Seven episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Earlier this year, Marvel’s Daredevil, Netflix’s first collaboration with the superhero studio, sent fanboys into a rightful frenzy when it debuted on the streaming service not just as the fully realized introduction to The Man Without Fear that had been promised, but also as a surprisingly grim and gripping crime drama in its own right, bolstered by some top-notch fight choreography (that Oldboy-inspired hallway sequence) as well as Marvel’s first thoroughly marvelous villain in Vincent D’Onofrio’s mercurial Wilson Fisk/Kingpin.
The series had its fair share of issues, uneven pacing and bad dialogue among them, but it showed beyond all shadow of a doubt that Marvel could go dark – bone-crunching, blood-splattering, child-murdering dark – and deliver in a satisfying way. At its heart, Daredevil was still a superhero origin story, complete with the hero’s iconic red duds and some absurd demonstrations of his heightened senses, but it was the first comic-book television series to weave its superhero elements into a more complex narrative instead of making them its driving force.
Enter Jessica Jones, Marvel and Netflix’s second small-screen venture, which despite fitting into the Marvel Cinematic Universe delves so deeply into its darkest recesses that it – unlike Daredevil – feels not like a superhero origin story but like something pointedly (and phenomenally) different: a horror-tinged detective noir involving a handful of flawed characters with extraordinary gifts.
Front and center is Jessica (Krysten Ritter), whose superhuman strength and agility once led her into a career as a crime-fighting vigilante. That chapter in her life ended very, very badly, causing her to pick up the bottle and eke out a more solitary living as a private investigator in Hell’s Kitchen, New York.
“You are a hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman,” fellow superhuman and occasional hookup Luke Cage (Mike Colter, making a promising introduction ahead of his own series) tells her at one point, and that description isn’t inaccurate – she slings lemon-sour barbs at just about everyone who crosses her path, occasionally flies off the handle and perpetually clutches either a flask or a bottle.
But what Cage and others can’t see quite so clearly is that Jessica is also a survivor. Her brawling, boozing lifestyle is a coping mechanism, a way to numb herself to the pain and suffering she endured while under the control of a monstrous man from her past named Kilgrave (David Tennant). Another “gifted” individual, Kilgrave has the ability to make people do literally anything he wants, simply by commanding them to do it – and his abuse of this power has transformed him into the stuff of nightmares.
Jessica eventually managed to pry herself loose from Kilgrave’s grip, but the wounds he inflicted on her, both psychological and physical, still ache as Jessica Jones gets under way. Since her time under his thumb, Jessica doesn’t want to be any sort of hero – she’s just trying to get through the day without caving in. Unlike Matt Murdock, she’s not hiding her abilities per se, but she’s not about to do anything that might put her back in harm’s way.
When the P.I. senses Kilgrave’s hand in a missing-persons case, however, it’s not long before her old, presumed-dead nemesis is back in the picture. And even worse, he’s still obsessed with Jessica, bent on bringing her back under his control – no matter how many people in her orbit he needs to break along the way.
The show masterfully builds Kilgrave up as a truly horrific force of darkness, teasing out his introduction over the first few episodes so that his eventual arrival feels that much more impactful. At first, Kilgrave is felt much more than seen – in Jessica’s boozy, PTSD-afflicted hallucinations or the hushed, petrified whispers of his other victims, for example. Like it was for Daredevil, color is key for Jessica Jones, and the show’s striking use of purple (Kilgrave is known in the comics as The Purple Man) weaves the villain’s influence into Jessica’s seedy corner of the MCU.
But when Kilgrave finally steps out of the shadows, he’s an absolute horror. As embodied by Tennant, with skin-crawling menace and a gleefully sadistic grin (this may be the actor’s most chilling work to date), Kilgrave is an uncommonly sinister Big Bad, made all the more unnerving by his apparent omniscience. With his powers of persuasion, he can turn anyone and everyone into a pawn (messenger, spy, assassin, you name it) in his long game against Jessica. It’s his presence that allows for some of Jessica Jones‘ darkest moments – some may call this a superhero noir, and others a comic-book horror story about the monstrosity of violation, but neither would be entirely wrong.
Just as Kingpin elevated Daredevil from rote superhero territory into something really special, Kilgrave may do the same for Jessica Jones. His brand of evil is sickeningly invasive and intimate – rape, assault and PTSD all stem from his actions and are addressed in surprisingly raw, nuanced fashion. And what makes him such an effective, not to mention zeitgeist-y adversary for Marvel’s first female-led series is how his master plan involves not taking over the world but taking over Jessica.
Yes, the guy is nefarious and homicidal in the extreme, ordering hapless civilians to kill themselves or others for his own sick amusement, but he’s also the ultimate human manifestation of toxic male entitlement, a super-powered creep who won’t stop until he can finally have the one who got away. Jessica Jones may be ripped from the comics, but it reflects an uncomfortably real world, in which violence against women is horrifyingly prevalent.
Series creator Melissa Rosenberg (Dexter) choosing to include a villain like that in Marvel and Netflix first female-powered superhero series had the potential to backfire tremendously, especially given how grotesquely pervasive the rape-and-revenge trope is for female action heroines nowadays. But Jessica Jones, at least seven episodes into its 13-episode first season, seems to have sidestepped most of the clichés. It has most certainly avoided making Jessica’s dark past her defining characteristic.
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Credit Rosenberg, who fleshes Jessica out in a myriad of interesting ways, but also Ritter. The actress is absolutely fantastic in the role of the bruised ex-superhero, nailing Jessica’s mix of fuck-you cynicism and hard-worn courage so completely that she could and should be in contention for Emmys next year.
She fits effortlessly into the series’ sordid, crime-ridden corner of the Big Apple, playing Jessica as a hard-boiled gumshoe ripped from the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel, one whose IDGAF attitude is at odds with her occasional feats of heroism. Ritter’s treatment of Jessica’s trauma is also commendable – there’s not an overacted second, and that her suffering in some key moments was enough to move me to tears should say a lot about just how perfectly cast the actress really is. It’s tremendously easy to imagine her rubbing shoulders with big-screen Avengers, and she’s certainly worthy of the opportunity, embodying her character more flawlessly than anyone in the MCU since Robert Downey Jr. first stepped into his Mark I armor way back in 2008.
It’s also worth noting that Jessica Jones is terrific at empowering its female characters. Jessica, with her superhuman strength, is damn near physically impervious, and she’s resolutely in control of her own mind and sexuality as well (the sex in this show is racy, passionate and in-your-face, pushing the envelope infinitely further than anything else Marvel has put out to date). Meanwhile, supporting characters like Jessica’s well-meaning best friend Patsy Walker (Rachael Taylor) and ruthless attorney Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) are solidly established, with the latter receiving an intriguing divorce subplot that feels less extraneous than it probably is.
All in all, seven episodes in, Jessica Jones is difficult to fault. It’s impeccably acted, tightly paced and brought to life by an assortment of directors who provide Jessica Jones with a stylish, noir-inspired aesthetic all its own. Moreover, the series is refreshingly brave and bold in its storytelling, tackling sensitive topics with a sophistication and clarity of purpose that only a select few TV dramas – and certainly no previous superhero drama – have demonstrated over the past few years. With the second half of the season to go, there is time for things to go completely off the rails – but it’s hard to imagine it will.
Jessica Jones kicks serious ass in just about every department, and that there’s not a weak link in any of its first seven installments suggests that it could continue to do so for seasons to come. Is Jessica Jones better than Daredevil? Without question. Is it better than the movies? That all depends on what you want from Marvel. This series isn’t going to knock you sideways with its pricey special effects and end-of-the-world spectacle – superpowers are woven into the character’s lives without adornment, as single aspects of three-dimensional human beings. But it will amaze those who relish complexity and danger in their comic-book literature.
This is gritty, compelling, transfixing, stimulating television, and one of the year’s most laudable small-screen debuts. From where I’m standing, Jessica Jones flies so extremely high that it could soon be cited not just as Marvel Studios’ indisputably darkest effort, but its finest accomplishment to date. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
Darker and more dangerous than anything else Marvel Studios has put out to date, Jessica Jones is also very possibly its finest, most fully-formed creation.