Well here we are. Marvel has now officially adapted a D-list comic book character into an eponymous TV show. Never heard of Jessica Jones before? No one blames you.
A fairly recent addition to the Marvel books, the version of this character the Netflix show is inspired from saw her own line of books from Marvel legend Brian Michael Bendis starting from 2001 titled Alias. A former superhero who saw her crime-fighting career end shortly, Jessica settles to become a licensed PI and starts helping only the people who pay her to do so.
The books saw many reasons that led her to hang up her costume days but all of them really come down to one defining presence in her life: trauma.
The trauma from living a life larger than yourself; trauma from having all the strength you could possibly imagine and still feeling powerless; and the trauma from existing in a world hell-bent on oppressing the powerless.
Intendedly, Netflix and Marvel’s adaptation corners in on this aspect of her character more than anything else over the course of 13 hours, making for one of the most interesting explorations of PTSD I’ve ever seen on screen.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones sets the stage for Jessica, played by the electric Krysten Ritter, working as a private eye and day-drinking her way through every affectation of PTSD a person could possibly deal with –and some they possibly could not. The purple abyss of all her issues take the form of one Zebediah Kilgrave, the primary antagonist of the show brought to insidious life by the ever charming David Tennant. Yeah, that David Tennant.
Gifted with the ability to make anyone do anything he wishes just by telling them to, Kilgrave becomes quite taken with Jessica and her powers, subduing her nearly on sight. What follows is truly horrifying to watch unfold as Jessica is made to carry out every delusion of the man’s twisted fascinations, all with a smile on her face that doesn’t even belong there, through multiple counts of rape and even ending with murder.
To say the show traverses grim territory would be a serious understatement. Make no mistake, this is the darkest production out of Marvel’s playbook yet, and possibly the darkest comic book adaptation ever. Even considering Marvel’s earlier Netflix triumph Daredevil, which was a faithfully brooding take on Hell’s Kitchen’s watchful protector, crossing lines usually unseen on the television landscape. But Jessica Jones leaves those lines in the dust.
Confident in its abandon of conventional holding patterns and consistent in its tonal delivery of matter that should be taken seriously, this show turns in groundbreaking television hour after hour.
The consequences of traumatic experiences like those of Jessica’s and all the other people who fell victim to Kilgrave’s subjugation is dealt with on the show directly as it is sensitively. Trauma affects different people in different ways. Some are able to process trauma and heal into better versions of themselves, while others are irrevocably fractured by it, possibly leading them down the path of a villain.
A lot of the time we’re left to watch Jessica struggle between these two courses. Between her neighbour Malcolm steadily recovering from addiction, and the broken killer cop Will Simpson (both hurt by Kilgrave as well), every step Jessica makes on the show is subtextually self-aware and significant, marrying its metaphors into tightly wound genre trappings that influence its modern hard-noir story.
I know all of that sounds super serious and grumpy but it’s actually amazing how Jessica Jones manages to be a lot of fun to watch. An extremely likable cast of characters make it easy to root for our heroes, and even hate them when they ask for it.
Starting with Jessica’s foster sister and best friend Trish ‘Patsy’ Walker, who is physically weaker than Jess but all the more headstrong for it. A valuable source of levity for the show, their chemistry works on every level, making for a human friendship that’s always a joy to watch –even when they’re fighting as close friends often do.
Carrie Ann Moss’ Jeryn Hogarth, big shot NY lawyer, brings as many cases to Jessica’s PI business as much as Jess brings the worst kind of trouble to Hogarth’s life. Seriously, it’s pretty hilarious how even the most trivial of Jessica’s shenanigans disrupts anything important to Hogarth. She’d really be much better off without her, but hey it’s great TV for us so I’m not complaining.
Another thing no one’s complaining about would be the show’s inclusion of Luke freakin’ Cage. I’ve been waiting for a live adaptation of the Power Man for as long as I can remember and Marvel did not disappoint here.
One of the most significant black characters out of the ‘60s, a time when black leaders were being shot to death all over the United States, the bulletproof Luke Cage made a powerful name for himself in comic books and is now slated to his own Netflix show next year.
However, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones’ fates in the books were too intertwined to not include him in some capacity for the latter’s show at the risk of being unfaithful to the source material. Decisions such as this one tend to be difficult to undertake and even a little ill-advised most of the time but Jessica Jones handles Luke’s involvement, both on the show and in Jessica’s life, with aplomb. I don’t want to reveal too much right away but needless to say Mike Colter’s Luke Cage is a sure highlight for the show, and makes you giddily anticipate his own stories come 2016.
The supporting cast does a fantastic job not only delivering great performances in and of themselves but also to bring Jessica’s deeply problematic life to light. Because trauma never affects only one person. It spreads like a virus, corrupting every aspect of the victim’s life and that includes the people as well.
It’s a real testament to the writing how well conceived this premise is. Every character deals with either a reflection or a refracted version of Jessica’s problems. Even the inclusion of characters like Trish’s abusive mother and Kilgrave’s loving but misunderstanding parents is no accident. With these people the show paints the broader, generational impacts of trauma as it is passed down in one form or another. No one is left unscathed.
That is particularly true for David Tennant’s Kilgrave. Let me take a moment to try and tell you just how incredible Tennant is as this character. Even after all the vile, unforgivable things Kilgrave has done to the people unfortunate enough to cross him for no other reason than “he felt like it,” there are moments in the course of the show when you not only understand why he does what he does, but you feel what he feels about what he does. And given that what he does ain’t pretty, it’s remarkable how deeply you’re able to relate to him, and at times even scary. By the end of the 13 episodes, it’s clear that David Tennant might have just given us the most thoughtful characterization of a live action villain Marvel has ever had.
It’s truly rare to come across a show this fun on the surface while also working seamlessly within its deeper levels, and they’re much harder to find in the superhero genre even amongst the plethora of costumed programming these days. Jessica Jones is able to reconcile those two halves with real vision to say something special and truly unique with superheroes.
I know many would argue this show isn’t about superheroes at all given its strong realism. I disagree. There are powers all over the place and they’re being used all the time in dynamic ways, but I still get where this opinion is coming from. The cognitive dissonance they’re feeling stems from their disbelief that superhero stories can also contain thematic depth that deals with real, modern and necessary issues. But that’s exactly what they are and what they’ve always been. Only Marvel’s Jessica Jones is able to deal with them honestly while still working like gangbusters, making for the very ideals the superhero genre should be striving for in 2015.