NOTE: This review may contain mild spoilers for the first season of Jessica Jones. That said, the review is written to accommodate those who have not yet watched the season, and as such, will avoid discussion of major plot developments.
Marvel made a big splash earlier this year with Daredevil, an outstanding success that went on to become the biggest Netflix Original Series of them all to date, and offered an excellently dark new take on the formerly family-friendly Marvel Cinematic Universe. Because of the heavy acclaim generated by Daredevil, critics and Netflix subscribers had all eyes on the series’ spiritual follow-up, Jessica Jones, the second of four MCU-set Netflix shows that will eventually lead into crossover Netflix miniseries, The Defenders.
Jessica Jones also drew attention for being a rare female-driven show in a very male-heavy genre, even if it was beaten to the punch by Agent Carter on ABC, as the first female-led Marvel series. Even with the protagonist being a woman though, Jessica’s gender feels barely consequential in the end, since it’s merely a footnote in regards to what makes her such a novel and interesting new Marvel hero for the MCU, even surpassing Daredevil in terms of said novelty and intrigue. Daredevil, after all, is still a costumed do-gooder that likes to beat on criminals, as many superheroes are, even if Daredevil happens to inhabit an especially seedy world of acute violence and corruption, in contrast to other MCU personalities to come before.
Jessica, however, is a far more complex and intriguing personality than even the Man Without Fear, and this is due in no small part to the outstanding lead performance of Krysten Ritter, who makes Jessica edgy, unstable and a hot mess of a disgraced heroine, yet also creates a protagonist that’s charming in her rudeness, and vulnerable in her aggression. Unlike former MCU personalities, Jessica has already tried being a hero, and abandoned it. She works a P.I. job simply to pay the rent, and seems to be driven by the sole motivation to drink, and catch people cheating on their spouses. Even then though, Jessica is not a sad sack, nor does she ever come off as weak. As the series gradually unravels the depth of tragedy that drove Jessica to what she’s become, she only becomes better and better, representing the previously-untapped cost of becoming a hero in the MCU, and not succeeding. Whether or not Jessica Jones is still a hero is debatable, and the show does often debate it directly through its personalities, but regardless of where you land on her status, there’s no arguing that she’s a brilliantly realized protagonist.
As the old superhero adage goes though, a hero is only as good as her villain. Fortunately, Jessica Jones delivers here as well, thanks to David Tennant’s immensely creepy and yet endlessly captivating Kilgrave, a mind-controller that can hide and act through anyone, and a sociopath with sadistic tendencies, and an unyielding fixation on Jessica. Marvel fans would best know Kilgrave as Defenders foe, Purple Man, though he’s never referred to as such in Jessica Jones, and unlike his comic book counterpart, Kilgrave doesn’t have purple skin in his MCU incarnation, no doubt because it would make him pretty damn conspicuous in a live-action story. Kilgrave does reference his comic book heritage with a regular affinity for purple suits however, and many scenes that involve the discussion or presence of Kilgrave are shot with a cool, purple-tinted lens, giving Jessica Jones its own very cool sense of style and cinematography, even if it still takes place in the run-down revision of Hell’s Kitchen, the same part of New York that Daredevil unfolded in.
Ultimately, Daredevil’s portrayal of Wilson Fisk/Kingpin made for a slightly better baddie, but Kilgrave is still one of the best villains to grace the MCU at this point. Tennant is immediately terrifying, and yet irresistible in the role. He effortlessly embodies the twisted mannerisms and superhuman charisma of a mind-controller like Kilgrave, whose words have the power to make people do whatever he wants, no matter how disgusting or violent. Unlike the mighty, hulking presence of Fisk on Daredevil, Kilgrave is always a whisperer in the background, yet is no less dangerous for it. His presence continually haunts Jessica, and there are several times where we only see the stomach-turning fallout of Kilgrave’s actions, which beautifully demonstrates why he’s a man to be feared by anyone, even the superhuman Jessica Jones. Kilgrave’s background is explored more as the series goes on, though even when the intrigue behind his character is at its best before we know his backstory (which is predictably altered considerably from Purple Man’s backstory from Marvel Comics), he doesn’t lose that fear factor when the pieces start to come together about who Kilgrave is, and what drives him as a superhuman psychopath.
As with Daredevil, Jessica Jones doesn’t pull punches with its material either. It’s a show firmly meant for grown adults, and is not at all recommended for children, due to its frequently bloody violence, some truly gruesome murder scenes, and a good chunk of cursing from Jessica especially, even if there’s only one quiet f-bomb uttered over the course of this first season. It’s easy to argue that Jessica Jones veers even further into R-rated territory than Daredevil as well, since Daredevil was very violent, but that and its subject matter were the main things that had it skewing towards adults, and not general audiences like most MCU media. Jessica Jones however runs the gamut of violence, gore, foul language, drug and alcohol abuse, and even some pretty steamy, graphic sex scenes, though on the flip side, there’s no nudity, should you be concerned about that one way or the other. It’s definitely the most adult story that the MCU has offered to date, and many are sure to appreciate the MCU further delving into its dark, shady underbelly than even Daredevil dared to go at this point. As much as Jessica Jones was in development for ABC for many years originally, it feels like Netflix is the show’s ideal home in the end, since it allows the show to embrace the more mature storytelling of the Alias graphic novels that developed the character of Jessica Jones in Marvel Comics, and the show is better for it.
Another thing separating Jessica Jones from the more aggressive, justice-themed story of Daredevil, is that it’s yet another brilliant reinvention of the MCU, serving as a psychological thriller that fits in with Daredevil and the other shows and movies that comprise the MCU at this point, yet firmly carves out its own niche and genre once again. Jessica’s lack of stability only makes the threat of Kilgrave more pressing, and the intensely psychological story works as a way to generate both excitement and drama. There are only a small handful of true action scenes in Jessica Jones, but that doesn’t work to the show’s detriment. This time, the threat is all about psychology and suspense, with Jessica having to find her inner hero again, while embroiled in a conflict where violence won’t help her. The more Jessica fights after all, the more powerful Kilgrave seems to become. Instead, it’s a story about out-thinking the villain and his trail of bodies, rather than simply trying to beat him in a fight, and that’s another thing that makes Jessica Jones so incredibly exciting to watch.
Obviously, you could discuss the highlight personalities of Jessica and Kilgrave for quite a long time, but the supporting cast is plenty appealing as well. Luke Cage, the next Marvel superhero personality that will headline his own Netflix series in 2016, is introduced in Jessica Jones, both as a victim in his own right, and an outlet for Jessica to find acceptance in a world where both her powers and her disposition make her a social pariah. The turbulent budding of the relationship between Luke and Jessica is done very well, and it should have viewers eager to check out Luke Cage when its debut season premieres on Netflix next year, since Mike Colter makes Cage a cool, but charming character who, like Jessica, is often trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Jessica’s support system also comprises Trish Walker, played by Rachael Taylor, and better known as Marvel heroine, Hellcat, who is Jessica’s best friend and adopted sister, and headlines “Trish Talks”, the biggest talk show in the MCU’s New York. There’s some hints at Trish’s comic book heritage as Hellcat, particularly since she actually replaced Ms. Marvel as the planned supporting heroine in Jessica Jones, back when it was planned for ABC (Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvel’s civilian identity, is already reserved by Marvel Studios to be the protagonist of 2019 movie, Captain Marvel, rendering her off-limits for Jessica Jones), though Trish is best enjoyed as a character that’s very larger-than-life in her own right, but still very human. Trish has her own backstory of abuse and disappointment, one that is also explored as the season goes on, though unlike Jessica, Trish seems to have risen above her painful past, making her both an inspiration and foil to Jessica.
Trish also has a love interest, Will Simpson, who is a slight re-tooling of Frank Simpson from Marvel Comics lore (it’s possible that his name was changed to avoid confusion with Frank Castle, The Punisher, who is coming to Hell’s Kitchen during Daredevil’s second season in 2016), best known as Marvel super-villain, Nuke. Will is another tragic do-gooder, though one far less compromising than Jessica. Most of his comic book heritage as Nuke is eventually explored, with far less opaqueness than Trish’s Marvel identity as Hellcat, though Simpson’s plot is one of a couple that feels prematurely abandoned right when it becomes most interesting, as if the showrunners are more aggressively banking on a second season than Daredevil was.
This is the only slight knock against the otherwise superb stories that comprise the first season of Jessica Jones; Not all of them are fully resolved. It feels like Marvel saw the enormous success of Daredevil back in Spring, then got more confident about successive seasons for the upcoming Netflix shows, which is why they seem to be deliberately saving some story threads for a second season of Jessica Jones. This is actually best exemplified through Carrie-Ann Moss’s character, Jeri Hogarth, a gender-swapped version of Jeryn Hogarth from Marvel Comics lore, who is the attorney of Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, though Jeri’s possible connection to Iron Fist is not brought up at any point during this debut season of Jessica Jones. Jeri is another great character, a lesbian who has fallen for her younger assistant (making her the first homosexual principal character in the MCU), and is desperately trying to divorce her wife of many years, being the direct inverse of Jessica, a highly successful and respected career woman who hides her dark secrets.
Jeri’s character presents an interesting contrast to Jessica, demonstrating a Victorian-esque disposition of outward respectability and inward depravity, though as the season winds down, Jeri’s arc, like Simpson’s, is abandoned as soon as it reaches a climax. That’s frustrating, since we could be waiting a while for another season of Jessica Jones, or perhaps to have this story arc revisited in Iron Fist when that debuts on Netflix, though frankly, a second season of Jessica Jones is at least very likely, since the show is the third-biggest series debut on Netflix this year, and, like Daredevil, is pretty well universally acclaimed by critics and fans.
Fortunately, the two characters invented explicitly for the series, a junkie neighbour named Malcolm and an early victim of Kilgrave’s, Hope Shlottman, have better resolved and contained series arcs that play out throughout the first season. A bit less successful are Ruben and Robyn, some noisy, annoying neighbours of Jessica that feel like they’re supposed to be both comic relief and tragic victims of circumstance, but any stumbles in their writing are certainly not enough to derail a great new Marvel series for Netflix. Erin Moriarty is a particular standout as Hope, whose young and innocent demeanour excellently sells some added depths of Kilgrave’s true menace, particularly since Hope has not yet sunk to the depths of the broken and cynical Jessica, motivating Jessica to try extra hard to find justice for Hope, as she believes that Hope is another unfolding tragedy that she can hopefully stop before it’s too late.
Thanks to its maturity, intrigue, intensity and tragedy, Jessica Jones is another smash hit new series for Netflix in its debut season, and another outstanding triumph for Marvel in live-action media. Whether or not it surpasses the first season of Daredevil is a matter of debate and opinion, though the fact that the two shows are so easily comparable, and yet wholly separate in terms of style and inspiration, is no doubt the best possible result. Jessica Jones is no doubt a name that people outside of avid Marvel Comics readers were formerly unfamiliar with, though as with the massive success of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man in the movie space recently, that shouldn’t prove to be any kind of barrier for audience enjoyment, especially when it finally gives another lesser-known Marvel character her proper due in the mainstream media. Jessica may be a very non-traditional hero, and to some, she may not even be seen as a hero at all, but her story is one that demands to be experienced by those looking for a very different sort of superhero tale, and just like Daredevil, it will leave you desperate to see more of this compelling new MCU personality.
- Krysten Ritter's sublime portrayal of Jessica Jones
- Excellent, twisted psychological drama throughout
- David Tennant's creepy, yet compelling villain
- A few unresolved story threads