Believe the hype. Netflix’s take on Marvel Comics’ troubled Superhero-turned Private Investigator Jessica Jones is as good as everyone is saying it is.
In fact, this is exactly the kind of treatment of comic book characters and stylings that comic fans have been saying they want for years. There isn’t one element of this show that falls down – the writing, the acting, the cinematography (and yes, it IS cinema-quality work by Manuel Billiter), the score, the pacing… Everything just clicks. And it clicks beautifully.
Jessica Jones is one of those, pardon the expression, lower-tier Marvel characters that the casual comic fan might not recognize right away. Created for the comics by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos, She first appeared back in 2001 and has been an ongoing player in various forms and titles since. It remains to be seen how much of the comics history ends up in the Netflix series, but comics fans will not be disapointed with the various nods and links to the source material.
A word of warning to anyone expecting to tune in and find a flashy, spandex-suited punch-em-up: Jessica Jones is a noir first and foremost, with all of the complications that genre entails. Weakness and frailty are on display every bit as often as heroism and strength. It’s somehow amazing and shocking to see a Marvel sanctioned adaptation where it’s main character boozes to excess and attempts to run from danger. (By stealing the credit card of a client to book a plane ticket to China, no less!) Oh, and has one of the most realistic sex scenes I’ve ever seen on TV, cable or not. Note: I say “realistic” as opposed to “explicit”.
In fact, the sex scene between Jones and a character we eventually come to learn is Luke Cage (better known in the comics as Power Man) is as good an example as any of how this show is so defiantly different from a good chunk of what passes for drama on today’s screens. It’s shot almost entirely in close-ups on the faces of Cage and Jones. You learn an awful lot about these two in the 30-odd seconds it devotes to what would be simple titillation in almost any other crime drama.
A lot of that is down to stellar performances by Krysten Ritter as Jones and Mike Colter as Cage. Until now, Ritter was probably best known for playing the doomed Jane in season 2 of Breaking Bad and Chloe, the title character in Dont Trust The B—- In Apartment 23. As good as she was in those shows, here she’s phenomenal – and that’s vital as the entire show rests squarely on her (super strong) shoulders. We pick up with Jessica as she’s plying her trade as a P.I.. In classic noir voice-over, she tells us what a seedy, demoralizing racket it is, and how it’s entirely suited to her personality. Ritter plays just the right amount of hardness and sarcasm to hint at the wounded creature behind the facade. She’s able to play “likably unlikable” without selling the reality of the character short. Because as the show progresses, it becomes clear that Jessica is suffering from a particularly intense case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – and as it progresses, we also learn just what’s the cause of that PTSD. More accurately, we learn who is responsible.
And that’s where the other genius bit of casting comes in. David Tennant, much beloved as the 10th Doctor Who, is on hand to bring one of the most chillingly awful supervillians ever into existence: Kilgrave, aka “The Purple Man”. Kilgrave is adept at bending people to his will and making them do whatever terrible things he desires. The series uses him in the first few episodes the same way Speilberg used the shark in Jaws; sparingly, and just hidden from full view. It’s terrifying. And the brilliant way the show uses angles and negative space in it’s visual language starts to make you believe that he’s quite literally lurking around every corner. Which, in a very real sense, he is for Jessica Jones.
Anyone who remembers the moments when Tennant went for the darker aspects of The Doctor in his run on Doctor Who, or saw his brilliant turn in the series Broadchurch, already knows that the man can do scary really, really well. (In fact, there’s already been some discomfort from elements in his Whovian fan base over the disturbing nature of his performance as Kilgrave. I understand, but can’t sympathize. It’s wonderful to see Tennant prove yet again what a brilliant performer he is.)
For all the noir elements, and even with the show tackling subject matter that would be impossible in an Avengers movie, Jessica Jones doesn’t forget it’s a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s amazing to me that Marvel has been so clever about how it manages to fit it’s properties into giant, interlocking whole, all the while giving a show like Jessica Jones the freedom to be what it needs to be. The Marvel Universe has shown that it’s capable of supporting the “big moment” stories demanded by The Avengers, et al, as well as the “smaller” stories happening in the shadows of those events.
It’s a pity that having all of the episodes available at once will no doubt encourage “binge-viewing” marathons of Jessica Jones. The show’s quality deserves an occasional breather for audiences to fully engage with it’s bigger concepts. Make no mistake, Jessica Jones is just as much a show “about” something as a show like Orange Is The New Black is “about” something. Jones is a survivor of horrific abuse, and the show is about the ways she deals with the day-to-day job of surviving. All those comic book fans who bemoan the lack of “seriousness” given to the genre need to watch this show, like NOW. It may not have the spandex or comfortable iconography of the big tent-pole Marvel properties, but Jessica Jones may just be the most “heroic” superhero adaptation we’ve seen yet. Treasure it.