By Brenden Gallagher
With Marvel and DC dominating film and television these days, it’s totally understandable if you’re suffering from super hero fatigue. How many times do you need to see a white guy in a cape save the day? We get it: the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Yawn.
If you’re one of those people who can’t watch another men in tights battle royale, don’t let the sour taste left behind by endless Avengers movies turn you away from Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Krysten Ritter’s hipster alcoholic detective has super powers, but that’s just about the only super thing about her. The rest of her life is an unruly mess, filled with complicated choices, unexpected consequences, and the searing pain of regret.
Let’s talk about why even if you’re sick of men (and women) in tights, this might be the show for you.
It’s A Woman’s World
“Men and power. It’s seriously a disease.”
Female superhero characters tend to fall into two camps. Either they assist and/or bone the male leads (Black Widow, The Avengers, Gamora, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.) or they are thrust into the same old typical super hero stories (CBS’s milquetoast Supergirl) that have generally been reserved for men. Jessica Jones manages a rare feat: featuring a strong female character who faces challenges from a uniquely female point of view.
Killgrave (played with perverse charm by former Dr. Who David Tennant), the big bad, seeks to wreak havoc on the world, just like any super villain. Unlike most evil masterminds, he is only burning down the world around him to wreak further havoc on Jessica’s psyche. He is a criminal mastermind, but he is also an abusive ex-boyfriend who muscles his way back into her life. He manipulated her to the brink of ruin, and now he’s come back to finish the job. Like so many women who encounter men like these, Jones attempts to warn the world about the how the sick bastard operates, but no one will listen to her. Killgrave gets back to his evil ways with no trouble at all, and Jones finds herself once again a victim, and yet also an accomplice who can’t help but feel like all of this is somehow her fault.
Killgrave gets right back to business as usual. He goes about demeaning women, distancing them from their families, and controlling the minds of anyone who gets in his way, all as a way to get to Jessica. Killgrave is a pick-up artist as comic book villain, and the results are dark, personal, visceral, and painful. In Killgrave, we have a particular kind of antagonist that many women can relate to. Whether they’ve been sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or catcalled, most women know about aggressors that no one seems terribly interested in stopping, that society largely chooses to ignore, that do their evil deeds, and maintain their standing in society. As my sister put it, “I think Jessica’s anger comes from having people hurt you then having people tell you how crazy and unreasonable you’re being for having been hurt.”
Though Jones self-medicates with a steady diet of whiskey and one-night stands in hopes of coping with Killgrave’s campaign of mind control and sexual assault, she is no wilting flower. Ritter and Rachael Taylor (who plays Jessica’s bestie Trish Walker) provide two different versions of strong women responding to trauma. Jones looks outside of herself, hoping to stop others from meeting the same fate. Trish looks within, hoping to develop reserves of inner strength, so that next time she’ll be ready. Both of them succeed, despite a bumpy road of setbacks and failures along the way. As they endure slutshaming neighbors, mansplaining former special ops agents, and the rest of the horde of people who tell them what they should be doing, we watch them develop strength despite their imperfection; we watch them find power through coming to terms with their vulnerability.
Noir Country For No Men
Just because we empathize with Jones doesn’t mean we like every decision she makes. At turns, she runs the gamut from self-deprecating to self-destructive. Sometimes she finds comfort in pushing people away, and at other times she finds comfort by drunkenly assaulting them. This isn’t Superman fighting for truth, justice, and American way. This isn’t even Batman providing brutal justice for brutal times. She is the kind of anti-hero more at home in a detective’s office than in a super hero’s lair, and that’s why film noir is the perfect genre for this story.
As with any good detective story, Jones’s greatest unsolved mystery is her own inner turmoil. When we meet her, she is tracking unfaithful lovers, searching for missing girls, and serving subpoenas. All of that is temporary though, because like every great cinematic detective, she has a past filled with unsolved mysteries of her own.
Jones doesn’t just drink like a P.I. and screw like a P.I. She also hurts people just as readily as your standard damaged booze hound detective. Luke Cage, played with impressive depth by Mike Colter, is your standard film noir love interest. Instead of the blonde innocence of typical detective flings, he has an impressive, muscular frame. Beneath the massive biceps is a man as complicated as a woman who walks into the detective’s office smoking a cigarette and showing too much leg. The sex is great (like “definitely don’t watch with your Mom” great), but these are two people with too much pain and too many secrets for good sex to be enough.
Jessica’s a good person, but that doesn’t mean that she’s beyond collateral damage. If she’s got to serve you divorce papers, dangle you over train tracks, or both, to get the job done, that’s what she’s going to do. Then she’ll chase away her moral misgivings with a fifth of whiskey.
Super Heroes In a Not-So-Super World
“Jewel is a stripper name. A really slutty stripper name. And if I wear that thing, you’ll have to call me Camel Toe.”
Unique challenges that Jones faces as a women combined with the film noir tone create the tense world of Jessica Jones. For your average super hero, the story begins and ends with kicking down the door. Even if a few innocent bystanders are killed along the way, they have to crash in to the room, rescue the girl, save the town, and head back to the fortress to wait for the next criminal mastermind. For Jessica Jones, the situation is far more complicated. It’s not just about kicking down the door. She may find she kicked down the wrong door. She may finds a stronger door locked behind the one she kicks down. She may find that kicking down the door causes more trouble than if she had just never gone through the door in the first place. She may find a man behind the door ready to tell her how she should have kicked the door down.
We’ve seen too many gritty takes on the super hero genre already. Turn off a few lights on set, have the characters talk in a gravelly voice, show a little more blood, and suddenly the super hero story becomes “deep.” Jessica Jones understands that you need a lot more than a few dark alleys and dead parents to make a story really resonate. What you need is a hero who doesn’t always have the right answers, a character who can be just as selfish, foolish, and damaged as the people watching.
Sure, Jessica Jones is a super hero. But, more importantly, she is human. And that makes this a super hero story worth paying attention to.