The Netflix binge is part of this century’s culture now which makes this latest 13-part series adapted from the excellent Brian Bendis penned Marvel Comic Alias pretty essential binge watching. Jessica Jones is the second Marvel Netflix series after Daredevil and has a lot riding on it, as it’s not only got to keep up the quality of their first series, but also show that a series can succeed with a female lead. After watching the first five episodes I’m happy to say it’s on a par with much of Daredevil, not to mention it provides a very,very good female lead character. From here on in lie spoilers so you’ve been warned…..
The first episode opens with a pretty raunchy sex scene for Marvel which aims to set the tone that this isn’t the cheery bright superheroics of something like Supergirl, or even the Marvel films which are big bursts of escapism as the opening explains that this is Jessica taking pictures of people cheating behind their partners back in order to give them evidence. It’s all perfectly seedy so it sets up that Jessica isn’t heroic, but is trying hard to make a living in a New York that looks even more seedy and broken than it did in Daredevil.
Much of the first episode is about setting things up, We’re introduced to Jessica gloriously played by Krysten Ritter who manages to look like she’s not washed, or been sober in days. She looks like a fuck up in most of this episode. We’re also introduced to Luke Cage played by Mike Colter who looks the part but isn’t required to do much acting in this episode, but is a little nugget in later episodes as Luke and Jessica’s dysfunctional relationship develops.
We also get hints of Kilgrave played by David Tennant, who sadly isn’t called The Purple Man, who until Alias was a pretty crap Marvel supervillain that occasionally faced off and got battered by Daredevil, the Fantastic Four or Doctor Doom…
Alias made Kilgrave a serious threat, not to mention made clear this was essentially a rapist both mentally and physically as it’s made clear Kilgrave rapes Jessica in the comics hence why she’s suffering from PTSD, and the same connection is made clear here in the Netflix series. For American fans of Tennant used to his role in Doctor Who seeing him play a complete bastard and a rapist is going to be shocking but Tennant’s played such a role before in the ITV drama, Secret Smile, not to mention he’s clearly loving being a complete bastard.
The star of the programme though is Ritter. This lives or fails because of her, so if she gets it wrong it could backfire badly. It doesn’t. In fact at times she’s a revelation especially as the series develops in these early episodes as she moves from a pretty sad drunk hiding from people, to someone trying to deal with Kilgrave while protecting the lives of people like Luke and her best friend Trish Walker (who is actually one of Marvel Comics oldest characters they’ve stuck on screen so far, and you’ll hopefully have the same wee smile I had when they reveal it’s Patsy Walker), not to mention Hope, the young girl kidnapped by Kilgrave and forced to murder her parents that sets off the events of the series.
It’s Hope that Jessica is fighting for mainly though. Hope’s an innocent and at the start of the series Kilgrave is presumed dead by Jessica after being hit by a bus during an accident that also killed a woman who’s importance isn’t made clear til a few episodes later. Once Jessica realise that Kilgrave is manipulating Hope the fear becomes clear on Ritter’s face in a lovely little scene in a Chinese restaurant where she relives part of her time with Kilgrave.
This is all as rooted in reality as possible. Manipulative people like Kilgrave exist, though of course they don’t have superpowers and unlike the Kingpin in Daredevil who was also a monster, Kilgrave hasn’t (as five episodes in) any sort of sympathetic backstory to make him even remotely relatable to by the viewer. Tennant plays him as a bit of an arsehole too, but a charming one, but he’s quite clearly a bastard as can be seen in this scene.
There’s an edit in that clip, and for good reason as it outlines just how indiscriminate Kilgrave is when it comes to humiliating, and hurting, people including children.
From the second episode it also develops the supporting cast, especially Luke Cage who Jessica ends up having a highly strung relationship with especially when they both learn they’ve got superpowers. I also have to mention that the programme does ‘that scene‘ from the comics onanistic fanboys always talk about when talking about the comics, but in the context of the series (and indeed the comic) it works, but taken outwith the context of a woman desperately trying to feel something it’s just titillation. In fact all the sex (for a superhero programme there’s a lot in the five episodes I’ve seen so far) in Jessica Jones stays on the right side of context rather than just to be there to appear ‘adult’. It also portrays a highly sexed interracial relationship which to me seems to be a rare thing on American TV or film.
The way superpowers are handled is good too, not to mention it’s helped by trying to stick to a Netflix budget so there’s no big scenes of Jessica flying as it’s an ability she sorts of has as she can only jump really high and sort of land badly, which is suggested in one scene where she saves a police officer under the influence of Kilgrave from jumping off a building.
If I have issue with these episodes is that it doesn’t form as strong an opening narrative as the first six episodes of Daredevil did, though the series is a slower burn in terms of ramping up the threat of Kilgrave compared to that of the Kingpin, it’s for good reason as the story also deals with the trail of broken lives Kilgrave leaves behind him as he manipulates himself around the city of New York. There’s also a clear set of weaknesses for Kilgrave; his influence upon people only last a set amount of time before he has to top up his influence on you. and also distance makes it less effective. It is though the discovery that surgical anesthesia neutralises his powers that provides the main story for one episode.
There’s also another episode where part of the story deals with the aftermath of the first Avengers film as a woman hires Jessica to prove her husband is cheating on her, but really it’s a ploy to capture Jessica alone and kill her in revenge for the battle in the Avengers film killing a loved one. It’s a similar plot beat to one being used in the stupefying dreadful Heroes Reborn but done with more skill in 50 minutes than hours of that angst ridden bollocks.
Jessica Jones so far is fantastic drama. Yes, it does push the superhero comic elements more than Daredevil did in terms of superhumans, plus it does draw the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe closer to the main body of work, but at the same time it starts to carve out a stronger voice for a more adult style of telling superhero stories that deal with some strong subjects (they’ve danced round the issue of rape so far, but I’m not sure how long that’s going to be the case) for a slightly older audience. This isn’t a bad thing as the flashy fun of the Marvel films are good, but this means that Netflix can be home to the ‘dark, gritty’ stuff. Which isn’t to say Jessica Jones is humourless, it isn’t. It just deals with subjects that when discussed using the genre of superheroes on the printed page normally are done so in a very, very bad way. So far, this isn’t the case.
At this point the story has seen Jessica go from a scared young woman to someone with the aid of her friends, taking the fight to Kilgrave, but the full story of how Kilgrave got his hooks into Jessica hasn’t been told, plus I’m sure Luke Cage is going to play a larger part as the series progresses. I’ve also not mentioned Carrie Ann Moss in her role as lawyer Jeri Hogarth who simmers along quietly as the other manipulative force in Jessica’s life. She’s developing nicely too beyond the ice queen cliche I thought she’d be at first. She’s yet another strong female character in a programme that’s full of them but makes it feel perfectly normal which of course it is, and it’s nice to see an American drama series do that.
So, let’s see how many episodes I get through in my next session……..