As I prepare for Season 2 of Daredevil (March 18), I decided to go back and share my thoughts on Jessica Jones, Netflix’s other Marvel series. (originally posted on Legendarium Media)
Jessica Jones is Netflix’s second journey into the Marvel universe and has much in common with Daredevil. Both shows are set in Hell’s Kitchen, although the crossovers are for the most part minimal and subtle. Both shows feature heroes defined as much by their imperfections as by their superpowers. However, in some ways, Jessica Jones is the opposite of Daredevil, serving as a sort of mirror to its predecessor.
As I noted in my review of Daredevil, all of those characters, even – especially – the villain, came across as sympathetic. The show invited us to find something to like or respect about Matthew Murdock, Foggy Nelson, Karen Page, and even Wilson Fisk. The central moral dilemma was how to determine when well-intentioned people go too far in using force to achieve their goals.
By contrast, in Jessica Jones, none of the characters come across as particularly sympathetic. Jessica herself is a rough character who lives hard and actively rude to people who try to get close to her. Jessica never loses her hard edge throughout the show; this isn’t a story about somebody becoming more likable. Indeed, in one flashback, we even see Jessica as a pouty young girl, suggesting that her attitude is something ingrained in her. The other characters all have their inner demons – drug addictions, murderous rampages, incestuous relationships, cruel streaks – that make it harder to truly feel comfortable with them. Only Trish Walker, Jessica’s sister by adoption, and Luke Cage, Jessica’s lover, come across as unsullied.
This isn’t a criticism on the show or the writers. On the contrary, I respect the writing staff’s boldness because every character is, in some way, a victim. Jessica Jones explores victimization and trauma, particularly from a feminist perspective, and yet it refuses to patronize the audience by making these characters into traditional “victim stereotypes.” Jessica Jones has suffered horrible abuses, yet she never seeks pity. In a sense, because the characters come across as somewhat off-putting, we as audiences have to work harder to understand and accept them as victims.
The villain, Kilgrave, exemplifies the feminist critique of male power. His superpower is the ability to control people by manipulating their desires. He tells people what he wants them to want, and they follow his commands without question. Kilgrave’s power is a sort of mental rape, which in some cases becomes actual rape. As Darren on The Irish Movie Blog notes, Kilgrave’s power echoes the way some feminists claim society coerces women into being victims; preventing them from exercising control over their lives; pressuring them into submitting to male demands. Women are confronted with unique forms of sexual violence, including stalkers, obsessive exes, and rape, but they also face considerable barriers when the seek protection from these abuses.
As a concept, Kilgrave works extremely well. As a character, less so. Unlike Fisk, Kilgrave is very much a one-dimensional villain. He reeks of evil, snarling half of his lines. Like most superhero movie villains, Kilgrave seems to take a sadistic delight in causing pain. When one of his minions doesn’t obey his orders quickly enough, he threatens them with physical violence. Perhaps if David Tenant had played the character as a bit more pathetic or seductive it might have added more shades of grey to the character.
This wouldn’t have been such a problem in a minor character, but Kilgrave is a major character in Jessica Jones and drives the story. It sometimes feels like the show doesn’t know what to do with Kilgrave. Jessica captures Kilgrave several times, but through carelessness allows him to escape and wreck even more havoc. One would think that the protagonists would be more cautious around a person who has superpowers. It’s a classic case of evil triumphing because good is stupid. I can’t help but wonder if the cycle of “captures and escapes” was just a way for the writers to give Kilgrave something to do before his final confrontation with Jessica.
Jessica Jones is easily the second-best product to come out of Marvel Studios, just behind Daredevil. I don’t find myself as attached to the characters in Jessica Jones, but I do find them a fascinating for the insight they give us into victimhood and trauma.