Review: Marvel’s ‘Jessica Jones’ is a Moody, Enthralling New Frontier in the Superhero Genre

By November 17, 2015

When Daredevil premiered earlier this year on Netflix, it was like the superhero genre – which had begun to feel tired and formulaic – had been blasted wide open once again. Like a wall had been busted down, revealing a whole new territory and environment that fans had never been given access to before. Mixing the dark storytelling and emotions with the familiar tropes of all superhero epics, and the entire genre was never the same. Now, Marvel and Netflix are attempting to achieve the same thing again with their second original superhero series, Jessica Jones.

The series focuses on one of Marvel’s most obscure heroines with Jones (Krysten Ritter), who didn’t really get her moment to shine until the Alias comics, which introduced readers to one of the most tragic and relatable superheroes ever to be put on the page. In a wise move by the creative team too, the original series borrows a lot from the Alias source material, picking up with Jessica after her short superhero stint ended in tragedy, trying to put her life back together while solving cases as a private investigator around Hell’s Kitchen. Unlike most other heroes and comic book stories, which focus on the smallest person in a crowd rising above to save the world, Jessica was tripped on her way to the sky, allowing her to be trampled over, rather than soar.

It becomes apparent fairly quickly on in the show that Jessica is haunted by her past in some way, and it doesn’t take much time before we realize that she’s being haunted by someone, rather than something. Her ghost of course comes in the form of Zebediah Kilgrave a.k.a. The Purple Man (David Tennant) who preyed upon Jessica with his mind control powers, forcing her to be his personal slave for months. Where the comics took their time to introduce the Purple Man though, the series doesn’t waste much, which can both help and hurt it at times. When we meet her in the series, she’s possibly the most self-loathing character we’ve ever seen in a superhero adaptation, and while she mostly uses her powers as tools in her investigations, it’s only after she realizes that Kilgrave is back and coming for her, that she begins to see herself as someone who’s being backed into a corner, as his purple claws draw ever closer.

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In a way, this series is very much a two-hander more than anything else, focusing solely on Jessica and Kilgrave’s relationship throughout a majority of each episode’s run time. There are talented supporting players featured though including Rachael Taylor as Jessica’s best friend – Trish Walker, Carrie Ann Moss as Jeryn Hogarth – a cold lawyer who has a love/hate relationship with Jessica, and Mike Colter as Luke Cage – an owner of a Hell’s Kitchen bar who quickly develops a romantic relationship with Jones. Out of all of the players mentioned however, only Colter really gets the chance to shine all that much, providing the beloved comic book character with the silent, powerful presence that he needs. His interactions with Jessica are one of the show’s biggest highlights and if his performance is any indication, then the Luke Cage standalone series has the potential to be just as hard-hitting as its two predecessors.

Ritter and Tennant are the real standouts though, giving two of their best performances here, even if one of them works mostly from the shadows. Ritter provides Jones with that tired, ingrained edge to her voice that can be both seductive and terrifying all at once. Her Jessica can switch from funny to terrified, to determined in the blink of an eye, and the actress handles the emotional rollercoaster with ease, making Jessica the best onscreen female superhero audiences have seen yet. You won’t see any little girls running around in their Jessica Jones costumes next Halloween by any means, but the way she’s able to provide the character with such an aura of strength is admirable, especially during the scenes when she feels the walls closing in around her.

Which brings me to David Tennant’s Purple Man, who I believe will go down as one of the best comic book villains ever put to the screen, both in movies and television. Reminiscent of DC’s Joker and Marvel’s Loki, his character is so gleefully evil, that you forget his purple skin from the comics is absent. Perhaps the smartest choice by showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and the rest of the creative team though, is the way they focus more on the ripples that Kilgrave leaves, before introducing the audience to the man himself, giving him the kind of force-of-nature reputation, that you can’t help but get chills by the time he finally makes his appearance onscreen. Watching him strut across screen in his usually purple suits, equipped with Tennant’s trademark accent and smile too, is one of the most enjoyably sickening things you’ll see all year.

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Unfortunately, the series’ constant focus on Kilgrave can also be one of its weaknesses as well. Where Daredevil‘s ensemble and sub-plots was one of its strongest aspects, the supporting characters and Jessica’s episode-to-episode cases feel sometimes tacked on as reminders that they are still there, rather than integral parts of the series. The tunnel vision can sometimes lead the characters down unbelievable paths at points as well, and while they are rare, the sometimes forced turns that the story takes can all too easily feel jarring or dragged out.

For a superhero series though, Jessica Jones feels more like a neo-noir character drama than anything else. You rarely see the full extent of Jessica’s powers in the series, providing a stark and needed contrast to the revolutionary and bare knuckled sequences featured throughout Daredevil‘s first season. However, where Daredevil introduced a much darker side of the Marvel Universe, Jessica Jones drops you into its inky abyss, where the people and story often take you into the kind of dark alleys you never would have thought you’d ever see from a comic book adaptation. Making Kilgrave the villain as well not only provides the series with the kind of unpredictability and tension it needs too, but allows it to reach into the darker parts of the human subconscious without ever feeling like it has gone too far.

For Marvel’s second attempt at a series like this, they have yet to strike out, and the studio continues to provide the genre with continually interesting and boundary-pushing material. Where Daredevil packed a punch that left you staggered and breathless at times, Jessica Jones takes a much subtler approach to its storytelling, luring the viewer in before introducing some of its more truly terrifying characters and story moments. It’s less like staggering away from a boxing match, and more like waking up from a dark, enchanting dream.

Jessica Jones will premiere on Netflix on November 20th.

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Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable