Season review: Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Netflix)

Makes other superhero shows seem childish

In the US/UK: All 13 episodes are available on Netflix

When superhero comic books first became popular in the 20th century, it was largely because they were fantasies. Male fantasies for boys. Superman may have been a fantasy of immigration, but it was also about a mild-mannered man who could never reveal his all-conquering power to anyone, not even the woman he loved from afar. Of course, if she knew what he was really like, then she’d fall into his arms without a moment’s hesitation.

Batman? A boy orphaned by crime who devotes himself to destroying those who would make him feel frightened. The Hulk? A ‘milksop’ scientist with a terrible temper that others better not unleash by bullying him. Spider-man? A nerdy boy with pretty much the same issues as Superman. Captain America? A man who could defeat the Nazis while remaining true and good and honourable.

You get the picture. Lots and lots of power fantasies for lonely boys.

Superheroines took a while to appear and represented different kinds of fantasy. The first, Wonder Woman, was originally intended as both a male and female fantasy – a precursor to a better, future, female-dominated world, with Wonder Woman an icon of feminine power that women could embrace and men could accept. But with a slightly kinky subtext and male authors, her popularity often stemmed from… other sources. Future superheroines didn’t fare much better, and frequently fared much worse.

Which meant for decades, many girls and women found comic books to be female-unfriendly areas that were practically a panopticon of the male gaze. There were plenty who became involved or who became readers, but they were the exceptions. And although male authors came along who tried to make female characters less fantasies than they had been before, that was pretty much the rule.

That was even the case when comic books started being adapted into movies. Think Sue Storm perpetually having to disrobe in the street in Fantastic Four. Think Black Widow in lingerie shots in Iron Man 2. That Wonder Woman movie? Only just being made, just as we’re about to get our third series of Batman and Superman movies in the past 40 years. And try to find superheroine merchandise from those movies for your daughters if you dare.

But the times have been a changing, of course. Have a look on Facebook and you’ll discover that more than 50% of the people who identify as comic book fans are women. And while only 3% of the people who’ll step into a comic book store are women, more than half of those who read digital comics are women.

Marvel, of course, has been doing rather well at the movie with its comic book adaptations. However, it’s got considerable stick over the years for not giving any superheroines their own movies – particularly Black Widow. Now that’s changing, with a Captain Marvel movie due… in 2019, a full 11 years after Iron Man came out.

On TV, of course, we’ve already had Marvel’s Agent Carter, except she’s not a superheroine, per se. But finally, we have our first, fully fledged superheroine TV show, the second of this year’s Marvel’s Netflix ‘Defenders’ shows following Daredevil – Jessica Jones. And what’s interesting about Jessica Jones is that despite being based on a character and a story created by two men, I think what we have is the first instance of an on-screen superheroine who’s there for a female audience and who’s a female fantasy.

Or should that be nightmare? It could be both. After all, it’s got David Tennant in it.

Beware: some spoilers ahoy.

After a tragic ending to her short-lived Super Hero stint, Jessica Jones is rebuilding her personal life and career as a detective who gets pulled into cases in New York City. This drama is a suspenseful, edgy look into her life, as she faces demons from within and without.

Cast: Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), David Tennant (Kilgrave), Mike Colter (Luke Cage), Rachael Taylor (Trish Walker), Carrie-Anne Moss, Eka Darville, Erin Moriarty, Wil Traval

Marvel’s Jessica Jones is produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios for Netflix.

Is it any good?
It’s a slow burn pretty much all the way through, but it gets progressively better and compelling, and acts as a sort of yin to Daredevil‘s yang.

Daredevil, of course, was very much a male superhero fantasy. A blind guy with superpowers, able to woo all the most beautiful women (whom he can’t even see, of course), perpetually trying to live up to his father’s sacrifice, trying to defend the innocent, particularly women, by kicking the living crap out of the bad guys with some hypercool, hyper-athletic, hyper-sadistic martial arts. It was a very good superhero fantasy, very, very ‘bingeable’, but very male, with Murdock not even slightly reluctant to run around at night as a masked vigilante, as he uses the gift of his heightened, superpowered remaining senses to fight crime.

And Jessica Jones is the flipside of that fantasy, in that it’s both female and that her superpower is almost a curse. Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a private detective working in the same neighbourhood of New York as Daredevil, who spends most of her waking life photographing adulterers in flagrante delicto, handling cases for slimey attorney Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity from The Matrix) or drinking to forget.

The self-hating Jones has PTSD because her superpower unfortunately attracted the attention of a man, Kilgrave (David Tennant), with his own superpower: the ability to make anyone who hears his voice do whatever he tells them to. Immediately entranced by her, he forces her to be his ‘girlfriend’ for months until she eventually manages to escape his control when a bus ploughs into him – but not before she’s killed someone at his instigation.

Months later, Jones still thinks Kilgrave is dead, but as she discovers in the first episode, she’s sadly mistaken and Kilgrave intends to inveigle himself back into his life any way he can.

The whole of the season is then a musing on male power and the need for control. Kilgrave is the ultimate stalker, the ultimate embodiment of male power, even if he can’t match Jones’ genuine strength. He wants to own her and is only happy when he can make her do exactly what he wants – and pretend to like it. Sitting through the somewhat slow 13 episodes is harder than with Daredevil, with a lot more effort required to stick with it, but those episodes collectively create a stifling claustrophobia, something akin to trying to escape from an abusive relationship with someone who doesn’t want you to leave. 

But whereas Daredevil spent most of a season without knowing who the Kingpin was, struggled for an episode or two with the question of how to stop a man who has total power over the authorities, tried to kill him but failed, and then quickly decided punching and kicking him a lot in a special suit was the answer, Jessica Jones is a lot messier. Jones knows from the beginning who Kilgrave is but works through more or less every possible permutation of what to do with a psychopath with total power over everyone, rather than kill him.

Unlike Daredevil, where the hero can heal horrific damage in days and minor characters are offed every few minutes because it’s cool (it is – I’m not being sarcastic here), Jessica Jones is painfully aware of pain. Every death is mourned, every action has consequences, every wound hurts and frequently needs a trip to the hospital. People aren’t just stock people: the annoying, creepy comedy neighbours can provoke tears of sadness; the junkie who lives down the hall can provoke tears of joy. Jessica Jones takes time to help the viewer appreciate that every life is precious.

Killing even a sociopathic rapist is something that has to be avoided at all costs, even if it means skipping town and starting a new life; living with the enemy for the rest of your life so you can teach him killing is bad; spending days at a time talking with him, trying to find out the source of his trauma and possibly healing him; trying to get him to confess his crimes so he can go to prison; or trying to find others who can corroborate your story. Anything, except kill him.

Jessica Jones isn’t so clear about her own moral standing either. Unlike Daredevil, which presents us with a becostumed Matt Murdock from the get-go and slowly builds to revealing his ultimate Daredevil costume at the end of the season like the heavens themselves parting, flashbacks to efforts by her adoptive sister Trish (Rachael Taylor from Crisis, Charlie’s Angels and 666 Park Avenue) to turn her into a superheroine called ‘Jewel’ (her actual Marvel comic book persona) with her own costume just like the one in the comic book…

Jessica Jones's Marvel costume

…get firmly rebuffed, with Ritter almost perpetually clad in New York leather jacket, hoodie and jeans throughout the season. She’s very clear she doesn’t want to be a superheroine and doesn’t think she has the right to punish others – that’s for the authorities. She also doesn’t feel the need for a ‘secret identity’, happy for almost anyone and everyone to know she has superpowers.

There’s also very little by way of origin story. Jones turns up fully formed at the beginning of the season, without reference to how she got her superpowers, just acceptance she has them. It’s only later that we discover even she doesn’t know how she got them, and the possible reason for them isn’t a good thing, either. Power, in Jessica Jones, is something to be avoided and shunned, because it sets you apart from others, ruins relationships and brings bad things upon you, whether you’re male or female. Those who want it – superheroes like Daredevil – are one step away from being Kilgrave.

The show also refuses to be compartmentalised. Mostly, it’s a psychological horror story, with Tennant’s Kilgrave getting others to perform all kinds of horrible acts in his pursuit of Jessica. But a lot of the time, it’s a private detective story as she investigates both Kilgrave and the occasional case that Moss passes off to her, including the investigation of Moss’s wife. Courtesy of Jones’ future comic book husband Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who’s also got his own Netflix show lined up, it’s also a romance. Sometimes it’s a comedy, particularly when we flash back to Jones’s pre-PTSD past or, surprisingly, whenever David Tennant’s around – a particular gem is him watching the rugby on TV and shouting at the screen, “Don’t just kick it, you ginger twat.”

Those expecting male, slugfest superheroics might be a little disappointed. The action does slowly increase over time and Jessica Jones gets into more than a few fights, but they’re largely unspectacular affairs dictated by character. Invulnerable Luke Cage fights bulldozer like, clobbering away, while Jones fights dirty but largely gets by by hurling opponents around. It’s the ordinary mortals who have to learn how to deal with violence normally, with Trish learning krav maga, for example, and the fight scenes involving those supporting, mortal characters are accordingly far more realistic and brutal. 

But Jessica Jones isn’t quite a slamdunk. It’s choice of topic for the first TV superheroine in a decade or so – a stalker rapist – is odd. It does take an awful long time to crank up, and while the show needs space to build up the tension and consider all the ways to deal with Kilgrave, 13 episodes feels much too long, as does each episode, even if it’s hard to say exactly what should have been cut, beyond maybe a filler episode or two in the beginning six and a subplot involving the military and Jones’s origin towards the end. Kilgrave’s now-English background is very poorly realised and stereotypical, too.

It’s also a hard show to watch, with a traumatised, frequently unlikeable central character who’s had most of the joy sucked from her life, which is a shame because Ritter (Don’t Trust The B—-, Love Bites, Gravity) is a great comedic actress, when given the opportunity. Taylor is rather bland most of the time, while Tennant often threatens to overshadow everyone else with his performance, which is a lot closer to his turn in Doctor Who than to his more stalkery roles in shows such as Secret Smile. It’s also so much about him, so centred on Tennant and Ritter’s obsession with ending his obsession, it almost feels like it should have been called We Need To Talk About Kevin (Kilgrave).

Luke Cage’s presence, the frequent references to the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe, as well as a cameo from a Daredevil character towards the end, also sometimes gives the show the air of being merely a stepping stone between Daredevil, and the forthcoming Luke Cage and The Defenders. Yes, Daredevil had teasers for Iron Fist, but you’d have to have been an uber geek to have spotted them, whereas Cage is around almost as much as Trish is.

All the same, despite those problems, I think Marvel’s Jessica Jones is a very good show. It’s not overloaded with comic book lore (I watched the entire thing without realising that Trish is actually Hellcat from the comics*). It’s full of female concerns and has a uniquely female view on superheroics that treats it with a far greater degree of adultness and depth than pretty much any other screen depiction – indeed, as I discovered when trying to rewatch Daredevil, it makes other superhero shows feel a bit shallow and almost childish in contrast, even ones that seemed a lot smarter at the time. It provides us with a wide range of strong, complex, female characters, a strong and nuanced female friendship/sisterhood, and an exciting mess of moral greys and blurs. 

And best of all, it never gave us Kilgrave the Purple Man. 

Purple Man

* Originally, she was going to be Captain Marvel herself Carol Danvers, before the movie was greenlit

  • Brian Clegg

    I've been impressed so far (only at episode 6), but I'm surprised there isn't more comparison with Buffy – as far as I can see, the first seasons of Buffy had already been aired before the Jessica Jones comic was first issued, and for me there are many Buffy tropes being used: it's hard to believe there was no inspiration there.

  • Now you mention it, I can see the comparisons, but I think there are too many differences for it to be a Buffy rip-off. It's about as similar as Buffy as it is to Veronica Mars, I reckon

  • Andy Butcher

    Still not finished (on episode 10 now), but the Buffy comparison also occurred to me. Not in a bad way at all – it's definitely no rip-off – but there are some common themes and tropes. The way that the show treats the impact of fantastical events in a very serious, realistic way being foremost among them.

  • Andy Butcher

    Still loving it so far, by the way. I will probably be back to comment more once I've finished it. 🙂

  • I think there are some common themes, but I think it's more because there are so few shows, particularly well known ones, with heroines as the central characters that Buffy is the one everyone thinks of.

    Buffy didn't really take things that seriously – vampires and threats were mostly there for fun, rather than to induce PTSD or to rape her. The X-Files took the supernatural more seriously than Buffy but as seriously as JJ does, but we don't make the comparison because that's a two-lead show. Wonder Woman almost always faced a male threat every episode, whereas Buffy's enemies were more varied and were often women (e.g. Glory, Willow). Xena's arch-arch-nemesis who was stalkery was Julius Caesar. And so on.

    So I can see some similarities but just like Daredevil and Angel (private detective agency with two blokes and a female receptionist investigating a big bad represented by a smooth lawyer-type), I don't think that there's that much mileage in the comparison – they're just similarities, rather than deliberate emulation, subconscious appropriation, etc.

  • Andy Butcher

    Sorry, I could have been clearer – what I meant was that they both shows take the *emotional* impact of fantastical events on the main character seriously (or at least more seriously than most TV and movies do).

    I completely agree that there's a degree of inevitable similarity between two shows with 'gifted' female leads that are both concerned very greatly with questions of power and responsibility. 🙂

    But I don't think the similarities I see take anything away from either show, and I certainly don't think there's any deliberate emulation going on. Subconscious appropriation, though, I think is possible. What actually first brought the comparison to my mind was the echoes of Buffy and Angel in the relationship between Jessica and Luke…

  • I know what you mean, and those comparisons can be made. But I think it's more because it's a TV show and Buffy is a TV show that it becomes similar. If you remember it's based on the comic story line, then immediately it becomes Superman/Wonder Woman, Batman/Catwoman, Black Widow/Captain America or any of the other countless “only another superhero can understand and connect with another superhero” relationships.

    Even on tele, I think you can make the same comparisons between Ollie and Sara, Ollie and Huntress, Hercules and Xena, etc. And if you situate it in the PI/crime genre, you get Tucker's Witch or Bergerac and Phillipa Vale or McMillan and Wife.

    I just think we're maybe all of an age that Buffy is the first thing that comes to mind 😉

  • Brian Clegg

    I think it's more that. Unlike many of the comic books comparisons you make, Jessica and Buffy have very similar powers, are both superheroes who don't have a costume or a hero name, both struggle to make a living, there's the Buffy/Angel relationship to parallel Jessica/Luke etc. I'm not saying it's a Buffy ripoff – clearly more in the traditional superhero mould, but there are interesting parallels.

  • TBH, I think there are more things different than similar. To match the set-up with Buffy

    1) Buffy would have to learn how to (kind of) fly and forget how to fight properly. She'd also have to give up fighting the undead in favour of photography

    2) You'd have to relocate Buffy from High School/College/a fast food joint to having her own PI firm

    3) Angel would have to become another slayer

    4) Willow would have to be a former actress with her own talk show, not have any computer skills and not do witchcraft. She and Buffy would have had to have lived together as sisters.

    5) Xander would have to be a junkie and not have a crush on Buffy

    6) Giles would have to go back to England

    7) Buffy's entire family would have to be dead

    8) Buffy's art-dealing, relatively well off mum (who's dead now of course but…) would have to cut off her allowance for the first five seasons, move out of the plush middle-class home they live in and find a crappy apartment a few thousand miles away in New York.

    I think there are some parallels, but more through convergence. For example, moneyed heroines aren't very popular in modern fiction and are very un-Marvel, so Jessica Jones isn't rich because of that, not because the show's influenced by series 5-6 of Buffy. Melissa Rosenberg also adapted all the Twilight books for the screen, and arguably there's something of the Bella/Edward relationship in Jessica-Luke (and the Sully-Dr Quinn relationship, since Rosenberg wrote for that. Or Xena-Hercules, since she wrote for that, too).

    But most of the tropes in the show come from PI fiction (and that's the one that they producers acknowledge – Chinatown is listed, for example). You've got the hard-drinking, down-at-heel PI, struggling to make ends meet so doing adultery cases. She's crabby to everyone, including her friends. You've got the plucky, eternally loyal best friend. You've got the 'homme fatale' with the on-again, off-again relationship and whom she can't necessarily trust.

    Which is why I think if you're looking for a TV parallel, it's probably Veronica Mars. No superpowers, but you've got the plucky, wise-cracking female lead, the same Noir set-up, the PI agency, the hard exterior to protect the soft interior, a serial rapist who's also attacked her, and so on. And there was a Veronica Mars movie out in 2014.

    But I think to be honest they're doing they're own thing and not really drawing on much else in particular.

  • Andy Butcher

    All done. Am still digesting, but a few thoughts…

    * Overall, it's an excellent show and I very much hope we get more of it. Just like Daredevil, my first reaction on finishing was to want to watch it all over again from the start. Or even watch Daredevil and then JJ all over again from the start. 🙂

    * Easily stole Daredevil's crown as the most 'mature' or 'adult' thing Marvel have done so far. I can't see either Luke Cage or Iron Fist topping it there, either.

    * Really didn't find it at all slow or dull (both criticisms I've seen made in several places). The first three episodes of Sense8 (as far as I've managed to get with it) were sloooooooooow. This I thought was just very well paced and deeply engaging. It wasn't always an easy watch, as for a genre show it's pretty unflinching in both its portrayal and investigation of abuse, but (for me at least) that's a strength, not a criticism.

    * Was very impressed with both Mike Colter as Luke Cage and the writing of the character. From seeing him on The Good Wife I thought he was well cast and high hopes, but I'm now looking forward to Luke Cage the TV show even more avidly.

    * With that said, Cheo Hodari Coker certainly has his work cut out for him – I thought following Daredevil was going to be hard, but if anything JJ has set the bar even higher.

    * Carrie-Anne Moss was excellent as Hogarth, and found the way they changed the character to a woman without (as far as I could tell) changing a thing about the originally-written-for-a-man role (other than the pronouns) utterly fascinating and very effective.

    * Not unrelated to that, it's one of the most intensely feminist TV shows I've seen – something that TV in general needs a lot more of, in my humble opinion. On reflection, I think that's at least part of what brought Buffy to my mind.

  • I think pretty much agreed on everything there. Although I think JJ is slow. Sense8 is just slower…

    Also, re: Buffy. “Conflicted woman fights supernatural bad guys in a show with a feminist subtext”. It's a sad state of affairs when there are so few TV shows around that fit that relatively generic description that as soon as one pops up, everyone thinks immediately of the other show that fits that description.

    I still think the trouble comes down to the need for a shared lexicon. If I were ubergeeking, I'd say that Jessica Jones is “Honey West meets Wonder Woman meets the comic strip Maxwell Lord”, but that has so few reference points that others would get. Even though the entire Wonder Woman/Maxwell Lord storyline is “Maxwell Lord has the power to control people with his voice and the only way that Wonder Woman can stop him controlling Superman is to snap his neck” and Honey West is a lone female private detective who fights a bit scrappily with the bad guys from a crappy office with the help of her male friend.

    It's the difference between saying to someone “Don't try your Jedi mind tricks on me” and “Don't use your voice on me, you Bene Gesserit witch”. More people are going to understand you if say A; more people are going to look at you like you're a weirdo if you say B. Both refer to the same thin but A is in the shared cultural vocabulary whereas B just isn't.

    It's why people reach for Buffy as the point of comparison rather than Veronica Mars – Buffy was on BBC2 in the late 90s, Veronica Mars only got an airing on Sky Living in the mid-00s, so nobody's going to make a Veronica Mars reference because even if they have seen Veronica Mars, the other person won't have.

  • bob

    Yep, definitely reminds me of Veronica Mars. But VM was very male-heavy. When I think of the secondary characters, I am thinking of the men. Whereas Jessica Jones is very much driven by female protagonists (Luke was essentially the eye-candy love interest and Malcolm the sweetie down the hall). This made it pretty unique to me- with the exception of Buffy's later seasons which also side-lined the male characters to enhance the female ones.

    I think this is really important. I actually watched JJ involuntarily hoping on occasion that Luke would come to save her. I need to be rid of such ridiculous instincts. It needs a lot more shows like JJ to erase the damage of three decades of watching/reading male fiction.

  • Agreed on all counts

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • JustStark

    I forgot to ask: does David Tennant do the accent? Or is he Scottish like always?

  • He does his 10th Doctor accent. It's upset a lot of Whoers, since now they think of him as a space groomer

  • JustStark

    That is amusing & almost makes up for there not being a recording of him trying to do Latvian or whatever it was.

  • It's not stated where he's from in the series, although he underwent tests as a child at the University of Manchester, IIRC. Needless to say, no one involved, particularly not DT, sounded like they were from Manchester

  • JustStark

    He never sounds like he comes from anywhere but Scotland, because no matter what he does to his vowels, he always uses the same, distinctively Scottish, speech rhythms and stress patterns.

    Which is why I was amused when he would be playing a character from, I found out when I asked Google, Croatia.

    Now if he was cast in a Tennessee Williams play, that would be something to hear…

  • Behold! Croatian!

    Behold! American!

    Behold! Scottish and American!

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: Boxset Monday: Marvel's The Punisher (season 1) (Netflix) - The Medium is Not Enough()