Sunday, December 6, 2015

Marvel's Jessica Jones: AKA Saviour Complex

Krysten Ritters stars in Marvel's Jessica Jones, current streaming on Netflix.

Welcome back to Hell's Kitchen. Our last glimpse into this especially dark corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was several months ago when Netflix launched Daredevil, the first of five projected Marvel television series. At the time, Daredevil was the most adult chapter of the narrative juggernaut that Marvel has been unfolding since the 2008 release of Iron Man. Daredevil told a surprisingly gritty and human story, a weighty and morally ambiguous entry that left behind the big screen world of alien invasions, laser-wielding raccoons, killer robots, and colourful, bantering superheroes. With the recent release of Jessica Jones, Netflix and Marvel return us to the grimy streets of New York City's Hell's Kitchen, but where Daredevil ends, Jessica Jones only begins – and the result is the darkest and most compelling story that Marvel has yet told.

Jessica Jones was created for television by writer/producer Melissa Rosenberg (Dexter), based on a character created in 2001 by Eisner-award winning Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis. Broken at the core but powerful at the edges, Jessica Jones is, in many ways, a noir protagonist par excellence. We meet Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) first as a voice, narrating the introductory scenes of the series. "New York may be the city that never sleeps, but it sure does sleep around. Not that I'm complaining: cheaters are good for business." It is a classic noir element and it follows up perfectly on Sean Callery's theme music and the stylized watercolour images of the show's opening credits. It helps paint that first image of our lonely hero: the hardened PI making a living in the dirty city, wry,  disengaged, with camera in hand to catch unfaithful husbands in the act. Ritter is probably still best remembered as Jesse Pinkman's ill-fated addict girlfriend from Breaking Bad's second season, or (as I'd prefer) from her last regular starring role was as the b---- in ABC's cancelled-too-soon comedy, Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. In Jessica Jones, Ritter harnesses all of her signature jaded, world-worn cynicism in her portrayal of Jones, but the voiceover is only the first clue that our hero is no ordinary misanthropist.

Voice-overs are tricky things. They are often introduced to fill gaps in a story: used by writers to tell rather than show, a shortcut to bind together a story when it doesn't bind itself, the way subject headings may have worked in your weakest undergraduate essays and just as effectively. Coming of age in our post-Blade Runner era, the first thing I do when I hear a voice-over is try to block it out and see what remains. If the narration doesn't add anything new, I find myself questioning why it's there at all – and if it does too much work, I wonder why the writer didn't try to find a richer way to communicate. As the first episode proceeds, however, it becomes more and more clear that this inner voice is as much a fa├žade as her outer one: a protective, self- and other-deceiving posture that is part of the same strategy of survival and denial, as much part of her self-medicating strategy as the half-empty bottle of alcohol sitting prominently on her desk.

We learn, over time, that Jessica is relatively new to the private eye trade. We also begin to see that she has some extra-human abilities – strength, endurance, and a surprising knack for jumping to second story balconies (she can't quite fly, but has some success at what she calls "controlled falling," which also perfectly describes her life as a whole when we meet her) – and some perfectly human failings – like being unable to make new friends, keep her cellphone charged, or stay sober for very long. She's also suffered a recent trauma at the hands of a man named Kilgrave (David Tennant, Doctor Who, Broadchurch). Kilgrave has the power to control minds, and for several months Jessica lived completely in his sway. She's long been keeping all of this under wraps, but with the arrival of two clients at her door who want her to track down their missing college-age daughter, her carefully constructed efforts of suppression begin to waiver.

David Tennant as Kilgrave, on Marvel's Jessica Jones.

For all of her abilities, she feels helpless – unable to defeat Kilgrave and unable to get past what happened to her – and it is her paranoia and her fear guides us slowly into the dangerous world she lives in. At its centre is a man who has the power to control minds and direct the wills of everyone around him. It is a sickening premise, and Jessica Jones – unlike Jessica Jones herself – pulls very few punches; the story it tells is horrifying out of the gate, and only gets more horrifying with every new detail. To the show's credit, there is little exploitative here: in the end, it is a story about that horror. The 13-episode first season never retreats from its portrayal of the experience of utter loss of control and identity, and the nightmare of living on afterwards. Tennant's Kilgrave isn't merely powerful: he's focused and he's cruel. If he wielded his power in a more arbitrary way, it would have made it more palatable. But Kilgrave uses his power not merely to control people, but to destroy them "from the inside out." But the unflinching and deliberate way in which the scenario unfolds, precisely in its success in making it feel real, also made it very difficult to watch, especially in the early episodes. It reminded me viscerally of watching the first hour of Veronica Mars so many years ago, and the burgeoning realization that that would be a series that had few, if any, limits to the level and specificity of the cruelty it could portray. On those terms, Jessica Jones is set one in one of the most dangerous universes I've ever seen on television.

Whatever its comic book conceits – super-strength, unbreakable skin, super soldiers – Jessica Jones is at heart a story about human relationships and the often dark dynamics that power them. Kilgrave has a power, but his magnetism is not solely about special abilities. (Though part of it may be David Tennant's preternatural charisma.) The series is littered with co-dependent relationships (married couples, parents and children, bosses and employees) and by the end, it explores not only the question of where the urge to control comes from – even and perhaps especially over those whom you believe you love the most – but the attraction of being on the receiving end of that kind of dynamic. As Wendy (Robin Weigert) says to her estranged wife Jeri, in trying to explain why she's ever agreed to marry her: "You were a bastard to everyone else, and you were kind to me. I was special."

Jessica Jones is full of grown-up, strong and complicated women. In addition to Jones, we are introduced to her best friend and adoptive sister, Trish (Rachael Taylor), former child star turned radio host, whose story and character further expand the show's themes of the struggle for self-determination and agency. Equally compelling is Carrie-Anne Moss' turn as the manipulative Jeri Hogarth, Manhattan's most feared criminal defence attorney and begrudging (sometimes) ally in Jessica's battle against Kilgrave, whose story falls decidedly on the other side of those same power relations.

Carrie-Anne Moss and Krysten Ritter in Marvel's Jessica Jones.

Jessica Jones also just might be one of the most powerful investigations into the traumatic after-effects of sexual violence television has ever seen. In both text and subtext, Kilgrave is a rapist – albeit a genetically modified one – and his victims suffer as much after as during his violations. The show gives us little direct access to the time Jessica lived under Kilgrave's control; what it does offer are powerful moments of connection between his victims, moments of vulnerability and sharing, expressions of raw, self-directed anger and feelings of powerlessness. (In a televised universe in which sexual violence has almost become a narrative trope – yes, I'm looking at you, Game of Thrones – it is remarkable to see a story which is both unflinching and sensitive in its portrayal not only of sexual violence but of post-traumatic stress in general.)

Though set firmly within the same continuity as the current Marvel films and television projects (like ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter), Jessica Jones enjoys the same protected narrative status as Daredevil. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is currently into its third season, but it spends a lot of its energy negotiating stories not of its own making, it's main job still being filling in the gaps between major motion picture releases. Though it still makes for entertaining television, it is just as often too slaved to those tent-pole productions: while, for example, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s follow-up on the calamitous events of Captain America: Winter Soldier were rather organically integrated into the final episodes of its freshman season, it worked rather less perfectly just a year later in the build-up to and aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron. (After almost a full season of internecine mistrust and betrayed friendships, all S.H.I.E.L.D. fences were somehow mended and trust rebuilt – off-screen and between episodes – with the arrival of a well-timed Helicarrier at the end of Ultron.) But even as the rest of the MCU might be beginning to buckle under the weight of past and projected continuity, the Netflix shows have been given the free reign of the margins. And, as with Daredevil, while familiarity with the wider established continuity can enhance your viewing, it is hardly required. Jessica Jones tells a "small" story that more than stands up on its own.

Netflix and Marvel are building towards an Avengers-style team-up of its growing cadre of small screen heroes; the crossover miniseries The Defenders has no release date yet, but it promises to feature characters from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, the still-to-be-released Luke Cage – Cage, played by Mike Colter, is introduced powerfully in this first season of Jessica Jones – and the still-to-be-cast Iron First. En route to The Defenders, some of the Netflix shows will be given one-off seasons and others multiple seasons. Daredevil has already been given the nod for a second season – which will air sometime in 2016 – but it isn't yet clear whether a second season is in the cards for Jessica Jones.

While clearly executive producer Jeph Loeb and the folks at Marvel Television do have some ambitious plans at Netflix, these aren't projects designed to sell action figures: considering the stories the first two shows have been telling, I expect that The Defenders to look more like group therapy than Super Friends. With Jessica Jones and Daredevil, Marvel has committed to telling stories less concerned with the intricacy of plot than the complexity of real human experience, something contemporary comics have been doing for a long time. It is refreshing to see comic book adaptations finally doing the same thing.
Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.          

1 comment:

  1. I think one of the most interesting reads of the Kilgrave character is that he is a physical embodiment of the male gaze. Since the show, in a rare example for genre fiction, can actually claim to portray the female perspective, Kilgrave is positioned as the outside (i.e. male) participant, whose inability to understand the perspective of those he hurts is a pretty damning depiction of the kind of inadvertent social cruelty that leads to sexual violence. Additionally, his childish petulance, selfishness, arrogance, and lecherous, leering attitude mirror the toxic behaviour of the "men's rights activists" that plague so many message boards. I think that sort of unflinching social commentary - which in this case is pretty ballsy, given that those same people stereotypically make up the largest part of a comic book adaptation's fanbase - makes JESSICA JONES a more relevant series than most. It's not afraid to piss off its core demographic in order to highlight what's disgusting about this part of our culture (for proof that this is how it's being received, check any comment thread and look for those saying they don't enjoy JESSICA JONES because they "can't get into something with a female lead"), and for that I think it deserves all the praise in the world.