“The big green guy,” “the flag guy”; Earth’s mightiest heroes are casually dismissed by Jessica and her colleagues like bums on the street. This apathy suits the world of Jessica Jones just fine. It’s the same world that’s still trying to make sense of the Invasion of New York, and a world that is now fully aware of such people with extraordinary gifts. The refreshing part about Jessica Jones, however, is how its central characters are struggling to remain ordinary in the light of so much unabashed heroism.
Jessica Jones is a private investigator who’s hung up her spandex for a dishonest living. She surreptitiously takes photos of cheating spouses, abrasively delivers subpoenas, all for the sake of funding her excessive drinking habit. This premise has more in common with film noirs of the last century than it does with any of Marvel’s live-action features, which happens to be one of the show’s uncanny strengths. This is a hard-boiled detective story first and foremost; the capes and flying come second, if at all.
The emphasis on genre over substance works well because the superheroism, though ever present, is muted. Jessica may be hiding in plain sight, but she never makes a show of her abilities; she uses them sparingly, only to pull away at a lock or scale a tall building. The same goes for Luke Cage, whose introduction is cleverly woven into the context of Jessica’s story. Mike Colter is absolutely mesmerizing as the unbreakable man. He, too, never uses his superhuman abilities out in the open unless he can’t help it. This restraint showcases a deft storytelling agenda – these characters aren’t defined by their abilities (in fact, they’re often burdened by what they can do). Instead, they are marked by the things that make them human.
Beneath a leather jacket and an alcohol addiction, Jessica is attempting to drown out a tortured past, that of an abusive relationship with a man named Kilgrave. He has the ability to control minds, and Jessica’s time with him has left her with a deep mistrust of people. Because how can you tell if someone is acting of their own accord, or at the mercy of someone else’s bidding?
Kilgrave is Marvel’s best and most fully realized villain to date. We believe the things that Jessica says he made her do, but more importantly we feel his menace even when he’s off screen, which speaks to David Tennant’s electrifying performance and influence. There’s an allure to Kilgrave’s abilities that makes him uniquely terrifying. His is a power of suggestion. He can walk up to your door and tell you to invite him in, and you’ll do so with a smile. Or he can tell you to jump off a building, which you’ll also do with a smile. What’s even more unsettling is Kilgrave’s fixation with Jessica. He’s tormenting her not out of some sadomasochistic urge, but out of love. He loves her. Deeply. Unutterably. Chillingly. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe it is out of a sadomasochistic urge.
Early on, Jessica Jones makes it very clear that this is not a superpowered fantasy. It’s a perpetual nightmare for her because she wrestles with the guilt of her actions that are seemingly not hers, yet was done by her hand so she suffers the consequences all the same. As strong as she is, she can’t fend off the guilt, which is what makes Krysten Ritter’s performance as the title character so compelling.
The trauma lingers in Jessica’s icy gaze, and though she’s often haunted by hallucinations, she never allows her past to dwarf or paralyze her. She may have been victimized, but she, not even for a moment, becomes the victim. This internal conflict is fascinating to watch especially as Jessica is simultaneously navigating her way around assholes, liars, and scum (New York, basically). The show doesn’t try to exploit her trauma and instead is more enamored with Jessica as a tough antihero, and expertly relies on attitude rather than appearance to do the job.
Jessica Jones is perhaps Marvel’s darkest series by far, darker than any of their feature films. While it threatens to become morbid, the show has the benefit of unfolding as a series, which makes the story and its implications easier to swallow, if not fully stomach. It also paves the way for the kind of world-building that the Marvel films simply don’t have the time to do. But it’s not about flaunting Marvel’s Avengers or their endless canon of heroes. The show has more modest ambitions, seeking to illuminate the dark and sinister corners of Hell’s Kitchen, and it is undeniably intoxicating to stroll down this grimy neighborhood.
Jessica Jones is a slow-burn of a detective story that unravels like a long, methodically-paced movie. Like a deep stare into the eyes of the title heroine, you are shaken to your core, yet completely transfixed. One can only imagine the kind of transformation that Iron Man or Captain America could’ve had if they were given the legroom of a TV series. But Jessica Jones is hardly a consolation. It’s further proof that a street-level character like Jessica has a tale as engrossing as anything Marvel has done on the big screen. I knew nothing about Jessica Jones going into the first episode. After binge-watching the series for two days straight, I am in her corner all the way to The Defenders. Go ahead and sign me up for the Krysten Ritter fan club. What are you waiting for? All thirteen episodes are available on Netflix RIGHT NOW.