While movies like The Avengers, Ant-Man and the like show the fun side of superheroism — the escape, the power fantasy, the drama — Marvel’s TV shows are becoming the place to really go to get an earthier side of the comic book experience. Daredevil was a fast favorite for me as it took the Marvel universe out of the clouds and brought it down to earth. I don’t need everything to be ultra-gritty and realistic, but that show was a nice change of pace from the movies; it gave the overall Marvel universe another, and much needed, dimension.
Jessica Jones takes things a step further. It not only makes super heroes feel believable, but makes them into real, fully formed people. They have pasts that influence their present, scars of both the physical and emotional varieties, and complex emotional responses to things.
Jessica Jones is rooted in reality. You have to accept that there’s super strength and mind control and things like that in this universe, but they’re used here to deal with real-world things that might otherwise be tougher to swallow.
There will be some spoilers in this review, but i’ll do my best to keep out of the most important plot points. This is a show that deals with adult, mature themes, though, so some of that will be dealt with here as well. Proceed at your own discretion!
When we meet Jessica Jones, she’s already long since done with being a superhero. In fact, it’s a bit unclear as to whether she ever officially donned spandex in this incarnation. They play with some of the comic book history of her character, but it isn’t made explicit whether a lot of it actually came to pass.
What is real, though, is her history with the man called Kilgrave, and how that affected and continues to affect her. This makes up the show’s central pillar that everything else is secondary to.
Sometime before the events of the television show, Jones met Kilgrave, played by David Tennant (Doctor Who, tenth doctor). Kilgrave, known as the Purple Man in the comics, can control anyone he speaks to simply by giving them verbal commands.
Through their interactions we can see, from the eyes of the victim, the aftermath of sexual assault. This is really what Jessica Jones is about, and their relationship, past and present, is used to examine all the different parts of such an experience, including how each character employs their powers in such a situation.
Very little about the experience of sexual assault is simple, especially from the perspective of the victim. Even the idea of whether or not it happened isn’t always a simple yes or no. Jones goes back through all that happened, questioning whether many of those events were her fault or not. She responds to her own doubt by pushing it out with alcohol, lashing out at those she’s closest to, avoiding potential relationships.
The show starts well after the events that set it in motion, but we see very early on how those events continue to control her life. Kilgrave’s mind control is temporary, but the consequences of his actions continue to control Jones long after she breaks away from him and from his controlling relationship. Then, Kilgrave returns – still obsessed with the person he nearly destroyed, obsessed with his delusion of what their relationship was like, and wanting to resume where they left off. He simultaneously wants payback for what he sees as her hurting him unnecessarily and wants to continue their relationship the way it was: him in control, her behaving as he likes at all times.
Jones, then, is forced to deal with the trauma she’s been pushing out and denying, to accept and confront it.
What kind of name is Kilgrave, anyway?
The show provides us with perspective into Kilgrave’s mind through all this. The show doesn’t shy away from calling him a rapist, and doesn’t frame him as some kind of cheesy supervillain like Loki (no offense to Tom Hiddleston’s awesome portrayal of Loki, of course).
Kilgrave isn’t presented as some elemental force of evil like the Joker, with no origin and no history. Like everyone else in the show, he comes from somewhere, and was clearly shaped by his past. Abandoned early on, he learned to take care of himself, and the way he’s done that by way of his voice and his charisma. It’s what he learned how to do, and the show presents it without attempting to excuse or forgive it. Part of the tragedy lies in how even without his mind control, Kilgrave might well have been successful and powerful; he’s wildly charismatic, absolutely confident. But he’s also childishly entitled, since his powers all but ensure he will always be able to get what he wants. Why give that up?
When we do see their relationship through his eyes, it’s a stark contrast with Jones’ perspective, as is so often the case in real situations like these. He saw a happy couple. He saw a woman who wasn’t powerlessly following his commands but rather someone who he meshed perfectly with and who complemented him. She did not.
Super Heroes and the real world
Alongside that central theme is an examination of the effects of super powers on the real world. The destruction that the Avengers caused is referenced (it was hinted at in passing in Daredevil, too),and one episode shows us how the collateral damage created by heroes changes people as one character targets Jessica as both responsible for her a loss caused by the Avengers and vulnerable enough to take revenge on.
The intersection of super powers and the real world are shown no better, though, than with a character named Will Simpson introduced a few episodes in.
Simpson starts out as someone who seems to simply be under Kilgrave’s control. Once he’s out of it, though, we start to see his real personality, in all its complexity and contradiction. A sort of mirror image of Captain America (they even look alike, with actor Wil Traval cutting a very similar profile), he radiates the same tall, attractive, chiseled, All-American do-gooder atmosphere. Kilgrave picked up on his more subtle, suppressed personality, and that personality starts to become the dominant aspect of his character as things get more complicated.
Simpson wants to bring Kilgrave to justice, and will do anything it takes, including taking some seriously dubious drugs that enhance his combat awareness and pain resistance. The drugs allow him to become so strong and fast that he gives the super-powered Jones a run for her money. But he lacks the total moral certainty of Captain America‘s Steve Rogers. When the Super Soldier Serum turned the scrawny Rogers into Captain America, it was a fluke that the very people who ran the project had difficulty reproducing. That it was Rogers that was transformed, though, turns out to be a fluke, too.
Simpson is the reality of what would happen if all those asked to serve and protect were given the kind of abilities Captain America has. He sees situations in black and white and in a very small context, rarely looking at the bigger picture, focused on dishing out justice without any thought to who it might impact.
Then there’s Luke Cage. Cage won’t come into his own until his own Netflix series airs, but even in the comparatively minor recurring role he has in Jessica Jones, he’s still an important complement to Jones. Where she is compelled to use her powers to help people, even if in the shadows, he just doesn’t know what to do with his. He’s a regular guy who happens to have unbreakable skin and super strength. In the comics, the two eventually end up together, and that’s presumably what’ll happen in the show. The two are romantically linked almost right away, but Jessica’s current journey keeps it from coalescing into anything more than battlefield camaraderie and some smoking hot sex scenes. Cage appears fairly early on and then disappears for quite a few episodes, and I found myself wishing he’d return sooner thanks to the chemistry between Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter.
An awesome cast makes it work
Krysten Ritter, who plays Jones, and David Tennant, who plays Kilgrave, are both actors I was previously familiar with. I knew Ritter from Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 and Tennant from his time as the tenth Doctor in Doctor Who, so I had pretty clear images of them in my head.
Both of those images have been utterly shattered.
In her previous role, Ritter played this hypersexual character who moved in a weirdly robotic way. As Jones, she’s loose and organic both in how she moves and acts. Instead of playing a human who acts like something else, she plays a superhuman who exudes humanity.
Tennant’s image as the Doctor falls away almost immediately as well. He’s dapper and well-dressed, often in a purple suit, but the mere act of looking at him is painful; the entitlement and delusion I mentioned before entitlement come off him like heat waves. Everything belongs to him, and nothing can convince him otherwise.
The performance that surprised me most, though, was Carrie Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth, a lawyer that Jessica works with regularly through her private investigation business. Hogarth is everything you’d expect a high-power lawyer to be, including morally ambiguous enough to be a risk to everyone around her. She has the self-assured confidence of a lifelong winner and, in a way, she’s almost as powerful as Kilgrave. Hogarth’s assuredness keeps her convinced, despite mounting evidence around her, that she is always right. This puts those around her in danger as she tries to move them around to get her way, whether it’s Jessica Jones herself, the wife she’s cheating on, or anyone else.
Comparing Jessica Jones to Daredevil might be the wrong way to talk about either show. I still love Daredevil, and don’t feel like I have to pick one over the other. It also helps that Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock are clearly part of the same universe, and not just because there’s crossovers between both shows. It’s because they each have the same patina of messy, difficult reality. Nothing is ever simple, no matter how much superhero morality would allow you to believe otherwise. Jones makes for the most believable, sympathetic superhuman we’ve seen so far — tough to like, but easy to believe in and understand. Her show may well be the best thing Marvel has put in front of cameras to date.