Jessica Jones: A Review
I am a huge fan of the superhero genre, and pride myself on being so before it became trendy. One delightful side effect of comic book culture becoming “cool”, however, is that the demand for ever more movies and shows has led to increased attention on previously ignored characters. Superman and Batman and Spiderman have always been pop culture figures known to all, but now we’re even seeing starring roles given to such overlooked figures as Captain America and Thor and Wonder Woman. Jessica Jones is the latest such creation taken from the Marvel Universe and released by Netflicks, and I am pleased to say it has been the most enjoyable binge-watching experience I’ve enjoyed since the latest season of House of Cards.
Going into the show, I was actually expecting myself to dislike it given the bombardment of headlines I had read trumpeting it as a feminist masterpiece. However to my surprise and delight, I can say that if this was how feminism was pushed more often in popular culture I would probably stop complaining about it. Our protagonist and series namesake is superheroine Jessica Jones, or rather ex-superheroine. Jessica has hung up her do-gooder gloves following a traumatic experience at the hands of another “gifted” (as the superpowered are called in the show) individual and now works as a private investigator, mostly to fund her rampant alcoholism, having completely cut herself off from her past life and the people in it. This was one of the first pleasant surprises the show provided, by taking the typically male storyline of a hard-bitten survivor self-medicating through substance abuse and engaging in self-destructive isolation from their previous friends and family and telling it through a female character Jessica Jones manages to breath refreshing new air into a very tired old cliché and successfully hooked me from the first episode.
Even more refreshing than anything Jessica Jones does is what it refrains from doing. We see no examples of overtly sexist men belittling Jessica’s abilities only to be shown up when she swoops in to save them from their own ineptitude. There are no condescending speeches about how her past trauma and abuse is an example of how all men are really bestial pigs at heart. Instead, Jessica is shown to be a strong female character….by being a strong character who is female. Indeed, it’s actually quite remarkable that for a show about a superheroine Jessica’s superpowers play very little role. Her powers (basically just super-strength and the ability to jump really high) are tools she uses and not crutches she relies on. More often than not, she succeeds by using her wits, brains, and skills at observation and analysis instead of her ability to smash things and leap tall buildings. The result of this is we are given a strong character rather than a character that is happens to be physically strong. That kind of feminism, one that encourages respect of individuals for their abilities and achievements irrespective of their gender, is one I can fully get behind.
As great as our main character is, she is completely blow away by Jessica Jones’ main villain, Kilgrave. Played by David Tenant, Kilgrave has the power to control minds but as terrifying as his abilities are they are not what truly set him apart. Kilgrave is not a usual villain in that he is not particularly sadistic or greedy or even especially ambitious. He’ll have a newspaper stand-owner throw his own hot coffee in his face when the man annoys him but seems to derive little pleasure from torment for its own sake. He show little desire to amass tremendous wealth or accrue power or achieve global domination or any of the other typical comic book villain. What Kilgrave is, ultimately, is an incredibly selfish man. Since he was a child and first acquired his powers he has been able to get whatever he wants with no effort whatsoever, and the result has been him growing into a man completely unable to take into consideration the wants and desires of others making him a true sociopath. Kilgrave desires nothing beyond the immediate satisfaction of his whims, and woe be to anyone who interferes with them.
Kilgrave works as a villain because he is ultimately relatable. The viewer can understand who he is because they can see how in a similar set of circumstances they would turn into him. This is true in a way that is not so for a more traditionally megalomaniac villain. While I have often stated my opinion that man is a truly beastly creature easily capable of committing horrible horrors, it’s rare for this to be done out of a sadistic desire to cause pain or blind ambition. Our motives are usually those of Kilgrave on a smaller scale; a simple desire to get something we want that some other person stands in the way of. This was amplified in his case by the fact he was ten when his powers first manifested, an age when no one really has much impulse control and a pretty shaky sense of empathy to begin with. If we are honest, most of us would admit that if given powers of this nature at that age we probably would turn out very much like Tennant’s character if not worse. Kilgrave manages to be understandable, and indeed even sympathetic at times, while still remaining ultimately condemnable.
And just as we the viewer can understand Kilgrave on a certain level, a mutual degree of understanding between him and Jessica Jones is what drives the narrative of the show. For all his narcissism, Kilgrave is able to understand Jessica on a certain level, recognizing that her desire to bring him to justice is motivated by a need to prove to herself that she is an actual hero, seeing through the false front of cynicism and nihilism she projects to those around her and to herself. He even seems to show genuine concern for her at times. For her part, over the progression of the show Jessica is able to come to see that behind the façade Kilgrave projects, with his suave mannerisms and stylish clothes and refined tastes, he really is nothing more than an overgrown and spoilt adolescent parasitically living off of others through his mind control abilities. Kilgrave is obsessed with her as she is the one person to ever escape from his control, but even he does not really seem to know what he wants from her. Her death? Her love? Her submission? Her acceptance? All he really seems to understand is that by denying him want he wants Jessica has hurt his ego and his entire vendetta is basically a gigantic tantrum. It is by coming to understand this that Jessica is ultimately able to defeat Kilgrave.
The show is not without problems at times. Jessica’s relationship with her sometimes love interest Luke Cage suffers from a distinct lack of chemistry and his entire character could have been eliminated from the show without any consequential effect on the plot as a whole (I suspect he was only included to drum up publicity for the character’s own forthcoming show). The relationship between Jessica and her adoptive sister Patsy also is problematic; in some scenes the two manage to display genuine sibling affection but in others it feels painfully forced (though to the character’s credit she does have a role in the story outside of her relationship to the main character). There are also several minor side plots that could have been fleshed out much better and suffer for it.
In the end, however, the dynamic between Jessica and Kilgrave redeems all the aforementioned flaws. The show made the smart move of keeping Kilgrave ominously in the background for pretty much its entire first half, allowing its protagonist to establish herself in her own right while making his ultimate reveal all the more powerful. Jessica Jones ultimately hits the sweet spot of managing to show how in the world there is both black and white and shades of grey in between. The show is gritty, and dark, and horribly complicated at times, but so is life. We are allowed to watch Kilgrave be built up into something truly horrifying and then deconstructed into something almost sympathetically sad, while in the process Jessica is able to come to terms with the trauma she experienced at his hands and move beyond it. While she possesses super-strength, her true power comes from the inner strength that is revealed to we the viewer by this.