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