What do you want out of a superhero show? There’s no shortage, of course — you’re getting superheroes whether they’re what you want or not. They’re everywhere. Shakespearian actors are nudging each other out of the way for the chance to play a purple-faced mind-controller. At least kids across America are thankful that there’s something to be for Halloween besides Harry Potter. Heck, even the Academy Awards are doling out statuettes for superheroism (although there’s something special about Birdman winning Best Picture, as if the Academy were trying to fight back). There’s no way around it: the increasingly staggering numbers of superflicks hitting theaters over the next half-decade can now be measured in metric shit-tons. The only thing more tiresome than the parade of superheroes is the commentary about how the parade of superheroes is so tiresome.
And, yeah, the shared universe gripes/laudations are just as stale, but here we are. Marvel in particular has reached the point where they seem to want it both ways: they want their superheroes to be intricately connected to every other superhero and yet be distinctly standalone. And, yeah: Jessica Jones. The latest entry in Marvel’s grand scheme has more inherent push/pull to the interconnectedness thing than any other installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that includes the Netflix predecessor Daredevil. On one hand Jessica is about as far away as you’re gonna get from Captain America, and maybe that marks trouble for an inevitable crossing-of-paths — either the dark tone of Jones would be compromised to accommodate Cap or the other way around.
You might say the same for The Man Without Fear based on his hard-hitting and often grisly depiction in Daredevil, but that hero’s just way more of a team player. He could pop up in Avengers and no one would bat an eye. On the other hand, Jessica being a far cry from the majority of the Marvelverse might be a great thing, as Jones is probably more original and well-written than 90% of entries in the MCU. Finally, no one is trying to take over New York or destroy anything. There’s a power grab here, but it’s distinctly more personal than that of Loki or Ultron or Daredevil‘s Kingpin — the grab itself doesn’t come in a devastating fell swoop but in more-devastating person-by-person increments. That’s Kilgrave, the aptly-named evildoer in the mind of Jessica Jones and at the heart of Jessica Jones, and he’s a million times scarier than Loki or Ultron (more on Kilgrave in a bit). Here’s hoping that aspect of Jones doesn’t get neutered by her inclusion with all of these other heroes or by her introduction to the big screen, both of which one would presume to be inevitable.
Let’s back up to Daredevil for a moment. Netflix allowed for a grittier take on the superhero formula within the context of the MCU, and Daredevil doubled down on that allowance by delivering a more visceral experience than that offered by the wimpy Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the purportedly epic Age of Ultron. It was more effective, more gripping, more edge-of-your-seat than anything in the MCU, and moreso than a great cross-section of non-superhero shows to boot. Charlie Cox carried Matt Murdock well and made a street-level Marvel hero believable, even if one or two elements of supernaturalism snuck through here and there.
Jones is a tougher nut to crack, and the strain shows a bit at the beginning of the series. Jessica is superpowered, but unlike Matt her superpower is a lot harder to root in the, ahem, “real world”. Your senses are heightened due to a chemical coursing through your brain and blinding you? Okay, whatever. Your strength is heightened due to…”an experiment”? It’s not just that it’s harder to swallow — it’s that it’s harder to swallow in a show as otherwise realistic as Jessica Jones. That all goes out the window pretty quickly with the introduction of Luke Cage, who takes a radial saw to his own torso in order to reveal that his skin is unbreakable due to…”an experiment”. There’s some crappy dialogue that travels between the two, like “so how did you get your superpowers?” and more than one excruciating conversation about what it means to be a hero.
That’s a lot of background noise to the main arc of the season, which is Jessica vs. Kilgrave. Once the latter is properly introduced, Jones dispenses with the seeming formalities of the superhero genre and devotes nearly every breath to exploring the complicated relationship between the two. And it is complicated, and exceedingly dark, and exceedingly scary at times. Kilgrave’s power is the power of suggestion, of persuasion, of mind control, and even though the genesis of that power is eventually explored it never really matters. What matters is what Kilgrave attempts to gain with that power, how he uses it, and that slant is so disturbing and nigh-on unfathomable that all of the “experiment” mumbo-jumbo is effectively muted.
Does Kilgrave rob banks? No. Does he wrest control of Hell’s Kitchen from unwitting businessmen? No. One early introduction follows the purple-suited fiend as he calmly invades a home and sits down to the creepiest supper ever. Kilgrave doesn’t kill these people or rob them or really want anything at all from them – their role in feeding him is convenience and little more. And that question of what Kilgrave wants is teased for the whole season and beyond, because the possibility remains intact that convenience is why he does the evil things he does. He asks with no small degree of naïvety: “How do you people live like this? Day after day, just hoping people are going to do what you want.”
That naïvety — we don’t dare call it innocence —is the most terrifying part about Kilgrave and the most powerful narrative thread of Jessica Jones. There’s more political commentary here than in any other superhero story on celluloid, Dark Knight Rises included, and it all stems from the controlling relationship between a man and a woman — or, again, to word-check ourselves, the controlling “relationship” that a man holds over a woman. The fact that this man and woman are both superpowered is at best used to highlight the horrors of the actual situations, be it domestic abuse or non-consensual sex or anything else Kilgrave/Jessica touches on. “I never know if someone is doing what they want, or what I tell them to,” Kilgrave laments. He believes that statement through and through; to Jessica, it’s impossible to not see the falsehood.
And yet despite her staunchness on Kilgrave’s sickly worldview, the victim is still forced to question whether she is in fact the victim. She killed a woman at the seeming behest of Kilgrave, but the Man in Purple points out his careful choice of words and Jessica’s interpretation of them. Whatever flaws Jessica Jones carries in the writing, the straight-up scary aspects of the Jessica/Kilgrave “relationship” are bold, are crushingly true-to-life, and for that alone the series deserves total attention.
…and yet. You knew that was coming, right? The question posed at the top of the article — what do you want out of a superhero show? — deserves application with regards to Jessica Jones. Do you want an exploration of gender roles and control and abuse and rape in your comic-book analogue? It sounds pretty naïve to state that aloud, begging a response that calls attention to the truths of the gender roles across America today, begging a disregard for the question of what we want and a championing of what we need. But hell, the fact of Jessica Jones being a television series that exists in a larger universe just doesn’t bode well for the future if we’re talking about real-world commentary that actually matters. The first season definitely had that — but, again, we’ve got to circle around to Daredevil and incorporate Luke Cage and maybe battle Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War alongside the womanizing Tony Stark. What will last from Jessica Jones? Simpson will go full Nuke and work his way into a Born Again storyline, and someone will say oh cool — they brought back something from Jessica Jones. In the all-hallowed shared universe, though, it’s hard to bring back the important thing, the right thing, unless it’s something that you genuinely want.