In early November, CBS premiered the first episode of Supergirl, which was and remains one of the only female-fronted superhero adaptations on television. The series’ first episode scored impressively high ratings, but I found Supergirl to be an airy cream puff of a show, and a rather sad representation of women heroes. Fortunately, the streaming-service gods (i.e. Netflix) have at last provided us with a female superhero worthy of some genuine nerd pride. Jessica Jones takes a little-known character of the Marvel universe and faithfully preserves her gritty, brooding energy. The end result is really quite excellent.
Jessica Jones, which bears the same name as its lead character, is based on the Alias comic books by Brian Michael Bendis. It was adapted for the screen by Melissa Rosenberg, who also produced the Twilight film series, making her something of an expert in the field of angsty superhumans. Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is a hard-drinking, acid-tongued private investigator, who came to possess extraordinary strength after a mysterious “accident.” She once dabbled in the cape-and-tights heroism of her Marvel counterparts, but the show’s narrative begins after Jessica has rejected her role as a savior. Although she can crumple a chair with her bare hands, Jessica wants nothing more than to lurk into the shadows of obscurity, far from the clutches of the nefarious Kilgrave.
Played with sublime creepiness by David Tennant, Kilgrave possesses powers of mind control and is deeply, perversely infatuated with Jessica (his photo shrine in her honor is a true credit to stalkers everywhere). Through tantalizing flashbacks, we learn that Jessica was once completely under Kilgrave’s control, and that he forced her to implement her powers to terrible ends. When one of her investigations goes horribly wrong, Jessica gets sucked back into Kilgrave’s orbit. Impelled by a reluctant sense of duty, she seeks to neutralize the threat he poses to innocent bystanders—many of whom turn out to be women—while fighting to stay free of his corrosive influence.
With its gloomy city backdrop and forlorn jazz soundtrack, Jessica Jones is modelled in the style of classic noir, and its heroine bears more resemblance to a Chandler-esque PI than she does to a caped crusader. Jessica moves through the world with a crusty cynicism (she describes group therapy, for example, as “circle-jerking with a bunch of whiners”), and is often curt to the people who try to help her. She also makes some rather questionable choices when it comes to Luke Cage (Mike Colter), her love interest and fellow mutant. Jessica is good, but she is not very nice.
Nevertheless, the series is layered with a complexity that allows Jessica to transcend the disgruntled detective archetype. She has been wounded, and Krysten Ritter—all doleful eyes and jet-black hair—does a fine job of conveying the river of trauma that runs beneath her character’s acerbic wisecracks. Jessica Jones grapples with themes that feel very daring for a comic book adaptation. It’s impossible not to see Kilgrave’s mind-control as a symbol of the toxic pull of domestic abusers, and the series baldly paints him as being guilty of manipulation, harassment, and rape. Even when Kilgrave is not on the scene, Jessica is haunted by his specter, who whispers in her ear, licks her face. She decides to go after Kilgrave because she feels responsible for his new victims, but confronting him is essential to her own recovery.
Amid the tsunami of male-led comic book adaptations, it’s wonderful to see a female hero (or antihero, as it were) being treated with such attention and nuance. But Jessica Jones is much more than an exercise in tokenism. The series is braver, truer, and more compelling than many of its Marvel counterparts. Jessica boasts extraordinary powers, but it is her acute ordinariness—her suffering, her bad decisions, her jerkish impulses—that makes the show so thrilling to watch.