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Premiering on Netflix on Nov. 20, Marvel’s Jessica Jones looks and feels a bit like a cable antihero series — but it’s really more of a post-hero story, making it fascinating and unique in a marketplace that doesn’t lack for costumed do-gooders of all types. Through seven episodes, Jessica Jones looks like another Netflix success for Marvel, following the spring launch of Daredevil.
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), granted yet-to-be-fully explored powers in a yet-to-be-fully explained accident, tried to do the superhero thing, save lives and make New York City a better place. Things went pear-shaped. Tragedy ensued. Now, Jessica is running a ramshackle private-eye business, mostly taking pictures of cheating husbands. She’s dodging her best friend (Rachael Taylor as a former child star turned radio personality) and taking a particular interest in a local bartender (Mike Colter). It’s very early on that an abduction case involving college athlete Hope (Erin Moriarty) pulls Jessica back into the sphere of the purple-clad Kilgrave (David Tennant), the mysterious man who was the ruination of her dreams of heroism.
Working off a relatively new Marvel character created by Brian Michael Bendis, series creator Melissa Rosenberg is approaching Jessica Jones as a piece of hard-boiled noir, with Jessica as the brooding hero rather than the femme fatale. Jessica is haunted by her past and prone to outbursts of anger, self-medication with prodigious amounts of cheap booze and world-weary voiceover narration that propels the story. That she happens to be outrageously strong, able to leap to the fire escapes of tall buildings in a single bound and heal impressively fast, is secondary because even if the world can’t hurt Jessica Jones, she’s doing a pretty good job self-flagellating on her own.
While slight of stature, Ritter inhabits Jessica’s callused mindset in a way that suggests her sarcastic quips only barely cover her real pain. It’s a mix of the attitude Ritter brought to ABC’s Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 and the wounded soul she brought to Breaking Bad, with a new swagger that comes from knowing your character could beat the snot out of nearly everybody in the world. We know from flashbacks that Jessica always had been adrift, but her brief run as a hero gave her purpose and fortitude, both of which were stripped away by Tennant’s Purple Man. How do you handle being a survivor instead of a hero?
If Ritter’s Jessica is the noir protagonist, that makes Tennant’s character the femme fatale. Introduced initially in creepy and insinuating vocal appearances — Tennant’s native accent is back after that Gracepoint strangeness last fall — and only teased through brief glimpses in the earliest episodes, Kilgrave is the catalyst for the series’ action, the untrustworthy figure whom people can’t help but trust. Rather than luring people into credulity through sex wiles, this homme fatale lures women (and men) through mind control. Civilians are easy prey, but Jessica is nearly unstoppable physically, in a way enhancing the threat that comes from Kilgrave’s violations of her mind. Jessica Jones therefore becomes a series about consent, abuse and trespass of the most intimate and troubling kind — a series about the impact of rape and trauma without the depiction of literal rape. New York City, even in its darkest, scuzziest alleys, is Jessica Jones’ home, her security. But Kilgrave can do what thugs and deviants cannot: take away her security. Tennant makes the character seductive and crazed.
If Jessica Jones has a serious flaw in the early-going, it’s that, as intriguing as Kilgrave is, the show shares Jessica’s monomaniacal fixation on the character, and the result is a sort of narrative claustrophobia. Even Jessica’s interest in the man we quickly learn is Luke Cage is Kilgrave-related. Taylor’s Trish becomes part of Jessica’s Kilgrave fascination and even ties in thematically because of the manipulation she experienced in her days as a young actress, as well as some other dark events that have Trish learning Krav Maga in a fortress of an apartment. Everything in these opening episodes ties back to Kilgrave, and Kilgrave is such a twisted figure that it’s hard for any light to get in.
Fortunately, Ritter’s co-stars are good enough on their own that the insularity doesn’t rankle. Colter has been a valuable part of the Good Wife extended universe, but his assertive star power here instantly whets appetites for the Luke Cage Marvel/Netflix series that will be coming next. It’s hard to watch Colter and not think that TV and movies should have been trying to give this guy franchise vehicles for years. Taylor, in contrast, has been a pet project of casting directors through at least three quickly canceled network shows, but this is the first time her potential properly is utilized. Jessica’s relationships with Luke and Trish are driven by different needs — love, lust, friendship, forgiveness — and that keeps the Kilgrave of it all from overwhelming.
The rest of the Jessica Jones supporting cast is solidly populated, though I’m still waiting for Carrie-Anne Moss to have anything meaty to do and for Aussie actor Wil Traval to decide where his character’s accent hails from.
Daredevil garnered the best reviews of Marvel’s TV productions because of the show’s grounded placement in a post-Avengers NYC and also because of its complicated and human depiction of its lead. That show’s provocative Catholic view of the superhero landscape is nicely paralleled by the steely feminism of Jessica Jones, a moodier companion to what DC’s Supergirl is doing over on CBS. Daredevil also earned raves for its action scenes and fight choreography, which won’t be where Jessica Jones wins plaudits, since there’s a big difference between the hand-to-hand intimacy used by the only-slightly enhanced Matt Murdock and the gifts wielded by Jessica and Luke.
Jessica Jones has some decent action, and when it needs to feature superpowers, it does so in effective minimalist fashion, treating Jessica’s strength and near-flight matter-of-factly rather than with awe. The show’s tension is much more character-driven. Even more than Murdock in Daredevil, Jessica Jones dominates the proceedings in the show that bears her name — and thanks to Rosenberg and Ritter, the first season is well on its way to delivering.
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