-macho nightmare representation of patriarchal excess. Simpson enacts a small-scale reign of terror equal in horror to Kilgrave’s. Jessica’s neighbors, Rubin and Malcolm, were also of note. Rubin’s childlike innocence would be easy to play for laughs, but the narrative lets him experience valid emotions. Malcolm starts off as a drug addict, but he’s cared for by his neighbors and not dismissed for his addiction. When it turns out that he’s also under Kilgrave’s control, Malcolm’s story becomes as much about personal choice and helping others as anyone’s. Jessica Jones is an equal opportunity humanizer. It’s stunningly refreshing.
If you follow any of my other reviews (most notably my Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ones) you’ll know that I have a vendetta against romance. Romance in fiction tends to be reductionist, exploitative, or just plain formulaic. Characters—particularly women—often exist in stories solely as love interest objects. It’s even more infuriating when a highly developed lady character regresses into little more than an element of the romantic high drama formula (yes, that spitball is aimed at you AoS.) What Jessica Jones offers is fully formed humans engaging in messy, complicated, but realistically executed human relationships. Not specifically romantic, but not specifically unromantic, the sexual and emotional intercourse is stunningly present. There was not a single time when a scene or conversation existed just to fulfill a formula. Additionally, sex scenes were refreshingly about connection, not about visually exploiting female bodies for male gratification. They functioned narratively rather than as voyeuristic fan service. Most thrillingly, the villain’s villainy is solely based in the type of skeevoid, stalker-ish behavior that pop culture often tries to pass off as “love.” Kilgrave is certainly not a large-scale threat like Hydra or alien invaders. But his personal crusade, his highly-focused objective is perfect for an intimate, street-level superhero story like Jessica Jones. It’s that intimacy that makes him one of the most terrifying Marvel villains for me.
I also adored Luke Cage. He exists as more than just a love interest, as Jessica was already keeping an eye on him. His superpower was frickin’ awesome, and later actually became an issue when he needed medical care. I love when superpowers have practical side effects in everyday life. But what was best about Luke and Jessica, and what let me enjoy their romance, was that they are complimentary and equal. The super-strong woman meets an unbreakable man who she doesn’t have to worry about hurting in sexual escapades and vice versa. They can go into battle side-by-side without too much worry. And, while they’re both a little screwed up, they’re screwed up in such ways that they can help each other heal. Theirs is the high-functioning bright side of complimentary relationships, where Jessica’s and Kilgrave’s is the dysfunctional dark side. Jessica Jones presents both to the audience, not as related choices, but as a study in trust.
Fixing my issues with Netflix’s previous offering extended even to my very specific personal interests. Because these shows post in one big chunk, it’s hard to fit them into the larger MCU timeline which (generally) runs in parallel with release dates. To combat that ambiguity, Jessica Jones gives us actual dates. This story is either just before or concurrent with the first half of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s second season1, a few months before Age of Ultron. Additionally, it makes reference to the Avengers as “out” superheroes without it feeling forced. The episode where a woman tries to take her prejudices against “gifted” people out on Jessica was even better at addressing bigotry than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which has tried to confront the topic head-on. Subtly calling Jessica or Luke “one of those people” or “one of them” singled them out in a more everyday way. Various characters mentioned “the green guy and his friends” without harping on it too much, and a kid ran by in a Captain America costume which could happen as readily in our world as theirs. Jessica Jones isn’t nearly as embarrassed about existing in the MCU as Daredevil, and the characters still get to swear and paint the walls with gore.
One of my biggest peeves with Daredevil was the half-assed dismissal of how Matt Murdock got his superpowers and how they work. The MCU has to be very careful and deliberate about superpowers. They must, with few exceptions, come from science, and that science has to be plausible enough by in-universe logic that superpowers don’t become just a lame excuse for martial arts sequences. Jessica Jones addresses the problem of origin stories early on with a simple: “Accident. You?” “Experiment.” Boom. Done. That’s enough information for me to buy into their powers wholesale and stop fretting over why the hell they even have them. And the series returns to that point. We learn that there is more behind how Luke and Jessica powered up though it’s clear that the issue isn’t currently pressing.
But my favorite, the true kicker for me, was how Kilgrave got his powers. My absolute favorite pet topic is science and scientists in the MCU. Kilgrave’s powers coming from evil science experiments was delectable if a little eye-roll worthy. But that was so pat, so easy to take at face value that revealing Kilgrave had loving parents who were trying to save him, rather than torturing him, had me in tears. Not because it was touching, but because it serves my purposes so well that Jessica Jones, in that moment, might as well have been declaring that it reciprocated my undying love. Kilgrave’s powers coming from a virus, while not exactly logically sound if he can eventually control people through speakers, is such a beautifully pragmatic explanation. It’s not magic, it’s science. This show takes nothing about powers for granted, and for that it has my eternal gratitude. This is how to do superpowers right.
Fixing all my complaints didn’t mean sacrificing aesthetics either. Daredevil was highly stylized, both because it was desperately seeking the approval of premium cable crime dramas and to convey Murdoch’s perception of the world. Jessica Jones is equally as gorgeous, using color and soundscapes to represent Jessica’s post traumatic stress, a subtle rack focus on establishing shots that suggested a PI refocusing her camera, and a 1950s noir narration that let Jessica discuss her internal morality without coming off as an overwrought douchebag by having weird conversations with her friends. There are even individual shots that expose the underlying brutality in everyday objects, like curtain hooks in an ER or the stark fence posts in a security grate. It was as much a feast for the eyes, as it was for my analytical feminist brain.
I have too much emotional and intellectual energy invested in the MCU on the whole. Usually, this serves me well. It’s a nice outlet. But lately I’ve been battered, disgruntled, and generally offended by the mediocre fare and the blatant drummed up drama from other quarters. Jessica Jones is a balm to the soul. It’s like applying a thick layer of salve to every sore I’ve collected over the past year. I couldn’t be happier with it. There’s so much more I could say. In a word: it’s perfect. But rather than taking that to mean flawless in a sterile way, let’s take the dictionary definition:
- having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.
Dana Leigh Brand is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor