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Netflix and Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Review)

Jessica Jones is a bold and ambitious piece of work.

In many ways, it takes what worked about Daredevil, and improves upon a lot of it. It offers a grounded take on the shared Marvel universe, one even further disconnected from the world of The Avengers. It offers a likable cast of actors playing a bunch of nuanced and well-developed characters, avoiding some of the stock comic relief that bogged down Daredevil at certain points in the series. It is smart and provocative in a way that many of Marvel’s more mainstream offerings are not, taking advantage of the relatively smaller platform to tell a more niche story.

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There are issues, of course. The biggest problem with Jessica Jones is that the series feels about four episodes too long for the format that it has adopted. While each of the episodes work as a distinct unit of story, Jessica Jones is much more of a single story than Daredevil was. The problem is that the story occasionally feels like it goes through narrative loops and down narrative cul de sacs to stretch out to the thirteen-episode order. While the more episodic structure of the first half of Daredevil was not ideal, it allowed for a smoother twelve-hour storytelling experience.

Still, this is a rather small problem. The world and characters of Jessica Jones are interesting enough to sustain interest even when it feels like the plot is stalling. Jessica Jones is clever, exciting and engaging.

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In many respects, Jessica Jones seems an odd choice for a thirteen-episode season. Most comic book superhero adaptations tend to opt for established brands. In the modern world of mass entertainment, it seems like established brands are the key. It is easy to sell The Amazing Spider-Man or Man of Steel to grown-ups who remember reading comics or watching cartoons featuring those characters. Even a more fringe character like Daredevil has decades of name recognition (and a Ben Affleck film) to back him up.

As a result, Jessica Jones is an odd choice for a central character in a Netflix series. Jessica Jones is a relatively new creation in the world of Marvel. She was first introduced in 2001, arguably well past the point where mainstream American superheroes comic books were a truly potent cultural force. More than that, she was introduced as part of Marvel’s experimental “MAX” line, a series of comics featuring mainstream characters in more adult situations. The first page of the first issue featuring Jessica Jones famously opens with a page of obscenities.

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Although writer Brian Michael Bendis worked hard to integrate Jessica Jones into the Marvel universe, both proactively and retroactively, the character has hardly taken off. Under Bendis’ pen, she edged closer to the conventional superhero action with The Pulse and even put on a superhero costume and joined his rebranded New Avengers. On paper, Jessica Jones is probably less popular or well-known than most of Marvel’s second-tier female characters like Squirrel Girl or Elektra or even Misty Knight.

Of course, there are reasons why Marvel would opt to give Jessica Jones her own thirteen-episode series. The most obvious is that it tests the power of “Marvel” as a brand put itself. While the sale of the film rights to Spider-Man and The X-Men meant that Marvel Studios developed its brand with some of its less iconic characters, heroes like the Hulk and Captain America are still household names. Jessica Jones does not have that cache, even among established comic book fans. So the choice itself is daring.

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However, there are other reasons. Jessica Jones is perhaps the biggest character contribution that Brian Michael Bendis has made to the shared Marvel universe. Bendis was one of the company’s most successful and prolific writers during its creative renaissance, one of the creative forces who oversaw the movement to align the comic book output with the cinematic releases. Bendis’ writing tends to evoke comparisons to dramatists working in other (arguably more established) media, particularly David Mamet. So it makes sense to draw on Bendis’ work.

Bendis has been a significant influence on the creative direction of Marvel. In particular, its Netflix brand owes a debt to Bendis. The various characters associated with collaboration between Netflix and Marvel have largely been informed by the work of Bendis. Three of the four Netflix miniseries centre around characters whose recent comic book history has been largely defined by Bendis. Bendis is a major creative force in any conceptual history of Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones or Luke Cage.

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Steven DeKnight has acknowledged Bendis’ Daredevil run as a massive influence on the miniseries. Bendis created Jessica Jones and stewarded her towards the mainstream. Although Bendis never actually wrote a book with Luke Cage in the title, the character has been a central figure in Bendis’ work on Alias and New Avengers. It is perhaps telling that the only Netflix miniseries without any firm ties to Bendis’ work – The Immortal Iron Fisthas been subject to rumours of cancellation.

Jessica Jones owes a lot to Alias, the comic book series that introduced Jessica Jones to the world. The opening credits adopt the same impressionistic style that denotes a lot of Brian Michael Bendis’ early artistic collaboratores at Marvel (Alex Maleev on Daredevil and Michael Gaydos on Alias), while scenes and dialogue are often lifted from the comic book. Jessica’s first meeting with client in AKA Ladies’ Night plays out just like her first meeting with a client in Alias, while Luke Cage has some similar advice to offer her when they meet in a dive bar.

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A lot of the joy of Jessica Jones is to be found in the casting. The ensemble is pretty tight. Krysten Ritter is fantastic in the role of Jessica Jones, offering just the right mix of jaded idealism buried beneath cynical wit. Ritter is able to convey an incredible amount of pathos in her performance, playing Jessica as a deeply flawed individual. It would be easy for Jessica Jones to suggest that the eponymous character’s cynicism was borne of her trauma, but the show very clearly suggests that Jessica has always had a world-weary attitude.

Jessica Jones avoid reducing its formidible female cast to simple archetypes. The show’s three central female characters (Jessica Jones, Trish Walker and Jeri Hogarth) are all complex and multi-faceted individuals with their own baggage and their own perspectives. While the narrative structure of Jessica Jones might occasionally falter, the voices of the characters remain true and consistent. It never feels like Jessica Jones is trying to “fix” its central characters, or to offer them linear redemption arcs.

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The central themes of Jessica Jones mirror those of Daredevil. In many ways, Daredevil was about forming a (masculine) Catholic response to trauma. Matt Murdoch lost his father, and raged against an unfair world, to the point where he became a civic-minded defense lawyer who buried a hyper-violent vigilante inside himself. Wilson Fisk responded to childhood abuse by trying to impose his own order upon the world. The trauma (and the response to trauma) in Daredevil was defined in masculine terms. Even Matt’s dialogue with God was that of an absent father.

Jessica Jones is rooted in traditionally (but not exclusively) feminine trauma. In AKA Ladies Night, an inordinate amount of time is spent focusing on the fact that a single woman in a big city should not be comfortable with a door that does not lock. In AKA It’s Called Whiskey, Trish admits that she cannot feel safe within her own home without “bullet-proof windows, a safe room”, not to mention “the video surveillance and the steel reinforced door.” The most prominent male characters – Luke Cage and Kilgrave – have unbreakable skin and serve as antagonist.

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Kilgrave is the embodiment of male violence. The show dances a little bit around the word “rape”, even though it is the perfect literal description of what Kilgrave did to Jessica Jones and Hope Slottman. The show acknowledges this element explicitly on a few occasions. In AKA You’re a Winner!, Hope points out that her pregnancy is simply a perpetual reminder of her rape at Kilgrave’s hands. In AKA WWJD?, Jessica actually labels Kilgrave’s actions. “We used to do a lot more than just touch hands,” he remarks. She agrees, “Yeah, it’s called rape.”

Kilgrave complains, “Oh, I hate that word.” Although he employs it himself in AKA Smile to describe his plans for Trish (“from your perspective, I’ll be raping her everyday”) there is a sense that Jessica Jones is just a little bit uncomfortable acknowledging the sexual nature of Kilgrave’s crimes. The show d impaling himself on a garden oes not shy away from a charactersheers in AKA Take a Bloody Number or a man feeding a dismembered arm into a sink blended in AKA Smile, but it flinches from acknowledging the sexual element of Kilgrave’s crimes.

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Then again, this may be a result of a larger awkwardness when it comes to talking about sex. Jessica Jones is the most sex-positive Marvel Studios production to date, and that should be celebrated. Luke and Jessica’s repeated super-powered trysts as visceral and powerful, and Jessica Jones shrewdly refuses to suggest that any of Kilgrave’s victims have been left dysfunctional by their trauma. Indeed, the series’ sex scenes are decidedly feminist, celebrating the diverse range of sexual activities and relations.

However, there are limits. Jessica Jones might be broadcast on Netflix, but it still feels confined by network television restraints. Bed sheets are conveniently L-shaped and female characters wear shirts in bed so as to prevent an accidental sighting of a nipple. While the show is quite adventurous in its heterosexual couplings, the show’s most significant homosexual characters only get a few fleeting scenes of intimacy. Given the brutality on display, it feels like there is something of a double-standard when it comes to present sex and violence.

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The production team are to be commended to for embracing sexuality. The sex between Luke and Jessica in AKA Ladies’ Night and AKA It’s Called Whiskey offer a genuinely feminist depiction of superpowered love towards which the Twilight films awkwardly aspired. Jessica Jones feels hemmed in at certain points, but this is more a reflection on broader cultural trends than it is a criticism of the show’s artistic intent. Jessica Jones might be more willing to broach the subject of sex than its compatriots, but the conversation is still more comfortable tackling different topics.

Kilgrave is more than just the embodiment of direct sexual violence. He is presented as an amalgam of misogynistic threats and archetypes. AKA Ladies’ Night introduces him as an obsessive stalker. AKA Top Shelf Perverts and AKA WWJD? present him as an obsessive ex-boyfriend. AKA 1,000 Cuts renders him as explicitly abusive. Kilgrave is physically and emotionally abusive. He is perfectly willing have others enact physical violence on his behalf, but also to manipulate the emotions of his victim. His use of Luke Cage in AKA Take a Bloody Number demonstrates this.

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Kilgrave is a collection of feminist critiques wrapped up in a sleazy British accent. Kilgrave is seldom presented as a literal threat, but more as an insideous manipulator. Even without the use of his powers, he excels at mind games and power plays. He plays very good poker with Jessica in AKA WWJD? and with Jeri in AKA Sin Bin, all without immediate access to his mind control powers. Over the course of Jessica Jones, characters frequently wonder just how deep his reach extends and just how much control he actually holds.

Kilgrave becomes more than just an abusive boyfriend or a creepy rapist. He becomes the embodiment of a system of deeply-engrained abuse. Appropriately enough for a show as heavily feminist as Jessica Jones, Kilgrave comes to embody feminist critiques of patriarchal culture; the question of whether issues of choice can actually exist in a culture that was so radically shaped and defined by masculine impulses and desires. How can Hope or Jessica ever be sure of what they thing or feel in any context with Kilgrave?

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After all, Kilgrave cannot just make people do what he wants them to do. He can make them want to do whatever he wants them to do. That is a whole other degree of power and control. “You want to do it,” Kilgrave urges Jessica in AKA Ladies’ Night. “You know you do.” Jessica always carries Kilgrave around with her. “He isn’t here now,” Trish tried to assure Jessica in AKA 99 Friends. Jessica simply points to her head and responds, “But he’s always here.”

At a certain point in the show, the characters stop talking about Kilgrave as a character and start talking about him as if he is a concept. After all, AKA WWJD? reveals that his name is Kevin; he simply invented Kilgrave. “Kilgrave?” Jessica taunts in AKA Sin Bin. “Talk about obvious. Was ‘Murdercopse’ already taken?” In AKA Smile, Claire teases, “I mean why not just ‘Snuffcarcass’?” In AKA 1,000 Cuts, the characters talk about Kilgrave as a virus and start speculating “a cure for Kilgrave.” Indeed, Kilgrave’s influence extends dramatically in the season’s final hours.

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Of course, Jessica Jones is careful not to suggest that all sexual dynamics are abusive or that not all sexual violence is masculine. Luke Cage is presented as a very loving and caring (and respectful) contrast to Kilgrave, a lover who is supportive rather than simply possessive. While Kilgrave holds a monopoly on the show’s most abusive relationships, the dynamic between Jeri and her ex-wife is pretty toxic. Similarly, Kilgrave’s insidious control of male characters like Malcolm and Simpson is presented as just as much a violation as his other activities.

Broadly speaking, Melissa Rosenberg does a good job adapting the source material. There are obviously a number of changes to account for both the different medium and for the different larger context of the show. The best change is probably the decision to strip down the references to the wider Marvel universe. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Alias is very tightly tied to the wider Marvel universe, featuring Captain America and Rick Jones. In contrast, Jessica Jones exists mostly independent from what came before.

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Daredevil had only the loosest ties to the wider Marvel cinematic universe, using the events of The Avengers as a springboard to a story about urban renewal and corporate malfeasance. Jessica Jones has no such connections. It is almost completely accessible to casual viewers with no pre-existing knowledge of the shared Marvel cinematic universe. The guest appearance from Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple in AKA Smile and the subplot of AKA 99 Friends represent the strongest ties to the larger universe.

This has the effect of making Jessica Jones seem very self-contained, even if there are obvious threads seeded for future Marvel projects. It seems highly likely, for example, that Will Simpson will make an appearance in some other Marvel project at some point down the line following his abduction in AKA I’ve Got the Blues. Similarly, the implication that the mysterious “IGH” is responsible for various superhero origin stories in the later episodes of the season suggests that it will be a convenient bit of world-building.

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The decision to strip away the connections to the wider Marvel universe also has another beneficial side effect. In Alias, Jessica was only able to overcome Kilgrave through the interference of other super-powered characters. She was rendered immune to Kilgrave’s mind control through the intervention of Jean Grey. In Jessica Jones, the main character’s immunity to Kilgrave’s mind control is purely internal to the character. This gives Jessica more agency than she has in the source material.

At the same time, Jessica Jones cleverly retains the basic framework of the source material. Melissa Rosenberg eschews the standard origin story beats. If anything, Jessica Jones plays as a superhero retirement story. When Jessica’s origin story is discussed, the mechanics are casually glossed over; the emotional beats are more important. In AKA It’s Called Whiskey, Jessica distills her origin to “accident” while Luke summarises his as “experiment.” In AKA I’ve Got the Blues, Trish asks, “Did the car accident cause it?” Jessica responds, “I have no idea.”

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This is a very clever choice. After all, Daredevil could occasionally feel like a thirteen-episode adaptation of Batman Begins, right down to the potent combination of mobsters and ninjas. There is nothing wrong with an origin story well-told, as it was in both Daredevil and Batman Begins, but the decision to largely gloss over the superhero origin of Jessica Jones proves to be a more interesting choice. The show handles most of the essential beats in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me.

However, the biggest problem with the show is rooted in a very conscious change from the source material. The trauma that Jessica suffered at the hands of Kilgrave is kept relatively consistent in the adaptation, with the television show willing to be a little more candid about Kilgrave’s sexual violence and alluding the comic book plot in some throwaway dialogue from AKA Smile. However, Kilgrave himself is a larger part of the show than he was of the comic. Kilgrave only appeared in the final arc of the twenty-eight issue comic, he appears throughout the show.

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It is easy to see why Jessica Jones would opt to make Kilgrave the focus of the season. He provides a very clear narrative throughline for the audience to follow, a singular narrative objective for Jessica to defeat. He is the living embodiment of trauma and abuse, and so he provides a structure for the narrative around him. More than that, the show is able to do very interesting things with Kilgrave in its middle stretch with episodes like AKA WWJD? and AKA Sin Bin.

More than that, Jessica Jones is able to take advantage of David Tennant, who offers a wonderful performance. He is able to make Kilgrave seductive, vindictive and pathetic; often in quick succession. Tennant is a great actor, and it makes sense for the show to capitalise on his presence. Tennant plays particularly well off Ritter, offering something of a grotesque twist on his star-making turn on Doctor Who. Kilgrave is very much a spoilt brat tearing the wings off what are essentially bugs to him.

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However, the decision to make Kilgrave a major character rather than simply relegating him to the end of the season causes problems. Some of those problems are structural in nature, with the plot often struggling to keep Kilgrave relevant as other characters do things. Kilgrave is effectively introduced twice in the first season, at the end of AKA Crush Syndrome and again at the end of AKA It’s Called Whiskey. Episodes like AKA You’re a Winner! and AKA Top Shelf Perverts try to find stuff for him to do.

This focus results in a number of narrative cul de sacs. Jessica discovers that Kilgrave as a weakness for sedatives in AKA Crush Syndrome, like pretty much every other person in the world. This leads to a weird subplot in AKA It’s Called Whiskey in which Jessica tries to steal some sedatives. Ultimately, those particular sedatives do not appear to be of much use for the rest of the plot. Kilgrave is drugged briefly at the end of AKA The Sandwich Saved Me and AKA WWJD?, but it does not feel like a writing choice that needed two episodes of set-up.

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“As long as he has your attention, as long as you care, he’s in control,” Trish advises Jessica in AKA Sin Bin. To a certain extent, that is try of all abusers. Even physical abuse has lingering psychological after-effects. In many cases, the best way to recover from abuse is to live a life beyond that abuse; to find something new and interesting, to heed the advice that Luke offered Jessica in AKA Ladies’ Night. That was one of the benefits of keeping Kilgrave away until the end of the comic; it allowed Jessica a life outside of Kilgrave.

There are points where the focus on Kilgrave undercuts the central narrative of trauma and recovery. While Kilgrave provides a handy embodiment of abuse and violence, his constant presence in the story chips away at the central metaphor. Most survivors lack a personification of their abuse that they can target or pursue; most of the people who find themselves in positions similar to that of Jessica or Hope do not have an opponent they can beat into submission or parade before the public.

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In Alias, Jessica’ final confrontation with Kilgrave was a catharsis. It was proof that she had grown and healed. Not only had Jessica survived the torment she received at the hands of her abuser, she was ready to deal with him when he returned. In Alias, Jessica did not actively seek out her former abuser; she simply learned to live with the pain he had inflicted and strengthen herself to the point where she was ready when he came back. Jessica Jones loses a lot of its power by suggesting that trauma is something that can be punched and battered.

Then again, this may be the point of it all. At the end of her opening monologue, Jessica reflects that her clients often struggle to accept the unpleasant truths that she offers. “Knowing it’s real means they’ve got to make a choice,” she narrates. “One: do something about; or two: keep denying it.” She adds, “Option two rarely pans out.” The biggest difference between Alias and Jessica Jones lies defining exactly what “do something about it” means. Alias seems to suggest the just living with it is enough. Jessica Jones demands more. It is hard to hate it for that.

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There is a sense that Jessica Jones is not ideally suited for the thirteen-episode format. The show occasionally wanders down various narrative cul de sacs. Jessica has Kilgrave captive at least three times, only for him to escape because there are still some episodes left. The character of Will Simpson might work best if he were allowed to die at the end of AKA WWJD? instead of being given his own superhero (or supervillain) origin story. The character of Kilgrave spends most of the first half of the season establishing and reestablishing himself.

What struture does exist on the season seems largely to have been ported over from Daredevil. That is not a bad strategy, as it worked quite well there. Rosenberg makes just enough changes that Jessica Jones doesn’t hew too closely to Daredevil. Daredevil tended to place a lot of its non-linear storytelling at the start of the season in Into the Ring and Cut Man so as to allow for a more efficient origin story; Jessica Jones waits until it reaches the half-way point to offer non-linear flashbacks to Jessica’s childhood in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me or AKA WWJD?

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Nevertheless, a lot of the basic beats carry over. The delayed introduction of Kilgrave mirrors that of Wilson Fisk, giving him two big introductory scenes at the end of AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey as opposed to Fisk’s big introductory sequence at the end of Rabbit in a Snowstorm. Much like Fisk’s origin in Shadows in the Glass, Kilgrave’s trauma are shunted to the end of the middle third of the season in AKA WWJD? and AKA Sin Bin. Of course, Rosenberg then cleverly twists the narrative to suggest that these are self-serving fabrications.

Outside of those predetermined beat episodes, the more episodic adventures tend to be the weakest. AKA 99 Friends serves to tie the show into the larger context of the wider Marvel universe, but it do so through the most generic manner imaginable and through a fairly bland guest cast. The actual case in AKA You’re a Winner! is remarkably bland, even if there is enough emotional weight to anchor the episode. It feels like a shame that Jessica Jones can’t seem to construct a few more interest “superhero private eye” stories, given the inherent appeal of the concept.

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Still, these are minor (mostly structural) complaints. Jessica Jones is an intriguing and compelling piece of work, populated by interesting characters and fantastic performances. It feels utter unlike anything else Marvel has produced. Given the volume of their output, that is certainly a good thing.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Jessica Jones:

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6 Responses

  1. Interesting review.

    I like Krysten Ritter (albeit as a comic actress), but I have to admit I’ve struggled to get interested in watching this series. Partly because I’m burned out by excessive grit in my superheroes – and admittedly from the outside this does look very dark – and partly because I’m busy watching Supergirl, which is both positive and entertaining.

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention Kara Zor-El at all in your review, even as a negative counterpoint (I love the show but I can see one is a Jessica Jones fan it might feel a little corny.)

    • “I’m busy watching Supergirl”

      Which just goes to show…um…er…?

      You don’t have to like Jessica Jones, but there must be a middle ground between urban fantasy and safe, boring treacle.

      Maybe I’ve watched too much superhero TV (Lois and Clark, Wonder Woman, Smallville), but Supergirl has a deficit of creativity. The plots are by-the-numbers, the dialog is bland and the actors are too inexperienced to bring it to life.

      • I watched and enjoyed the first few episodes of The Flash, but it just didn’t click for me. It wasn’t so much the lightness as the episodic nature. I liked it, but not enough to commit week in and week out. I’m not sure I could commit to a string of standalone episodic reviews with the limited time that I have. Which sounds like whining, and probably is. Thirteen episodes of a single story available in one gigantic chunk is a more manageable commitment for me.

    • I haven’t had a chance to watch Supergirl yet. I’m coming up to a number of deadlines, and Jessica Jones is pushing me to the limit time-wise.

      • Understood, and sorry if I was bit of a defensive fan boy there (cards on the table I’m a long time Supergirl fan, so huge bias there.) As I said I do really enjoy and appreciate these reviews, even for shows that aren’t perhaps a natural draw for me.

        That said I AM intrigued by Kristen Ritter in a non comedic role (I know she had a part in Breaking Bad but I never managed to catch that series.)

      • No worries at all!

        I hope I didn’t sound like I was being defensive. I’ve heard good things about it. I just wish I were at a stage where I could get paid to watch all the TV/film I wanted! 🙂

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