Since 2008 Marvel Studios has characterised itself with a brand of superhero cinema that, while taking place in a world virtually identical to our own, embraced the zanier elements of its comic book origins with a healthy dose of fun while still tackling serious issues adroitly.
This has led to the erroneous assumption (or oversimplification) that Marvel = Bright and cheerful. While recent films like Ant-Man and Avengers: Age of Ultron have made it clear that Marvel still corner the market in high quality fun popcorn fare, we have also seen recently that they are not afraid to diversify. The most wholesome paragon of the Marvel stable, Captain America has shown that he can shine against a gritty backdrop in the 70s political thriller inspired Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it’s in TV that we’ve seen that the Marvel brand can do grim and gritty just about as well as anyone.
This May, Daredevil fans were treated to a televisual interpretation of the character that they never thought they’d be lucky enough to get in the best urban crime drama since The Wire. Without waiting to see if Daredevil had turned out to be the sure fire hit it was destined to be, Marvel went about preparing similar 13 episode Netflix series’ for Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron fist with a view to building to a Defenders mini-series.
Of the defenders, Jessica Jones represents potentially the toughest sell. With studios across the board still relatively gun shy when it comes to female led superhero properties, Marvel could be forgiven for merely glossing Jessica over in a far more superficial way, packaging her debut alongside Luke Cage in his standalone show or even or even Daredevil’s second season. Moreover, the character’s well-intentioned but murky moral stance and the adult driven tone of the Bendis and Gaydos comics from which the show draws its inspiration have little to offer the Hunger Games crowd (a demographic to which lesser studios would be quick to pander).
Its a real testament to the faith Marvel Studios have in their characters that they have not only allowed Jessica her own show but that they have taken care to secure the talent to produce a product of real quality.
The Hell’s Kitchen of the MCU is a welcome location to return to after Daredevil and while there’s very little intersection between the character’s lives it still feels like the same neighourhood. While its predecessor was an urban crime drama, Jessica Jones opts for more of a heightened neo-noir flavour with its ambient jazz infused soundtrack and dirty yellow street lighting recalling beloved classics like China Town and Taxi Driver without descending into pastiche.
Those expecting a superhero drama may find themselves disappointed, but what’s on offer here is far more textually and intertextually rich.
Jessica herself is every bit the gutsy, flawed, self-effacing, tough, broken, conflicted, haunted, witty, badass, clever, vulnerable girl-next-door type that we know and love from the comics and given the emotional range inherent in the character its small wonder that Krysten Ritter describes Jones as the role of a lifetime.
It’s also, as evident from the very first scene, the role she was born to play.
Ms Ritter’s tour-de-force performance has an honesty and an integrity which the actress seems to bring to all of her roles that ensures that we remain on her side, however many poor choices she makes (she’s only human, after all). As good as she is, though, her chemistry with the supporting cast hops off the screen, especially with best friend / adoptive sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). The relationship between these women is complex, tumultuous, tender, brutally honest and beautifully realised. Throughout the highs and lows, the trust and understanding between these actresses is palpable!
The performances across the board are sterling and while the men are no slouches in the acting department (more on them in a moment), it’s evident that show runner Melissa Rosenberg finds more fertile ground in mining the relationships between sisters, mothers, daughters, friends, enemies, lovers and rivals from a quintessentially female perspective. While Jessica’s particular journey from redemption to self-destruction and back again can resonate across the gender divide, there’s something about the subversion of gender norms here that ensures that the show never stops feeling fresh and interesting. Take for example the character of Jeri Hogarth played by the ever-wonderful Carrie-Ann moss. While on the surface an icy, manipulative shyster, she also shows some moments of vulnerability as we follow her through a difficult divorce. She’s adulterous, calculating, self-interested and I wouldn’t necessarily want to go on a camping trip with her, but it’s difficult to completely condemn her, even as we empathise with her long suffering ex-wife. While we’re at it, I like the fact that Hogarth is gay without it being a plot point. How many well-rounded and nuanced characters in film or TV just happen to be gay?
Speaking of subverting norms, it’s very rare that the antagonist of a story is defined by their adoration, rather than hatred of the protagonist, which brings me to David Tennant’s masterful performance as the villain, Killgrave. Between the intelligently written script and the affable former timelord’s performance, Marvel may just have their best villain since Loki here. Killgrave is astutely portrayed like the monster in a horror film, introduced slowly and incrementally by the damage left in his wake. He’s an urbane sociopath with an utter contempt for the general populace whom he clearly perceives as being beneath him. Comparisons to the likes of Hannibal Lecter are inevitable but appropriate. Like the aforementioned liver chomping psychoanalyst, Killgrave arouses equal parts attraction and repulsion from the audience due in no small part to David Tennant’s remarkable screen presence, wit and charisma. While there is little to engage us on a sympathetic level to this unapologetically vile human being we are shown enough to explain, if not excuse, his behaviour.
The theme of power and control is a potent one and it runs through the series’ 13 episodes. In the most obvious sense, we see Killgrave’s ability to make people carry out his every command and the disastrous consequences of such a power. While the topic isn’t new to the MCU the consequences of having your actions controlled by a malevolent entity are explored in a great deal more depth than the mild hangover of Scarlet Witch’s illusions or Erik Selvig’s charming antics after his encounter with the Loki Pokey stick. We see other less obvious, but no less insidious methods of control as well; the control Trish’s domineering showbiz mother still holds over her actions, the control that Jessica’s childhood guilt for the accident that cost her her family (and possibly even gave her her powers) still has on her into adulthood.
On the subject of power, Jessica Jones offers a much less rosy perspective than we’ve usually seen in the MCU where power is used as a means for wish fulfilment. Unlike, say, Steve Rogers, Jessica’s life isn’t changed or made inherently easier by having her heightened strength. It makes certain situations easier but is seen to create more problems than it solves. Manhattan is still wary of anyone exhibiting superpowers in light of “the event” that took place in the first Avengers, and we see one particularly harrowing example of prejudice against “them”.
Redemption is another recurring theme in the show which brings me, of course to Luke Cage. Mike Colter’s quietly strong and intelligent performance captures exactly the right balance of machismo and vulnerability required for the world weary Cage. We catch the character at the interstice between ex-con and hero-for-hire, recovering from great personal loss and Colter portrays a man trying his best to rebuild his shattered life with aplomb. His chemistry with Ritter is truly electric and while I could have done without some of the gratuitous-yet-sanitary sex scenes (I don’t like sleaze in my art any more than I like art in my sleaze), these two were made to share a screen with each other!
As critics bemoan mainstream (and, by extension American) media’s over-reliance on intellectual properties and lack of risk or originality it’s nice to see a relatively obscure comic book property brought to the screen with oodles of both. The Marvel brand’s growing diversity could end up all-but guaranteeing its longevity. Marvel in comics has been famously progressive in its depiction of non-white, non-straight, non-male characters. Here’s hoping that trend continues on screen with engaging, thoughtful, intelligent and thrilling material like this for years to come!