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Friday, December 4, 2015

TV Review: Marvel's Jessica Jones

Marvel finally does TV right.

Review by Brandon Wolfe

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) doesn’t much resemble a superhero, certainly not of the variety we’re accustomed to within the Marvel Cinematic Universe in which she inhabits. She doesn’t have any cool weapons. Rather than a flashy, colorful costume, her day-to-day attire consists of a black leather jacket and a pair of faded jeans. She doesn’t even have a snazzy moniker, going solely by her rather prosaic (if alliterative) name. She’s not a scientist, a billionaire, a war hero, a secret agent nor a god, but a lowly P.I., snapping candids of cheating spouses and living out of a hovel of an office. She’s a hard-drinking, hard-screwing, hard-bitten cynic, about as far from Steve Rogers as any person could get. Yet she’s also “gifted,” as are so many in the Marvel Universe. Jessica possesses superhuman strength and resilience. She can’t fly, exactly, but she can jump very high, which is the next best thing. But Jessica does not think of herself as a hero, or much of herself at all. She’s resigned to her station on the bottom rung. She just wants to eke out a living and be left alone.

This is the eponymous hero of the latest Marvel/Netflix collaborative series, Jessica Jones. As with the previous Netflix series, Daredevil, Jessica Jones aims to explore a darker, seedier subsection of the Marvel world, more street-level and less dependent upon $200 million worth of razzle-dazzle and spectacle. Jessica is also based out of Hell’s Kitchen, the very same sketchy NYC neighborhood that Daredevil’s Matt Murdock haunts, and is prone to the same bone-crunching violence and adult-tinged content that infused Murdock’s exploits. Jessica Jones is a dark show, but it parts company with Daredevil by being extremely well paced. The earlier series quickly lapsed into a repetitive slog, where Jessica Jones keeps building steadily, ratcheting up the stakes from episode to episode. The result is a thrilling, smart series, the very first television show from Marvel that is both mature and engaging at the same time.

When we first meet Jessica, she is taking cases handed down by Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), a steely ballbuster of an attorney. Jessica’s only friend is Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) a former model and child star who now hosts a popular radio talk show, and whose abusive harridan of a mother (an unrecognizable Rebecca De Mornay) took Jessica into her home after our heroine lost her parents at a young age. Jessica’s tormented spirit is largely attributable to her time spent under the thrall of Kilgrave (David Tennant), a supervillain with the unique skill of making anyone to whom he speaks unquestioningly obey his every command. Kilgrave put the whammy on Jessica, making her his unwilling love slave for a time and ultimately forcing her to kill a woman. Jessica broke free from Kilgrave’s spell after a bus crash presumably killed him, but the psychic wounds she carries from her captivity remain open and raw. When a missing-person case turns up a girl under Kilgrave’s homicidal influence, Jessica is forced to once again confront her manipulative aggressor.

One factor that separates Jessica Jones from the previous Marvel television series is that is actually has something powerful to say, specifically about the nature and cycle of abuse. There’s a clear metaphor at play where Kilgrave stands in for men who abuse, manipulate and subjugate women, treating them as playthings and servants rather than as people. This extends to a subplot about a support group Jessica joins for people controlled by Kilgrave. The group might be Kilgrave-specific, but it functions as a stand-in for abuse sufferers en masse. A major component of Jessica Jones is how Jessica forces herself to muster up the courage to not only confront Kilgrave again, but to sever his hold over her, to no longer allow him into her head and to take back control of her tattered life. Try looking for anything this astute and resonant on the atrociously written, bad-Saturday-morning-cartoon-caliber Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Ritter has proven herself time and again as an actress adept at both comedy and drama, but she’s a revelation here, alternately making Jessica heartbreaking, caustic and tough. Taylor, who has never shown any such previous adeptness, surprises with a spunky and winning performance. But the actor who packs up Jessica Jones into a box and walks off with it is Tennant, who instantly takes the reigns as the best Marvel villain thus far, big screen or small (not that lofty a feat, since he really only has Loki for competition). Tennant brings much of the same energy and tics that he brought to his interpretation of Doctor Who, such to the point that Kilgrave often feels like an evil version of the Doctor. Tennant is frightening when he needs to be, but also makes the villain occasionally charming and often hilarious. The series gets a good deal of mileage out of how much wicked fun Kilgrave has with his power, blithely ordering adversaries to bash their heads into wooden beams or instructing an annoying passerby to stand across the street and stare at a wall “forever.” Also extremely funny is the character’s irreparably damaged moral compass, as when he averts a hostage situation at Jessica’s urging and then tells the assailant to put the gun in his mouth, genuinely believing that to be the proper thing to do. Tennant is a dynamo as this character, and his contribution is what elevates Jessica Jones even further into the stratosphere.

The show also strikes a nice balance on Jessica’s powers. She’s superhumanly strong and fast, but not indestructible or insurmountable. She taunts a gun-wielding opponent about how a bullet will have little effect on her, but it still does some damage. She can still bleed, and at one point, enough henchmen with cattle-prod Tasers are enough to effectively subdue her. While she can defeat mere mortals one-on-one without breaking a sweat, she’s no Hulk or Thor, and is probably even a few clicks down from Cap. Hell, she isn’t even the mightiest person on her own show. That would be Luke Cage (Mike Colter), another “gifted” person blessed/cursed with indestructible skin. Cage strikes up a palpable romantic chemistry with Jessica before cruel fate (and crueler Kilgrave) makes the two adversaries. But when it comes to an out-and-out throwdown, Cage has the upper hand. Having a hero who’s strong yet still physically vulnerable makes Jessica intriguing in a climate where superhero imperviousness seems to be the law of the land.

Jessica Jones does have some blemishes on its otherwise sterling exterior. Jessica has an ally in Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville), her kindhearted junkie neighbor, but the character feels superfluous, not making much of an impression and not even deployed as comic relief. Similarly, a cop (Wil Traval) who regularly ping-pongs between murderous foe and kindhearted ally is a problematic character that the show never quite gets a handle on. And a subplot about Hogarth callously conspiring against her cuckolded wife (Robin Weigert, Deadwood’s Calamity Jane) doesn’t really go anywhere worth going given how much attention it receives. The season finale also elicits a bit of a shrug after all the propulsive momentum built up to get us there. On a much more minor note, the name “Kilgrave” is uttered with such unceasing regularity that it would inspire the world’s deadliest drinking game.

No matter. Jessica Jones is the first instance of Marvel’s television arm producing something on par with its theatrical output. More than that, it gives the world a great female superhero well in advance of both Wonder Woman’s and Captain Marvel’s cinematic debuts. The show’s noir trappings (abetted by Ritter’s wonderfully acidic narration) are exemplary, making it feel like both an old-fashioned detective story as well as less peppy Veronica Mars, and the brutal fight sequences have a kicky edge to them. Daredevil didn’t sell me on this grittier “Marvel After Hours” approach the way it did for many, but I now find myself jonesing for more Jessica.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


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