Krysten Ritter in “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” on Netflix.
Jessica Jones is not surrounded by cute guys who adore her. She doesn’t have a mean boss or a jealous sister or an evil aunt who’s trying to destroy her. She doesn’t live in a stylish apartment and possess an endless array of cute and trendy outfits. She will never be described as “adorkable.” Cameras will not flash as she passes by. People will not point her out with awe on their faces. She will not make the front page of the newspaper.
Instead, Jessica lives in a shithole, drinks too much, engages in rough sex with strangers and then punishes herself for it, and pushes everyone in her life away from her as she wallows in the very worst humanity has to offer because she’s suffering from acute post-traumatic stress disorder from a largely undefined, but clearly horrifying crime that was perpetrated on her. She’s the superhero who runs out of toilet paper, forgets to charge her phone and says “shit”a lot. A heroine who seems to hate everyone but reserves a special disdain for most of the women she encounters. A fighter for justice who happens to be filled to the brim with self-loathing.
Jessica Jones is the anti-Supergirl.
As anyone with a brain stem and an internet connection knows, we are in a period of pop culture entertainment that is practically awash in superhero stories. And if you’ve paid any sort of attention to this trend, you may have noticed that stories about heroes who happen to be women are few and far between. Or to put it more bluntly and accurately: non-existent. But this fall has seen the debut of Supergirl on CBS and the release of Jessica Jones on Netflix and while you couldn’t find two more different protagonists (on the surface, at least), their co-arrival at roughly the same time on the pop culture scene makes for a unique opportunity to compare how we see our female heroes and what we expect from them.
First, it’s not a slam on either character to make this comparison. It’s actually a good thing that we can talk about two female heroes who are so markedly different from each other. Second, while the connection may seem tenuous, it’s only because Jessica Jones, both the character and the series named after her, deliberately eschew as much of the trappings of superhero stories as possible. No capes or origin story for her; no leaping joyously from the rooftops. In fact, this first episode goes to great pains to show as little of her abilities in use as possible. But make no mistake, she’s no less a superhero, down to the whole lifting-a-car deal, than Supergirl is. It’s just that she’s more or less the flip side of the bright, hopeful, cheery superheroine model of which Supergirl is the lead example. One of these heroes fights evil in a cheerleader’s outfit with a cape attached and the other one does it in a moto jacket and combat boots, but underneath both heroines’ stories lies the same choice: to be a hero or to stand by and do nothing while bad things happen.
Some of the better comic adaptations in recent years were successful because the creators realized they didn’t have to be beholden to every superhero trope; that you could, in fact, pick and choose various aspects of a property in order to tell whatever kind of story you want, whether that’s a Captain America spy story or a Star Wars-like space opera, or an Ant-Man heist film. What Jessica Jones brings to the table is a classic Film Noir, complete with cynicism, neon, rain-slicked city streets and the kind of hardboiled dialogue you’d expect from the very best screen PIs. “A big part of the job is looking for the worst in people. Turns out I excel at that.” What she doesn’t bring to the table is a lot of sunny optimism or hope for the future. Make no mistake, this is a highly damaged woman who’s struggling not just to find her way back from a traumatic experience, but to summon the courage to find and face down the man who broke her before he can break anyone else.
Unfortunately, the man who broke her seems to have no barriers in his way when it comes to breaking other people. The case that opens the series and sets off a chain of events that will likely take the rest of the season to unfold ends in a rather horrifying way. This is a dark, dark show. But because of some truly fantastic work on the part of Krysten Ritter, as well as the kind of stylish directing and production design in the mode of Netflix’s other foray into the world of Marvel superheroes, Daredevil, it’s still an entertaining one. Even as the first episode ends in a pool of blood, it still strikes something of a hopeful note because Jessica, who spends the entire episode pushing people away, decides to stay and fight rather than run away. This, we suspect, will be the series’ great contribution to mainstream superhero films and shows. It’s a story about internal conflict; about the heroine’s fight to gain control of her mind and her self-regard. And we’d bet there’ll be far fewer punches thrown in this entire first season than in one hour of your average superhero movie. She’s badass, and we have no doubt we’ll see some kickass scenes down the line, but the appeal to Jessica Jones is that it’s a story about inner strength, not outer; mental strength, not physical.
There’s some really good stuff here. We’ll be catching up with it over the weekend and posting periodic reviews of a couple episodes at a time. Highly recommended, if not exactly a laff-a-minute.
[Photo Credit: MYLES ARONOWITZ/NETFLIX]