Jessica Jones doesn’t apologize.
She throws her clients through windows. She drinks too much to be functional. She’s rude and off-putting and she’ll insult anyone, no matter their standing and vulnerability. And while she’ll toss a sarcastically sympathetic sentiment your way, she rarely ever expresses regret… because that’s not Jessica Jones.
As a television show, Jessica Jones also doesn’t apologize. There’s a lot to be praised about the series, which debuted on Netflix last week: the rare portrayal of a female friendship that actually passes the Bechdel test, the introduction of one of Marvel’s deadliest villains, the careful but blunt portrayal of dark, oft-avoided topics such as rape culture, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic abuse, crude violence, and suicide — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Fans won’t hesitate to compare the series, an adaptation of the Alias comic books by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, to the recent Daredevil, if nothing else because it’s easy to draw a connection thanks to what has become the signature theme for Marvel’s Netflix shows: They’re darker, grungier, and far more violent than what we see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But while the style and intensity of Jessica Jones invokes the same feelings we might have had while watching Daredevil, that’s where the similarities between the two shows end.
Though there’s plenty of violence present in Jessica Jones, the darkness that showrunner Melissa Rosenberg gives us is rooted in the depiction of psychological, real-world horror, portrayed in a way that we rarely see played out on television. Daredevil didn’t shy away from the trauma that comes with being a hero, and Jessica Jones doesn’t, either — but it explores this trauma in a tangible way. What’s more, it shows us the trauma, through graphic flashbacks and triggering situations. Nothing about Jessica’s story, from her compromised past to how she deals with the effects of her past, is sugarcoated, and that makes her even more appealing.
In Bendis and Gaydos’ comics, Jessica is your average “tougher-than-nails” superhero, albeit one who swears a little more than normal. She receives her powers after being involved in a car crash that kills her family, though Jessica herself survives and ends up absorbing the radioactive chemicals that give her super strength. (The show tweaks this slightly, implying that Jessica may have been part of medical experiments following the fatal accident.) She does the superhero thing for a bit, and then after a series of events that include being compromised by “Purple Man” Zebediah Kilgrave, she quits and becomes a private eye. Jessica is a superhero, but she’s not a do-good superhero like Captain America or even The Hulk, who often feels remorseful and apologetic after acting out against his will. (Notably, “the flag waver” and “the big green dude” are the two Avengers who are cheekily referenced in the series.) Jessica, for all intents and purposes, is the antithesis of a hero. She’s going to be rude, and she’s going to do things her own way, and she’s going to drink and pass out and sleep with whoever she wants. She’s going to get a little rough where her bad habits are concerned, and sometimes, she’s going to be a great big mess. And guess what? She’s not going to hide that, because unlike other superheroes, Jessica Jones is not here to make you like her.
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It would have been easy to make Jessica Jones a standard procedural with noir overtones, and it would have also been easy to make Jessica a character whose flaws were less than prominent. Instead, we get a character who is still messy and who is still healing. Jessica Jones doesn’t cut corners, and there’s no glossing over the experiences that have made Jessica the person she is when we’re introduced to her for the first time: a paranoid, angry protagonist with massive trust issues and an even more massive attitude. Through the arc of 13 episodes, we’re invited into her world, where we’re given an open invitation to follow her mistakes, her victories, and her failures. We see Jessica at her best and we also see her at her worst, and by pulling the curtain back in this way we’re allowed to identify with the character. It’s ultimately refreshing to see a character, female or not, that is far from okay, because while there were hints of “okay” in Daredevil, nothing about Jessica Jones — from its morally complex heroine, to its storylines, to its major villain being one that pushes the boundaries of consent — is technically considered “okay.”
Star Krysten Ritter’s résumé spans the gamut; she’s played everything from emotionally intense loners (Breaking Bad) to sarcastic comedic leads (Don’t Trust The B—- in Apartment 23). But it’s a testament to her talent that she manages to make Jessica vulnerable and susceptible to her demons without erasing the edges that define her. One of the biggest outcries following the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron was the sidelining of certain female superheroes (i.e. Black Widow); part of the reason Marvel’s Agent Carter was so heralded when it premiered last year was because it finally gave focus to one of these heroes without needing to service significant (male) characters. Maybe it’s Rosenberg as a showrunner, understanding that we don’t need to see damaging things as much as we need to see their impact. Maybe it’s the plots that the show has chosen to explore, bringing a topic like rape front and center and having an abused character stand up for herself in the face of her greatest fear. Maybe it’s Ritter’s ability to deliver a continently fantastic performance, whether Jessica is having a quiet moment with her best friend, trying to connect with a client, or pummeling her attacker into the ground. Whatever you chalk it up to, Jessica Jones proves that given the right tools and tight focus, there is both a need and an audience for these kind of stories — regardless of whether or not our main character is considered “likeable.”
Connecting with the rest of the stories in the vast expanse that is the Marvel Universe, Jessica Jones places itself in a post-Avengers world where aliens have rained from the sky, lives have been lost, and cities have been destroyed. It’s a world that looks up to the heroes that defend them and their home, because these individuals are strong, and because they are brave, and because they demonstrate exceptional and rare abilities. But sometimes, superheroes are flawed. Sometimes, they get knocked down, and they can’t quite get back up. Jessica Jones demonstrates this — even better, it reminds us that being knocked down doesn’t mean we can’t fight back.