My initial impression of Jessica Jones from the promotional material was that it was going to be Marvel’s version of Veronica Mars. I’ll stand by that impression since finishing the series as there really is a lot of overlap: the main character is a strong woman but a mess, dealing with her own rape and using her considerable skills to face the offender and defend other victims through P.I. work. While both heroines have no-nonsense attitudes and rapier wits, Jessica Jones is a much darker show even though it explores the same themes.
The show really does achieve a unique female gaze by exploring feminine power and shattering most gender stereotypes that work to heap male expectations on women. I know that sounds like a cliché because most shows are attempting these feminist themes, but Jessica Jones manages to hit a cord that really works. Male characters are downplayed so that the women can shine. Luke Cage, an extremely interesting character with his own powers, is a side character and a love interest, much like the way most women are treated in mainstream superhero movies. Really, he’s there to be eye candy: what (straight) woman wasn’t looking at those rippling muscles? The cinematic choice to constantly show off his chiseled physique amused me greatly. (Hi girl, I’m just going to stand here in nothing but a towel so you can admire my dripping after-shower muscles while we talk strategy.)
The other men are helpless, pawns in the villain Kilgrave’s plans against their will. Men are portrayed as useless ( Reuben), helpless (Malcom), irrational (Simpson) or incapable against the main villain. That sounds kind of harsh, but consider that this is the way most women characters are portrayed in superhero movies with a male protagonist. (Oh no! Mary Jane has been kidnapped again, and her dress is so wet it shows off her nips!)
And then of course, there’s Kilgrave. Most of Marvel’s villains are pretty bad, but they can usually be made fun of. The tension can be cut by making fun of their mommy-issues, or taking shots at their wardrobe, for instance. There is nothing funny about Kilgrave: he is a character so twisted and deplorable that no light can get in, and very few laughs. He’s an impeccably dressed, well-spoken sociopath who can control minds and never be caught. David Tennant does such an awesome job portraying the villain that I’ll never look at Doctor Who the same again.
That isn’t to say that the show doesn’t have its laughs. There are several quotable lines that made me fist-punch the air or just laugh out loud.
Jerk: “Rude girls end up alone”
Jessica: “Counting on it!”
Really, the show is so dark at times that I found myself saying quite often: “Wow, this is Marvel?” This is not to say that darkness and gritty themes ought to be avoided in on-screen adaptations of comic books, but I was and still am very impressed by Netflix’s Daredevil and the showrunner’s ability to balance the light and the dark in a way that didn’t weigh too heavily on the viewer and did so without sacrificing dramatic gravity. Matt Murdock certainly had his relationship drama (who can forget the emotionally poignant scene where Foggy finds out Matt’s true identity, and tearfully confronts him?) but Jessica Jones is fraught with it.
As the viewer I felt constantly punched in the gut: any ray of hope is usually dashed and made to look stupid, since Jessica’s coping mechanism is her salty cynicism. While charming and hilarious at times, I found it making me very upset with her as the show went on. She says out loud at one point that she “is shit” and only listens to the people who confirm her negative views of herself. Anyone with anything positive to say about her is either an idiot in her view, or a stalker.
However, her personality flaws are not unexpected since her character has been through hell, so I was resigned to her crustiness while still hoping for better. Think about it: A punch in the face is easier to shrug off than sexual assault. The violence of this show isn’t bloody, it’s psychological, because that’s the kind of torture that women usually have to bear the brunt of. While that falls within the feminine gaze the show succeeds in achieving, this can be wearying to the viewer. It is however, completely legitimate.
This creation is a testament to the creative team of the Marvel Universe. Audiences can be treated to intimate and emotionally raw stories revolving around crime drama, or wonder about the infinite, far-reaching galaxies beyond and their inhabitants, and keep both things within the same world. Evil can be penumbral or more overt: the villain can be a posh psycho hiding in plain sight or an ostentatious mutant in a goofy helmet declaring his superiority over humanity.
I’m looking forward to more of Hell’s Kitchen drama. Perhaps Matt and Jessica will meet? This is comic books, after all.