Jessica Jones: Marvel’s Darkest Side


It’s no secret (or perhaps it is since I never got around to doing a review,) that I love Daredevil. It was the first Marvel franchise where I was actually on the edge of my seat during the fight sequences because, unlike the immortal demigods of the Avengers, Daredevil could be injured. Horribly, horribly injured. I think half of the show’s budget was used on practical effects to simulate all the compound fractures they kept showing on screen. It was brutal and visceral, and featured a hallway fight sequence that may be one of the greatest martial arts fighting scenes I’ve ever seen.

More than that, Daredevil understood the gravity of the situations he was in. Gone was the sarcastic quipping of the Avengers as collateral damage and civilian casualties are occurring all around them.  Daredevil painstakingly prevented civilian casualties, and when civilians were killed by his enemies, he was genuinely enraged. This was a Marvel franchise that actually got me emotionally involved in the characters, it told a story that fascinated me, rather than just distracted me on a hot summer day.

Jessica Jones is not Daredevil. Jessica Jones isn’t even Marvel, at least not in the way we’ve come to know it. This is a different, darker Marvel. Jessica Jones is far less physically violent than Daredevil, but that violence is replaced by a far more disturbing kind of mental and emotional violence. It’s a story that shows us an abusive relationship in excruciating detail, it will make you uncomfortable and it will make you want to take a shower at some point. But if you’re ready to explore the darkest depths of human depravity, Jessica Jones is all too ready to take you there.

Netflix’s Jessica Jones

A Storytelling Review

jessica-jones-netflix-poster

Jessica Jones is easily Marvel’s most powerful and darkest installment in its cinematic universe. And while I’d love to recommend it to everyone, the simple fact of the matter is that not everyone is going to like it. It’s a great show, but if you come in expecting a typical superhero show, you will be bitterly disappointed.

For one, this isn’t a superhero show. This is a personal revenge story and gender-reversed noir detective story that just happens to have superheroes in it. Unlike every other franchise in the Marvel Universe, New York City isn’t in mortal peril. No one wants to destroy the world. No one is looking for infinity stones or the secret of immortality. It’s just Jessica Jones trying to survive after an unthinkable trauma, and her quest to hunt down the man responsible.

Kilgrave
This bastard right here.

When I said this is a gender-reversed noir detective story, I fucking meant it. The hard-boiled private detective is Jessica Jones, the reporter looking for a scoop is Trish Walker, and the unscrupulous defense attorney cheating on their spouse is Jeri Hogarth. Fifty years ago, all those roles would have been male. And as for the “Femme Fatal,” the alluring seductress who is either involved with or is in herself the inciting incident that puts the story in motion?

That’s played by none other than David Tennant (pictured above.)

A standard femme fatal uses her sex appeal to lure the protagonist into his own downfall, much like the Sirens of Greek myth. Kilgrave’s power isn’t sex appeal, though he does have that in spades, but instead he’s a superpowered um… Menne Matal? No… that can’t be right. Anyway, he controls people’s thoughts. But not just their thoughts, their desires. How Jessica describes her experience with Kilgrave is absolutely chilling. Unlike say, Borg mind control, you’re not simply compelled to do something against your will.

You’re compelled to want to do whatever Kilgrave wants. His desire becomes your desire. I can’t think of an idea more repugnant than that.

the-hunting-ground
Well, except for the real world equivalent. Speaking of which, everyone should watch The Hunting Grounds because it’s fucking horrifying and we need to do better as a society. 

So now not only are you acting against your will, but when you’re finally free of Kilgrave’s influence, you’re left to deal with the horrific guilt. Because you wanted it. He compelled you to want it, but the desire was still there.

That’s the villain Jessica Jones is up against and with the power to command whomever he chooses, he’s not easy to take down. Again though, Jessica Jones doesn’t follow the usual superhero structure. There is no escalating sequence of battles culminating in a climactic fight here, instead the entire season is a game of cat and mouse. Or perhaps cat and cat might be a better analogy since Jessica Jones and Kilgrave circle each other, probing each other’s weaknesses and waiting for the right moment to strike.

If you’ve ever seen any old detective movies you’ll feel right at home. First there’s the investigation, painstakingly hunting for clues and last known whereabouts of Kilgrave. This is by far the best part of the show, and takes up a fair amount of the show’s run time. I found Kilgrave to completely and utterly terrifying. His calm but cold voice, the manner in which he held himself, the calculating and meticulous planning he relied on. You barely even see him at first, just in the flashes of memory that Jessica suffers from.

Bitch slapped by a bus
Watching Kilgrave get repeatedly bitch slapped by a bus is pretty satisfying.

Though just as brilliant as his ominous introduction, is his clever deconstruction as we get to know the character. Kilgrave seems to be so powerful at first and so incredibly intelligent, the kind of cold calculating sociopath you’d expect. But when Jessica is forced to move in with Kilgrave, you get a glimpse at just how insecure and immature this man is. It’s a credit to David Tennant’s acting ability that he can go from confident and utterly terrifying mind-controlling pyschopath, to a cringe worthy man-child that throws a tantrum when things don’t go his way. Which is exactly what he is.

Kilgrave is revealed to be nothing more than a twelve-year-old boy who never had to grow up because his ability to command people meant he could do whatever he wanted. He’s also the stereotypical abusive boyfriend/spouse, if something bad happens to his partner (in this case Jessica) well she secretly wanted it! Or she did something to deserve it! Or she doesn’t know what she wants! Any excuse will do, as long as he doesn’t have to admit that he’s brutalizing people.

But the fact of the matter is that Kilgrave is just a troubled human being. I began to pity the man after a while, despite his horrible actions, because he was just so overwhelmingly insecure and afraid. As Jessica continues to press him and defy his control, Kilgrave’s suave, confident facade cracks and falls away to reveal the trembling, scared little boy he’s always been.

Kilgrave loves his Mum
Kilgrave just wants his mommy!

It’s the exploration of Kilgrave’s character, the ramifications of his actions, that truly separates this show from typical superhero stories. Unlike Tony Stark’s crises of faith he has in every Marvel film he’s in, all of the traumatized characters in Jessica Jones experience their trauma in a realistic and authentic ways. The violation they feel and the different ways they deal with it all feel real; guilt, shame, rage, insecurity, fear. Well, they feel real aside from one stupid part at the end when they all form a lynch mob for a horribly contrived reason.

As much as I love this show, it’s not without its problems. One problem is when the show tries to use Simpson as some kind of alternate villain. It’s not that I mind that Simpson ends up being a superhero/villain, this is the Marvel Universe, every other person you meet probably has some kind of weird ability.

Unluckiest Nurse
Even if that ability is being the world’s unluckiest nurse. 

No the problem wasn’t so much that he was revealed to be a superhero so much as he was boring and contributed nothing to the story. His power is dull; he’s like an even less interesting version of Bane, his only ability is getting ramped up on a super steroid. He takes a few too many of Underdog’s pills and goes berserk. It’s boring. Combined with the fact that Simpson’s character was so two-dimensional he was basically just a line segment in some scenes, and this new threat just fell utterly flat.

Compared to the incredibly complex character of Kilgrave (and the incredible gravitas of David Tennant), Simpson was utterly anemic as a threat. I didn’t feel an ounce of tension during his fight with Jessica and Trish, instead I just got extremely impatient waiting for them to deal with this incredibly dull diversion so we could get back to the actual story of the show: stopping Kilgrave.

Simpson needed a much more realized backstory.
I’m sorry, but no amount of “slowly walking away from a cool fire without looking” can make him interesting.

And I know, he’ll be back in the next season of either Jessica Jones or Daredevil, and then they’ll probably give us a proper background on him, give him actual motivations beyond ‘roid rage, and he’ll probably make a cool bad guy. But Marvel, you don’t have to shoehorn upcoming characters into every franchise you own, we all know you have a cool cinematic universe where everything is connected. We don’t need to be constantly reminded of that by forcing future villains into shows and movies at the expense of pacing and story. I thought he was properly foreshadowed as a future villain even before he started popping pills.

There was an intensity to him that seemed off even at the start, he revealed he had been a black-ops interrogator at some point, and he had both the expertise and the recklessness disregard for human life to want to use a bomb in a residential neighborhood to kill one man. That was all he needed, his eventual return as a villain was already foreshadowed. But instead of stopping there, they introduced the mystery doctor and his red/white/blue pills (real subtle with the imagery there guys.) And he mucked up the first season by needlessly slowing it down for a completely needless and drawn out fight sequence.

Now when he inevitably returns, I won’t be thinking “yes, I fucking called it!” and be excited to see how his character evolves. When I see him again I’ll just groan and say “oh god, not this douchebag again.” Which is a shame because he does have the potential to be interesting, but you ruined it by awkwardly forcing him into a story where he didn’t belong. He can probably be used again at some point, but when he reappears he’ll have to work twice as hard to make the audience think of him as anything other than that annoying guy from the first season of Jessica Jones.

Disappear him here.png
They should have just disappeared Simpson into a black van at the end of this scene and left his disappearance a mystery.

The other main problem was that, as much as I enjoyed how dark Jessica Jones was, it may have been a bit too dark. Daredevil had both an incredibly endearing romance plot between his law partner and secretary, plus several incredibly funny scenes, to counterbalance the ultraviolent tone. Jessica Jones doesn’t have that, Jessica’s life is ripped apart so utterly and so completely, that by the end you’re just kind of numb to it. Hope killing herself should have been an emotional climax, a heart-wrenching death that should have put fury in my heart, but honestly I barely blinked an eye. By that point Kilgrave had amassed such a body count and Jessica Jones had been through so much trauma, Hope’s death barely even registered with me.

Even at the end, with Kilgrave finally dead and her free of him, the show doesn’t let up in its dark, gritty tone for even a single moment. The final shot is of her back to drinking alone in her office while she desperately tries to ignore the people calling her for help. She could have at least cracked a smile at some point, or ended it with her moving back in with Trish for some semblance of human connection. Anything but a return to the status quo that left her just as miserable as she was to begin with.

Visual Metaphor
Though I did like the visual metaphor of the broken window.

Of course another significant part of why the emotional impact fell off towards the end is that there just wasn’t enough story to stretch out over 13 hours. Jessica almost catches Kilgrave about a half-dozen times over 13 episodes and while some of these near misses are great at building the tension, after a while it becomes clear it’s just needless padding. The worst example of this is when Kilgrave manages to escape again when a lynch mob tries to kill Jessica thanks to the deranged ravings of a crazy woman. It felt contrived and unnecessary.

Despite these problems, Jessica Jones is still an amazing show and it’s worth a watch for David Tennant’s amazing performance if nothing else. Still, this is not a Marvel series for everybody. If you like the cartoony, lighthearted action of the movies and want more of that, this is not the series for you. If you find implied rape, mental and physical torture, and gruesome deaths too horrifying to contemplate – DO NOT WATCH THIS SHOW! 

Marvel’s Jessica Jones takes us into the very darkest corners of the human psyche; mankind’s predatory instinct to conquer and dominate everything around it. It explores in detail what happens when people are able to bend others to their will, the trauma caused when people are mentally and physically violated, and the sick motivations of the people willing to inflict that on their victims.

 

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4 thoughts on “Jessica Jones: Marvel’s Darkest Side”

  1. “It was the first Marvel franchise where I was actually on the edge of my seat during the fight sequences because, unlike the immortal demigods of the Avengers, Daredevil could be injured. ”

    I don’t know. 😀 With a show NAMED Daredevil, I’m never really worried that much, that Daredevil is going to die. 😀 Same obviously goes for Jessica Jones or any other show that’s named after the main character…

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