In the past decade, we’ve seen an endless parade of comic book movies and TV shows, promising to be darker and more “realistic.” But until Jessica Jones, none of them has really hit the mark. We saw the first seven episodes, and here’s our spoiler-free review.
There’s a lot to like about Jessica Jones, the latest Marvel-Netflix series which premieres tomorrow. For one thing, the cast is superlative. Krysten Ritter and David Tennant are rightly getting a lot of attention for their versions of Jessica Jones and Kilgrave (AKA the Purple Man). Their dynamic anchors the entire show; it revolves around them.
And the fact the whole show is about Jessica and the Purple Man means that this show is going to be hugely upsetting to some viewers.
If you know the history of those two characters from the comics, then you have some idea of what to expect going into this show. That dynamic is preserved here, with an emphasis on the aftermath of that history. There’s no way around the rape and abuse allegory inherent in a character who uses mind control to override other people’s consent. And while it would be nice to have a female-led show that didn’t use rape as its primary storytelling device, this show addresses it better than most.
It all comes back to the realism of Jessica Jones. This isn’t a cheap shot for quick and easy drama. What Kilgrave does to his victims causes deep and lasting trauma, and it lingers long past when he’s moved on. He is manipulative in ways that go far beyond just his mind-control powers. And this will linger with viewers, because the threat Kilgrave poses feels very much like one you could encounter in your actual life. Anyone who’s ever been in an abusive relationship is going to recognize Kilgrave’s techniques.
And this is a different kind of menace than just the usual comic book villain who wants to take over the world. (Or city, or neighborhood.) Kilgrave represents a sort of everyday evil which makes him much scarier than Loki could ever be.
Jessica Jones’s approach to superpowers is similarly toned down. Jessica, Luke, and Kilgrave all use their powers in offhanded ways. They are people who have adapted to what they can do and there isn’t a production every time Jessica punches through a wall. She’s not losing control, it’s just how she is.
Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Ritter as Jessica have great chemistry. There’s is a relationship that gets right down to it without any pining and longing—the problems develop after they start sleeping together, which also feels much more normal than TV’s usual addiction to will-they-won’t-they.
Rachael Taylor’s Trish Walker is every fiercely protective best friend that anyone’s ever had. Everyone has a friend trying to save you from yourself, and that is Trish. She is also brave and, whenever she becomes a hero in her own right, Taylor and the writers will have done the work to make you believe it.
Even with the obvious noir inspiration of the show—the down-on-her luck private eye, the girl in trouble, the amoral attorney, the useful cop—the show’s filming style is naturalistic. You can actually see New York. There are only a few stylized touches, but otherwise this is a show where the story and the characters take center stage. Flashbacks are used sparingly, but to great effect.
Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones deals with New York after the events of The Avengers. But, like the rest of the show, the effects it cares about are psychological. What does it mean to people like Jessica to know there are others like her? Or what does it mean to average New Yorkers to hear about powered individuals? Who believes in what powers?
Jessica Jones has the smallest scope of any Marvel property, and that was a smart choice. It means that it can focus in on character development, on building out its themes, and on resonating with audiences. It is very tightly-plotted, with a laser-focus on Jessica dealing with Kilgrave. This means that characters learn from previous episodes and make new plans when old ones fail. Not a single moment is wasted.
After years of “dark, gritty” movies featuring angsty characters in unreal situations, it’s amazing to see a story that’s genuinely dark and heavy, but features characters who feel like they could be people you know in real life.
Image credits: Top image via Screencapped.com; Photo Credit: MYLES ARONOWITZ/NETFLIX
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