The first season of Jessica Jones felt like a bold departure for Marvel’s pocket universe of New York shows. Krysten Ritter’s superpowered PI was a badass recovering from traumatic perversity, hunting down the mind-controlling rapist Kilgrave (David Tennant). Context mattered a bit: At the end of 2015, we were coming off a couple extremely dispiriting superhero narratives. There was Ant-Man, which made a joke out of not letting the Wasp be the Wasp until the goddamn post-credits scene. And there was Avengers: Age of Ultron, which walked Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow into a bizarre, uncomfortable, kinda-dumb conversation about fertility. Whereas Jessica Jones was just casually set in a land of women: A powerful lawyer, a former child star struggling to be taken seriously, a nihilistic loner struggling to be left alone.
It’s been a long time since season 1, but that first season still resonates, particularly since the #MeToo movement has shined a light on real-life Kilgraves who don’t need mind control to rob women of their agency. But just now, the Marvel-Netflix operation is in a strange place. Last year’s out-and-out flop Iron Fist led into the bland team-up The Defenders and then the pointless Punisher, which failed to figure out a convincing way to sanctify a character whose four main defining traits are GUNS, GUNS, GUNS, and MORE GUNS.
The second season of Jessica Jones streams March 8. Netflix released the first five episodes for review. They’re all skippable, which doesn’t mean this season is a waste. There’s one new character, played by Janet McTeer, who brings the show to life whenever she’s onscreen. There’s not much of her in these first five episodes, but Marvel-Netflix seems to only tell slow-as-hell stories. So it’s possible that McTeer becomes the main co-star in the back half of the thirteen-episode season. No spoilers—I really don’t know!—but if that’s the case, the back half of the season would be much better than what I’ve seen. There’s a scene that is just Janet McTeer with a piano, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen on television this year.
But the first five episodes of Jessica Jones reflect the Very Long Movie problem, the feeling that you’re watching a two-hour plot idea overstretched to absurdity. Jessica’s sister Trish (Rachael Taylor) and her former ally Jeri (Carrie-Anne Moss) have professional and personal struggles that vaguely tie into what Jessica’s doing, and nothing much happens with them the plots suddenly converge. Characters are constantly stating their motivations, or having their motivations stated to them by other characters. There’s one character, an antagonistic figure for Jessica, who spends the first five episodes constantly walking through doorways and around corners, threatening to do stuff but never actually doing stuff. “You’re a ticking time bomb!” he tells Jessica, before adding, “You blame your family for getting killed in an accident!” I almost burst out laughing at that line. This guy’s attacking our hero with a backstory grenade, like if Spider-Man’s villains fought back with old polaroids of Uncle Ben.
If season 1 was about Jessica grappling with her horrific recent past, season 2 is about her struggles to understand her distant past. Yes, it’s a deep dive into her (sigh) origin story, which means a lot of unconvincing plot-helpful flashbacks. “Time to go claw some memories out of my brain,” says Jessica, and she does indeed spend too much of these opening episodes waiting for anything helpful to occur to her. You may be sensing that the actual crime-solving element of this crime-solving show has gone downhill. Clues arrive with howling efficiency. At one point, Jessica’s trying to get onto a computer, but the computer requires a username password—but wait, don’t worry, they’re both written on a post-it note hanging from the screen!
You get that it’s supposed to be a joke, like Indiana Jones bringing a gun to a sword fight, but all the mystery stuff floats along like that. Jessica is trying to find a top-secret location owned by acronymic mad-science baddies IGH, and would you believe that the top-secret location has a sign declaring that it belongs to “Industrial Garments and Handling,” the equivalent of the CIA planting a billboard above a black site that says “Cat and Iguana Adoption.” You wonder if the point of Jessica Jones is that Jessica Jones doesn’t even care about investigating anymore. At one point, she’s secretly following a suspect, and doesn’t want to be seen. She takes his picture with an iPhone—and the iPhone camera sound clicks, loudly, a few times. Surely part of the stealth trade is turning the sound off on your smartphone?
I wish the execution was better here, because the foundation for Jessica Jones still feels essential. Here’s a superhero narrative where the heroic figures are ex-drug addicts and ex-cons, victims of literal rape and victims of symbolically rapistic shadowy institutions. After playing the trickiest role in season 1, Carrie-Anne Moss continues to shine as a powerful woman in a paradoxical space: In every scene, Jeri somehow seems to be on top of the world and at the bottom of a lifelong downward spiral. Taylor’s Trish still seems beamed in from a much glossier network drama, but her arc turns extremely topical (before it starts to trend ridiculous.)
And Jessica herself? The good news is she never mentions the Defenders, just like the rest of us. The bad news is that, in these first five episodes, Ritter looks bored. This is part of the character’s appeal, maybe, how she looks a little over her own cinematic universe. But the show keeps trapping Jessica between lone-wolf swagger and lonely regret. She’s never allowed to say one cool line without immediately looking sad, and at a certain point, that’s her only real reaction to anything: Cool-tough line, sad stare, cool-tough line, sad state. Which could seem like sensitive storytelling, given the layered tragedies in Jessica’s life. But there’s something unconvincing in how this season forces Jessica into her own muck. (She literally puts pictures of her dead parents up on her wall.) And there’s something repetitive in how this season keeps cycling back to the idea that Jessica needs to just learn the value of teamwork, man! (“So now I’m on my own?” Jessica asks. “Only if you keep alienating everyone around you!” Jeri chastises her.)
Where Kilgrave was an ideal focal point for Jessica’s rage in season 1, the badness of season 2 is lingering along the outskirts, hiding in the shadows and unconvincing flashbacks. As I mentioned, I’m not even sure if Janet McTeer is supposed to be playing the new villain, but there’s a scene between her character and Jessica that suddenly brings the show to life. When the show premieres I’ll happily watch the rest of the season, hoping that McTeer rises to the same prominence as Tennant or Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin in Daredevil‘s first season.
But I do worry. There’s a scene in the second episode of the new season where Jessica’s murdering some shots at the local tavern. (I would propose a “Drink Whenever Jessica Drinks” game for bad-habit binge watchers, but you’d be safer drinking whenever the annoying new neighbor kid downstairs calls her “Superlady,” which only happens twice an episode.) When Jessica orders another shot, the bartender asks her: “Drinking to remember or forget?” This is a weird paraphrase of a near-identical scene from X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where Hugh Jackman’s gruff X-Man retreats to a bar to drown his many sorrows. Wolverine Origins is probably the worst superhero movie to resemble, but certain larger plot elements of Jessica Jones season 2 bear eerie resemblance to that horrible prequel’s sci-fi premise.
Which only enhances the feeling that you’ve seen these tricks before. The Marvel-Netflix universe felt like a vibrant new corner of superhero storytelling a few years ago. But right now, the bigscreen MCU is experiencing a creative renaissance, with the cosmic patricidal weirdness of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and the cheerfully destructive satire of Thor: Ragnarok leading into the phenomenon of Black Panther.
And the only thing I have to add to the wealth of critical literature already published about Black Panther is to praise just how willfully silly Ryan Coogler allows his movie to be. A car getting blown apart until Lupita Nyong’o is left holding a steering wheel like a silent movie clown; the armored rhinos and the armored rhino-riders; a final hero-villain duel where one Black Panther noble dons a silver necklace and the other rocks insidious gold. This silliness in no way takes away from Black Panther‘s moral seriousness. In fact, it invigorates the larger themes, grounding the thoughtful-provoking ideas with humanity and humor. This makes the film feel less like a superhero movie than like the fantastical cinema of Guillermo Del Toro or Bong Joon-Ho, romantic horror extremists who fill their films with grotesque comedy beats and heartfelt sociopolitics.
By comparison, the recent Marvel-Netflix entries are starting to feel one-note, “gritty” in the most market-tested sense of the word, mature content peddled with immature abandon. There is a hooker orgy in Jessica Jones, much longer and druggier than the hooker orgy in 2013’s The Wolverine, so, like, progress? And there’s this one line where a new character, a dashing journalist, tells Jessica that he suspects something strange is going on. Why? “My balls are tingling,” he says. Jessica describes this as his “Scrotie Sense.” SCROTIE. SENSE. Claw that memory out of all our brains, please. C+