We in Fresno and anywhere else in the world all know the formula: person get superhuman powers and makes the choice either to use those powers for good or for evil. But what if there was a third option? What if someone gets superpowers and then doesn’t know what to use them for? Or, what if someone does try being a superhero for a while only for it to not work out? And what if that decision is just as much their own choice as much as it is the interference of someone else? These are the kinds of questions that plague the mind of Marvel’s latest and by far most mature heroine to date.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones is the second series in Marvel Studios ongoing franchise of Netflix original series based on their characters that are tied directly to the successful Marvel Cinematic Universe and are developed and targeted for a far more mature and edgier audience than parent company Disney could ever possibly allow on the big screen. Following in the footsteps of the hugely successful first season of Marvel’s Daredevil, Jessica Jones strives to push the envelop even further not just by being the first MCU property since Agent Carter to revolve around a female hero, but for pushing the mature content further than this franchise ever had before.
Created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos and first appearing in November 2001’s Alias #1, Jessica Jones is a relatively new addition to the Marvel universe, and yet, through some retroactive continuity, she has been given a history much longer than one might expect. A student at Midtown High School. Jessica Campbell was actually present when Peter Parker was famously bitten by the radioactive spider which gave him his powers. Her father, an employee of Tony Stark, went on vacation with his family and on the drive home, their car collided with a military convoy carrying radioactive chemicals. Her family was killed, and, after spending several months in a coma, Jessica awoke, stirred by the first coming of Galactus outside her hospital room. She was placed in an orphanage and adopted by the Jones family. Jessica later discovered that, as is often the case in most classic Marvel comics origins, her radiation exposure granted her super strength, limited invulnerability, and flight. Jessica’s adoptive parents re-enrolled her at Midtown High, where she was ostracized by her classmates, and this time even Peter Parker’s offer of friendship was not enough to make her feel welcome. And yet, after later witnessing a fight between Parker in his recently adopted Spider-Man persona and the villain Sandman in her own class, Jessica was inspired her to use her abilities in a positive light.
First taking the superhero identity of Jewel, Jones was an upstart heroine with a fairly uneventful career. That is, until she intervened in a disturbance at a restaurant involving one of Daredevil’s longtime foes, Zebediah Killgrave, a.k.a. the Purple Man, a villain with the power to control people’s actions. Killgrave used his power of mind control to place Jones under his command, psychologically torturing her and forcing her to aid his criminal schemes. After eight months of this, Jones began to lose the distinction between his will and her own. It was in the midst of this that the Purple Man sent Jones to kill Daredevil, erroneously directing her to the Avengers Mansion. Jones attacked the first hero she saw and when the mind control began to wear off and Jones attempted to flee, but she was caught and severely injured by some of the other Avengers, but escaped due to the intervention of Carol Danvers, the only Avenger who actually knew her, who took her to safety.
Jones remained in a coma for months, under the care of S.H.I.E.L.D., and after the intensely violating nature of her experience with Killgrave, and the fact that she was barely noticed missing for eight months, she was left demoralized enough to give up her costumed superhero life as Jewel. She did try being a superhero one final time before giving up, adopting a darker identity as the Knightress. It was during this phase of her career that she met up with fellow superhero Luke Cage, with whom Jones would form a longtime friendship…and more. Ultimately, despite a brief stint on the New Avengers, Jessica decided to give up this costumed identity as well and instead set up her own private detective agency, which is where readers first met her in 2001.
As such a recent character, Jessica Jones has not had any real exposure in other media, save for a couple of video game appearances. But that has now changed in a big way with this new Jessica Jones Netflix series!
Like in my review of Daredevil, I will not be doing individual episode reviews in order to avoid spoilers. Instead, I will be giving you a basic summary of the season as a whole:
The show picks up years after the tragic end to her brief superhero career as Jessica Jones (played by Krysten Ritter) tries to rebuild her life as a private investigator, dealing with cases involving people with remarkable abilities in New York City. Jessica is a rude, hard drinking, down on her luck P.I., doing what she can to survive in the harsh landscape of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, while also coming to terms with her own post-traumatic stress disorder. Helping her to get through this is radio host and Jessica’s best friend Trish Walker (played by Rachael Taylor). But on the other hand, she also often finds herself burdened with the not-always-so-generous support of defense attorney Jeri Hogarth (played by Carrie-Anne Moss). One day Jessica takes on a case involving a couple who are searching for their missing daughter Hope Shlottman (played by Erin Moriarty), and he investigation leads Jessica to some horrifically disturbing realizations. It quickly becomes apparent that Hope’s actions, and the actions of those surrounding her, are similar to experiences that Jessica herself had suffered under the mind control of the mysterious Kilgrave (played by David Tennant), which should not be possible because she was certain that Kilgrave had died on the night he forced her to do something that left her traumatized for the rest of her life.
The apparent reemergence of Kilgrave into Jessica’s life sets off a chain of events that become increasingly more horrific and driving Jessica more and more paranoid as she works hard and gets her hands dirty to uncover the truth to clear Hope’s name after Kilgrave uses his powers to force her to murder her own parents. While on the case, Jessica also forms a relationship with a man she has had her eyes on for a previous case, a local bartender named Luke Cage (played by Mike Colter), who not only has a certain superhuman secret of his own, but also has a tragic connection to that terrible night from Jessica’s past that he doesn’t even realize. Jessica’s mission to stop Kilgrave also makes her several unexpected allies that have also fallen under the psychopath’s influence, including her drug-addict neighbor Malcolm (played by Eka Darville) and police sergeant Will Simpson (played by Wil Traval). But can Jessica really find Kilgrave and bring him to justice before he destroys any more innocent lives? And just how far are both Jessica and Kilgrave willing to go to achieve their goals?
A lot of the positive things I had to say about Daredevil also apply here, if maybe with slightly less enthusiasm that is purely my own fault and not the material. The real truth is, unlike Daredevil, Jessica Jones is not a character I have a huge amount of knowledge about so my expectations for her Netflix debut aren’t the same as what I had for Matt Murdock’s. Regardless, this is a excellently crafted series that grabs you right away with a down-to-earth, gritty, urban flavor for a superhero show, and the utter maturity level of the material presented. Even more so than Daredevil, Jessica Jones makes no apologies for the fact that this is is a show not intended for kids! Our main character is constantly drinking, people are swearing all over the place, the atmosphere is very dank and dirty, all things in common with Daredevil.
And yet, despite the similarities, Jessica Jones is also a mature rated series for very different reasons than Daredevil was. You see, while Daredevil was noted for the extreme levels of violence depicted in thee fighting, Jessica Jones earns its rating for its depiction of sex and for tackling unapologetic subject matter. One of the very first things we see in the first episode is Jessica working a case where she takes some undercover pictures of a couple having an affair out on the streets, and then later we see her spying on a woman cheating on her husband with Luke Cage…who does not know that she is a married woman. When Luke and Jessica meet and bond, in a very natural and convincing (if tragic) way, they quickly enter a sexual relationship and have rough, hardcore sex at least three times in the span of one episode, not to mention the other times it happens in later episodes. Trish also enters a romance with Simpson (emerging from bizarre beginnings of course) and in the morning, before Jessica finds out about it, we clearly see that Simpson is giving her cunnilingus underneath the sheets, and then they are shown having actual sex in a later episode.
Now, to be fair, now of this is too overtly graphic. Its not like what you might find on lat night HBO or Cinemax where the man and woman’s full bodies are on display, but the even is you can’t see anything it is still an utter shock to see a Marvel show suddenly go to such an extreme, and to do it so early into the season no less!
The subject matter is also a shocker. Rape is either implied or outright discussed a couple of times, particularly through the actions of Kilgrave (spelled with only one ‘L’ in this show). Drug use is depicted, including one of the most prominent supporting characters Malcolm being an addict and even a fight scene that takes place in a marijuana factory. Some gruesome depictions of death are either suggested or even shown, much of it self-inflicted torture done while under Kilgrave’s control, including a scene of Jessica finding a horrific discovery both in her apartment and in a house near the finale that reminds this examiner of a scene from The Godfather. Early on, there was even a suggestion that the twin siblings that share an apartment next door to Jessica might or might not be is some kind of incestuous relationship…but thankfully the forthcoming episodes emphasized the male sibling’s obvious feelings for Jessica and the sister was recast as a paranoid, overprotective mother figure…I think. Bottom line: as I said before, this show is not for kids!
The character of Jessica Jones herself, as Krysten Ritter presents her, is an interesting counter to the typical superhero, and not just because she is a woman. Sure she has superhuman powers but she has a higher degree of apathy to them then might guess. What I mean by apathy is that she may have felt like a freak when she first got her powers but after becoming an adult she seems to have gotten used to them and, following her short-lived superhero career, she does not seem to care what she uses them for, almost taking her gifts for granted. In fact other than some flashbacks to her family’s car accident, we never get a full origin of her powers, a bold move given that this is more recent and lesser known Marvel character. Unlike her predecessor Daredevil, Jessica never wears any sort of costume in this continuity or uses any kind of super alias; she merely walks the streets of hell’s Kitchen in a jacket, back short and skintight jeans. In fact, she seems to mock the entire idea of larger-than-life superheroics that people like the Avengers represent. There is a scene intended as fanservice where Trish does present her with both the name and costume of her Jewel persona from the comics, but she totally writes it off because “Jewel is a stripper’s name.”
Jessica is a character who has seen the really hard, really dirty side of life and those experiences have hardened her into a cynical, rude, unapologetic mess of a person that is nevertheless likeable. The Avengers may deal with Hydra and aliens and robots out to rule the world, but Jessica i a private investigator who deals with cheating lovers, rapists, murderers, and all the horrible things that really go down on the streets, and not always in ways that the audience can agree with. We slowly wake up to the terrible ways she was used by Kilgrave and now find her is the phase of life where she can emerge stronger from it…ironically by being forced to come to blows with this man all over again.
In speaking of whom, when Daredevil debuted one of the most unanimous praise it received both from fans and critics was for Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin, regarded by many as the most fleshed out and complex villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a continuity that has long been criticized for failing to fully flesh out the majority of its villains. I am pleased to say that this remains true in David Tennant’s performance as Kilgrave (or the Purple Man as he’s never called). The two characters are very different however because while Fisk was a powerful mob boss with a heart buried deep, deep, beneath the brutal monster, Kilgrave and presented to us very quickly, before we ever meet him, not as a man of power but a terrifying-yet-amusing sadist. A villain with the power of mind control is obviously nothing original, but Kilgrave takes every opportunity to show us just how utterly terrifying someone with that power can be. There was more than one instance where the commands he gives his victims made me uncomfortable, as I’m sure it was for members of the audience to watch at times. And yet, as utterly evil as this man is, we do, eventually, learn more about his origins and it is horribly twisted and tragic, but it never serves to redeem the character in any way, at least not to me, which I am certain was the show’s intent. If Fisk is the MCU’s most developed and human villain, than Kilgrave is easily the most deranged and sadistic.
The rest of the cast of Jessica Jones is, regrettably, a bit hit-and-miss for me. Nobody is delivering a weak performance (which maybe one exception), but some of the characters were just more successful at gaining sympathy from me personally than others were. After Jessica, one of the two most likeable character seen here is Trish “Patsy” Walker, radio host and former child star and Jessica best friend and foster sister. Despite her successful and posh lifestyle when compared to Jessica, she is presented as a true friends and sister who shares an unbreakable bond with our heroine that stems from their teen years and very, very dark beginnings living under an abusive mother. Over the course of the series we get to see Trish toughen up, of her own free will, into a formidable force that we see and believe can defend herself if she needs to. And we see that pay off early on in the series. In the comics her character actually becomes a superhero in her own right called Hellcat; I’m not certain if the show actually plans to go that way or not, but if it does I more than welcome it!
The other most engaging supporting character is someone that Marvel fans all know very well, Carl Lucas, a.k.a. Luke Cage. A man with a troubled past who gains superhuman strength and unbreakable skin after an experiment done to him in prison, Luke has long been a fan favorite and one that fans have long awaited for the chance to see in live action. Fortunately, the show doesn’t disappoint as, even though Luke is obviously a supporting character here, he comes off just as he should: mature, intelligent, dead serious, and as somebody you don’t want to pick a fight with. His relationship with Jessica is convincing and tragic, and his appearance in this series makes this examiner even more excited to see him in his own show next year.
Then there’s the rest of the cast. As I said, there is maybe only one weak performance, but not all of the characters succeed in getting my interest. Jessica’s neighbor Malcolm starts off as kind of a one note drug addict that we learn has a really dark secret, but then he goes on a path of redemption and maturity that makes me appreciate him by the end of the season. Then there is Hope, the poor girl set to spend life in jail after Kilgrave ruined her life and made her kill her own parents. This is a character that I obviously felt pity for right away, and Erin Moriarty’s performance is among the best of the season. I deeply regretted the fate the ultimately befell her before the end, but I do at least understand the story reasons for it and hold it up as an example of how uncompromising and unapologetic this entire series strives to be. On the flip side of that is Jeri Hogarth, defense attorney and potential ally (but more often an obstacle) to Jessica. This character is presented as ruthless, cold-hearted, and willing to go to any lengths just to get what she wants; sounds like the ingredients to become a supervillain of her own one day. Throughout the season we have a subplot involving her and her wife’s divorce as she is in a love affair with another woman (Yes, she is openly and unashamedly a lesbian, deal with it!), and this plot line seems intrusive for much of the season until it connects to the Kilgrave story and wraps up in a horrific and tragic way. There is also Will Simpson, a cop will Kilgrave initially enslaves to take out Trish but who gets over his control and allies himself with Jessica and forms a relationship with Trish. His character initially seems like he will be a successful ally, but during the season we see his desire for payback increasingly grow into an obsession for revenge and it leads the character into dark directions, which fans of the comics will likely predict. The only character in the show I would argue borders of being totally unlikeable in Robyn, the twin sister of Rubyn, a guy who has a crush on Jessica. I understand that she is really close to her brother (and I mean really close), but her paranoia and overprotectiveness of him drives her to real bitchy extremes that before the and go way too far and she even admits by the end “nobody likes me.”
The MCU always tries to go for a different genre with each of their characters, and if Daredevil was meant to be an urban crime drama, the Jessica Jones is Marvel’s attempt at being a contemporary film noir detective story. We recognize this right away when we see the opening titles with its music and the use of colors to set the mood. Jessica is a hard boozing detective working out of a cheep, dank apartment that doubles as her office. She has her hardened attitude and does the dirty work on the streets. And to top it all of, she frequently delivers internal monologues. All of the these are the classic film noir tropes that the show succeeds in making work even if it is modern day New York and not a period piece.
As with any series, Jessica Jones thrives on terrific performances. Krysten Ritter is excellent as the title heroine, playing her with sass, attitude, a clear sense of world weariness, and overall just seeming like a woman who is trying to somehow get her life back together after a horrible experience. She carries the entire series on her shoulders and she does so excellently; I would love to see her come back to play this character again for a second season. Also great in this is Mike Colter as Luke Cage, who not only delivers the size an imposing demeanor that the role demands, but is a solid, serious actor to boot. His real world perspective and the loss he has suffered makes his bond with Jessica both strong and tragic, and I can’t deny that I was very please to see Luke get into a couple of fights, just to tease us for when he gets his own show! Rachael Taylor is very strong as Trish Walker, bringing a grounded perspective and a more upbeat attitude, but never becoming a comic relief, that a show this dark desperately needs. She sells the character instantly and her bond with Jessica feels like an honest, close sisterly relationship. Wil Travel is in more of a duel role as Will Simpson, swapping from playing him as an honest man out for redemption to a ruthless, savage monster. The transition is gradual but not surprising as this man goes from being one of Jessica’s closest allies to, perhaps, something very different. Erin Moriarty gives one of the shows strongest performances as Hope Shlottman, playing a young girl whose life has been utterly ruined all because of how she was used by a monster. She plays the part as a lost innocent, which she is, and one who wants justice done for what has happened to her even as she seems to be gradually loosing hope as her situations keeps worsening. Carrie-Anne Moss plays Jeri Hogarth and while her performance is strong and focused, there is virtually nothing she does to make Jeri a likable or even potentially redeemable character. Moss plays the part very serious and cold, though not borderline robotic like she did as Trinity from the Matrix films, so in that regard I definitely do think that Moss succeeds in making this character as unlikable as the scripts intends it. But, along with Ritter, the second standout performance this season is definitely David Tennant as Kilgrave. He plays the part incredibly cruel and masochistic, taking delight in the misery his can do onto other merely by speaking to them. But like all good villains he sees himself as the hero of his own story, as becomes clear when we get his origin. Tennat plays this man as sick, twisted, and borderline psychotic, but he still keeps him entertaining with his natural eccentric charm like what he display in Doctor Who. Other performances this season include Susie Abromeit as Pam, Rebecca De Mornay as Dorothy Walker, Lisa Emery as Louise Thompson, Ryan Farrell as Jackson, Danielle Ferland as Clair, Gillian Glasco as Emma, Colby Minifie as Robyn, Kieran Mulcare as Ruben, Clarke Peters as Oscar Clemons, Paul Pryce as Donald, Michael Siberry as Albert Thompson, Robin Weigert as Wendy Ross-Hogarth, and Daredevil alum Rosario Dawson reprising her role as Claire Temple in a notable guest starring role.
Overall, Jessica Jones is by far the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most mature and uncompromising installment to date, with some of he most mature subject matter and the most horrific violence yet show in this franchise. But is it also strongly written, instantly captivating, psychologically complex, and very strongly acted. This examiner definitely puts in just barely beneath Daredevil on that enjoyment level alone, and while I obviously cannot recommend it for kids, any adult who is a fan of the Marvel universe owes it to themselves to log onto Netflix and give this show a watch!