When Daredevil was released a mere six months ago it was universally praised for its excellence with words like “gritty,” “dark” and “mature” amongst the adjectives frequently found in reviews of the series, including our own. It was a triumph in almost every regard, with the result that co-producers Marvel and Netflix have raised the bar in terms of what was anticipated of their sophomore series.
Viewers now expect each part of the franchise to improve on the last, or to at least have the decency to dramatically crash and burn in a torrent of abuse from fans and reviewers alike. This was an issue with Age of Ultron, which while it was in no way a bad film, it just failed to achieve the levels of adoration bestowed upon Avengers Assemble.
The fact that the first Marvel “team up” movie remains the highest grossing comic book adaptation of all time is beside the point; Age of Ultron simply wasn’t as good, so it was met with a shrug of the shoulders and a reaction of “meh, it was okay I suppose.” Expectations have understandably been raised to levels that are difficult to achieve or maintain, and the question therefore becomes: does Jessica Jones meet the expectations set by Daredevil?
Let’s start by saying that if you thought the adventures of Matt Murdock in Hells’ Kitchen were dark and gritty then you’ve seen nothing yet. Over the course of these thirteen episodes levels of grit which were previously unimaginable are reached. Make no mistake; this is not a show that you can watch with your children unless you want them psychologically disturbed. A marathon viewing session of the series left an adult emotionally drained, so it’s probably best not to let your young teenager watch it because they think Iron Man is cool or that Rocket Raccoon is funny.
Developed by Melissa Rosenberg from the character created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, this is not the Marvel Cinematic Universe of the big screen: the series deals with rape, abuse, drug addiction, post-traumatic stress and gleefully kills so many characters that, come the final episode, you’re unsure whether any of them are going to make it out alive.
There’s a level of investment involved with a Netflix series that requires patience. Structured as a full season, they’re not going to give you the answers immediately and even when they do reveal a “truth” it can twist an episode or two later to where the viewer realises they were wrong. Superficially evil characters are introduced only for it to later be revealed that their motives were pure. Snippets of flashbacks are shown, teasing past events but it’s only when the entire scene is played out the realisation dawns how wrong the immediate assumptions have been.
The Netflix model does not suit those with short attention spans, nor those who struggle to keep up with the plot or aren’t willing to wait for resolution, something that was exemplified by the recent Sense8.
As portrayed by Krysten Ritter (Veronica Mars, Breaking Bad), the titular Jessica Jones is a private detective and general lowlife, specialising in ruining people’s lives by gathering evidence on cheating spouses, but she is able to justify it to herself by the fact that they were the ones who came to her and asked for their lives to be destroyed. She’s an alcoholic, generally obnoxious and doesn’t want to get close to anyone, ever.
Ms Jones also has superpowers which, for the most part, are underplayed and rarely mentioned until the latter third of the season; early on there’s a scene where she lifts the back of car to stop a man driving away, yet the moment is shot so nonchalantly as to be perfectly normal and unimpressive. It’s also clear that she is utterly terrified of a man named Kilgrave.
It can be a problem when the protagonist of a story is generally unlikable, making them hard to identify or empathise with. Sure, we want them to have flaws but when it all comes down we want to be able to root for them and cheer them to victory as well. Tony Stark is a case in point: arguably the most popular character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when it comes down to it, he’s a supremely arrogant, spoiled , rich kid busybody. The fact that Robert Downey Jr has maked Iron Man so damn appealing is a credit to the actor.
The flipside to this is Hal Jordan, also known as Green Lantern and portrayed by Ryan Reynolds in the 2011 movie. Reynolds is a good actor (the defence would like to enter Buried into evidence) despite his often undiscerning choice of material, but it’s one of a very small number of films where you can’t help but find yourself rooting for the villain. Considering that was the universe destroying Parallax, it doesn’t say much for the hero.
Ritter is outstanding in the lead role, managing to be arrogant, offensive and likable all at the same time. She has a view of humanity as corrupt and not worth saving, yet she can’t help but want to be a hero, even when it becomes clear that it just isn’t in her nature. She wants to save them, but doesn’t think they’re worth the effort.
She’s distanced from the rest of the world and without any meaningful relationships, so damaged by her past that she can’t let anyone close to her other than her adoptive sister, but to fill the vacuum those watching find themselves drawn in, silent and powerless witnesses to her chose isolation. This is a vastly different approach than anything Marvel have done before, and when things don’t end well it’s easy to understand why Jones wants to maintain those boundaries.
Much like as in Daredevil, the villain of the piece is not immediately introduced, appearing in brief flashes or in Jessica’s memories of the past, always out of shot, but in this case his presence is felt from the very first episode. What kind of villain could so terrify someone who has super-strength, accelerated healing and is half a step away from being able to fly?
Kilgrave is a man that Jones has history with, and a man who can make anyone do whatever he wants simply by telling them to do it. There is no fighting his power in this universe, no characters who have the strength to resist his requests. Everything from “go and stand in the closet” to “put a bullet in your head” are undeniable demands. The fear that Jones has of Kilgrave is infectious, the tension mounting over the first few episodes so that by the time he arrives it’s easy to feel the same terror that Jones lives with. Not only is this an effective way to introduce the character, it creates the certainty that there’s no way for Jones to win against him.
A major criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that their villains can be fairly weak and forgettable. At the current time there have been twelve movies release and, apart from Loki and Ultron, how many of their villains can be named without the aid of Wikipedia? Conversely, the Netflix equivalents are hard to forget, with Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave beyond anything that has appeared in the multiplexes.
The writers of Jessica Jones attempt to make Kilgrave as sympathetic as Fisk, but sadly fail. Whilst the slow reveal of Fisk as an abused child that wants to save the city by any means necessary is compelling, it’s hard to paint a serial rapist as a sympathetic character, although it does throw up a few philosophical questions. If everything you said was taken as a commandment from whatever god you might believe in, how could you know if a person was being genuine or simply being controlled?
There are occasions when Kilgrave reveals something about himself that could draw sympathy from the viewer, such as having to guard his words when he wants to have a normal conversation, or the details of his childhood, but it all falls flat due to the fact that it has been established that he is a serial rapist that does whatever he wants with impunity.
Whilst it might be hard to imagine David Tennant portraying a character as despicable as Kilgrave he does an exemplary job. He cares nothing for humanity and people are his personal playthings. During the course of the series a “support group” for his victims is established: their stories are small, mundane and horrifying. Kilgrave has no desire for world domination, but if he needs someone to drive him somewhere he will make that person leave their toddler, still in its car-seat, by the side of the road. His victims aren’t mindless zombies obeying his command; their essence is still there, knowing what is happening but unable to stop it.
There was some concern when it was announced that Kilgrave would be the villain of the piece, due to the sexual violence associated with the character and, whilst it doesn’t shy away from the fact that Jessica, and many others, were victims of this, the series isn’t graphic about it and it is not used for shock value. Why use a scene of sexual violence to illustrate his depravity when they can show it much better by having him ask a couple of children to stand in a closet because he finds them annoying?
There are parts that don’t work as well as others. Jessica’s main client, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss of The Matrix) seems almost to be included for the sake of being there until she’s needed to become a plot device to move the story along. The role of police officer Will Simpson (Will Traval), much like Stick in Daredevil, looks like he could be being seeded for a larger role in the world of Marvel Netflix but for the moment there’s a feeling that his character arc is being used to pad out the storyline. The evolution of the character is interesting, but in a show as otherwise tight and organic as Jessica Jones it doesn’t quite fit.
Whilst not as addictive as Daredevil, possibly due to the often uncomfortable subject matter, Jessica Jones is pretty close to it, but she stands out on two counts, both of which are a brave move from the studio. She’s the first female superhero to front her own show and she’s also the first look at a failed hero, and both are unique in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Jessica Jones is available to stream on Netflix now