Night Nurse: Take off your pants.
Jessica: I usually like a little more romancing.
Night Nurse: Don't we all? (examines her injuries) So, did Kilgrave do that to you?
Jessica: No, he doesn't do his own dirty work. He controls minds.
Night Nurse: You're joking.
Jessica: It's fine by me if unbreakable skin is where you wanna draw the line.
--Jessica Jones "Aka Smile"
Marvel followed up its dark Netflix series Daredevil with Jessica Jones, using one of their lesser-known, but most interesting, characters. She proved a good choice. Like Iron Man, who inaugurated their cinematic adaptations, the non-comic-reading mainstream doesn't know her, and brought few expectations to the series. The character herself, like Tony Stark, has a complex and complexed personality that suits her for live-action development.
But she started as a superhero.
Jessica Jones, Comic-book hero
Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos created Jones at the turn of the millennium to be a world-weary superhero. The comic introduced her as a superstrong, occasionally sort-of flying woman who formerly called herself the Pulse and now works as a super-powered hardboiled detective for Alias Detective Agencies. She has held that identity in Marvel Comics, but she has also suited up in various series as the Pulse, Jewel, Knightress and Power Woman. She married Luke Cage, Power Man, and had a child, whose baby-sitter was Squirrel Girl. She was also retconned into Marvel's past; her father worked for Iron Man and she attended school with Peter Parker.
The TV version takes its cue from the original concept.
The TV Series (as of Season One)
An orphaned, broken, hard-drinking private eye with superpowers tries to redeem herself when the mind-controlling villain who once enslaved her forces his latest victim to kill her own parents. Along the way she gets help from her famous adoptive sister, Trish "Patsy" Walker, a neighborhood junkie, Malcolm, an ethically-challenged lawyer, Hogarth, and the future Hero for Hire, Luke Cage.
We have here a hero with a past. Although comparatively young, she's been damaged. The Stark Industry-related accident that gave her superpowers killed her parents. Her foster parent is the abusive stage-mother to child star Trish "Patsy" Walker, whose protector and friend she becomes, and in whose shadow she lives. Her past relationship with the first season's villain, an abusive and controlling (quite literally) individual, has damaged her further. Her choice of coping mechanisms, heavy drinking and cheap sex, haven't exactly improved matters (though both are wonderful for Netflix ratings). She briefly tried to be a superhero. The Jewel outfit appears in the show; she dumped the name when she realized it made her sound like a stripper.
We don't learn these things for awhile, however. Where the first season of Daredevil focuses on the hero's origin and development, and ends with him in full, familiar costume, Jessica Jones takes a different approach. The story introduces multiple aspects of the character in interesting ways. We learn what we need over time. Luke Cage's history isn't explored at all; he's just there. The season runs less linear than Daredevil, and proves more willing to explore side-stories, as a TV traditional series would. The season finale, meanwhile, leaves us wondering whether Jessica can save herself, much less become a true hero.
The series features strong actors turning in credible performance as characters dealing with incredible circumstances. Krysten Ritter turns Jones into a compelling characters. Her relationship with her adoptive sister/friend Trish Walker provides a level of depth and realism not often seen in superhero shows. At the same time Walker’s need to defend herself moves her from glamorous celebrity to possible costumed vigilante. Certainly, she takes an increasingly active role in her sister's story.
The show's central villain, performed terrifically by David Tennant, reflects on PTSD, many kinds of abuse, and the effects of affluence/privilege and terrible choices. He's a man with the power of a god, the ethics and temperament of an undisciplined child, and the abusive predilections of some abuse survivors. His specific power raises questions about free will, diminished responsibility, social privilege, and other topics relevant to both Marvel's universe and ours. The show's themes, then, prove quite weighty, though the writing lets them develop naturally, and without sacrificing the expected light quips and dark humor.
Jessica Jones plays it gritty and street. Marvel's most R-rated production to date, it opens up that fictional universe in ways that will surprise those who only know The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. People bleed, have onscreen sex, make terrible life decisions, and stay dead. Jones's neighbourhood presents dangers both familiar and fantastic.
Escapist heroism has always required a dangerous, but also a mythic, setting, whether King Arthur's Britain or Luke Skywalker's galaxy, far, far away. Tarzan swung across an Africa created by an American only familiar with that continent through colonial literature from an earlier generation. Terry and the Pirates cruised an Orient invented by a white man who'd never been there. John Ford's Old West was Monument Valley, even when the films were expressly set in Texas or near the Great Plains. Many of the consumers of these fantasies were naïve enough to think the reality might be something akin to what they were shown. Of course, a misleading exoticism of real places and outright racism permeates all of these examples, whatever their merit as stories. Nowadays we tend to sell fantasy as fantasy, without pretending it's the real world. We set stories in real cities but with added vampires, or extrasolar planets with shirt-sleeve environments. Marvel's Netflix shows do something similar with New York. It's our world, but superheroes exist. Hell's Kitchen, gentrified in the real world, has regained its noir sensibility as a result of the destructive Battle of New York depicted in The Avengers.
The shared universe has other benefits, besides. Characters from Daredevil reappear to good effect. Night Nurse plays a key role, and her verbal sparring with Jessica Jones proves entertaining. Hogarth, from this series, turns up in the second season of Daredevil. Metahumans are an acknowledged fact of this world, so that we need little explanation for their existence or the public response to them. When someone sees Jones use her superstrength, he says, with some fear, "you're one of them."
The shared universe also raises some questions, however.
It would cheat the narrative, the characters, and the budget if Iron Man or Thor simply showed up to help save the day.1 And yet, when we're reminded they exist, and that Daredevil lives, literally, around the corner from Jessica Jones, we start wondering. Why (in the world of the show) does no one seek help outside the main cast? Kilgrave represents a very serious threat. Why don't other metahumans notice the multiplicity of odd happenings and the Game of Thrones-like trail of bodies? Of course, the viewer would feel cheated if they did, but shared universes contain these inherent problems.
Other problems exist as well, caused by the familiar desire of writers to reach certain places in the story regardless of strong internal logic. It takes a significant length of time for anyone to hit on a possible weakness of Kilgrave's that many viewers thought of immediately. And, once Jones decides she needs to kill him, she doesn't bother taking a gun, which might have been helpful, if less dramatic.2 The first season also relies a little on pulp coincidences, but those are at least in keeping with the genre.
Never mind. Marvel's Netflix series rank among the best television—certainly, in the fantasy genre—in the 2000-teens. Jessica Jones uses superhuman powers and comic-book tropes to address some very serious issues, yet it finds real humor and humanity in its stories. The series received numerous award nominations and accolades, and the first season finale, "AKA Smile", won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form.
Directors: Simon Cellan Jones, S.J. Clarkson, David Petrarca, Stephen Surjik, Uta Briesewitz, John Dahl, Billy Gierhart, Rosemary Rodriguez, Michael Rymer
Writers: Melissa Rosenberg, Brian Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Jenna Reback, Ruth Atkinson, Otto Binder , John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Stan Lee, Joe Orlando, Archie Goodwin, Scott Reynolds, Johnny Romita, Dana Baratta, David Mazzucchelli, Frank Miller, Micah Schraft, Liz Friedman, Hilly Hicks Jr., Jamie King, Edward Ricourt
Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones
Rachael Taylor as Trish Walker
David Tennant as Kilgrave / The Purple Man
Eka Darville as Malcolm Ducasse
Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth
Mike Colter as Luke Cage
Wil Traval as Will Simpson
Susie Abromeit as Pam
Erin Moriarty as Hope Shlottman
Robin Weigert as Wendy Ross-Hogarth
Michael Siberry as Albert Thompson
Colby Minifie as Robyn
Ryan Farrell as Jackson
Paul Pryce as Donald
Kieran Mulcare as Ruben
Clarke Peters as Det. Oscar Clemons
Danielle Ferland as Clair
Nichole Yannetty as Nicole
Gillian Glasco as Emma
Lisa Emery as Louise Thompson
Rebecca De Mornay as Dorothy Walker
Joseph Ragno as Roy Healy
Parisa Fitz-Henley as Reva Connors
Elizabeth Cappuccino as Young Jessica
Charleigh E. Parker as Sissy Garcia
James Freedson-Jackson as Young Kilgrave
Catherine Blades as Young Trish / Patsy
Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple / Night Nurse
1. Forget the superhero heavyweights. Mouse over for spoiler.
2. Okay, sure. She might not have wanted to bring a firing weapon anywhere within range of a person able to control people's minds.