Reprinted with permission from Women and Hollywood
I thought my superhero fatigue was incurable. Then I watched Marvel’s Jessica Jones. The Netflix show, which premiered Nov. 20 and stars Krysten Ritter, is an irresistible feminist noir. I didn’t actually plan to binge-watch all seven review episodes. But, like one of the victims of its mind-controlling supervillain (played with great relish by David Tennant), I just couldn’t help myself.
The show, created by Melissa Rosenberg (Dexter, the Twilight movie series), is steeped in the trappings of the detective genre: Its protagonist is a “hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman” who narrates in voiceover and makes a living as a private eye while trying to forget her past.
And her past is where the Marvel branding comes in: After using her superpowers (strength; kind-of flying) in a brief stint as a caped crusader, her life was derailed when she crossed paths with a man named Kilgrave (Tennant), who took her hostage via mind control (a superpower so broadly useful, and disturbing, I can’t believe it’s not used more in the comics-villain pantheon).
As female superheroes go, Jones is the dark to Supergirl’s light. Ritter is terrific in the part, drawing on the withering wit we saw in Don’t Trust the B— and the pathos of her addict in Breaking Bad (not to mention the hard-boiled spirit of Veronica Mars, on which she played a minor role). Rosenberg seems to have reimagined the character of Jessica, from the little I’ve seen of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ comics—less objectified, and definitely not the type to wear a costume. At one point, she snarks that a suggested outfit (an approximation of the one she wears in the comics) is something to wear only on Halloween or in fetish-y role play. Her uniform is jeans and a hoodie; no cleavage or spandex here.
In fact, Jessica Jones kicks to the curb a lot of cheesy superhero conventions, of both the male and female varieties: No garish outfit, no alter-ego name and no outsized heroics. Just one woman trying to muddle her way through New York like everybody else, except with the ability to stop a car. “A slow-moving car,” anyway.
As in every good noir, she’s running from toxic memories. But hers are catching up with her via the cases she’s taking on, which all point back to Kilgrave. Tennant is masterful as Jessica’s nemesis, who’s essentially a comic-book version of a monstrous domestic abuser. “He made me do terrible things,” his victims—male and female—all tell Jessica, who’s trying to stop him without falling under his sway again. Her haunted eyes tell the story of a woman who barely got out with her life, and still loathes herself for what she did while with him despite knowing, rationally, it wasn’t her fault—a statement she makes his next female victim repeat, as if willing herself to internalize it too.
Rosenberg wisely keeps Kilgrave out of the picture in the beginning episodes, which just makes him loom larger in our imaginations. When he does show up, he’s a study in controlled and casual menace, calmly instructing people to do horrifying things to themselves or others. For anyone who’s been jonesing (so to speak) for more Tennant since his stint as the Tenth Doctor—or, less mythically, on Broadchurch—this show won’t disappoint.
It’s also a win on the gender and sexuality fronts, for sure. Carrie-Anne Moss plays Jeryn Hogarth, a shark-like lawyer for whom Jessica does P.I. work—and who’s dating her secretary (Susie Abromeit) while divorcing her wife (Robin Weigert). The fact of their being gay doesn’t merit the slightest whisper of dialogue, which is refreshing. Meanwhile, Jessica enjoys some highly acrobatic trysts with a love interest, as does her foster sister Trish (Rachael Taylor). Their sex scenes may be straight, but they’re female-focused; both women seem as formidable in bed as they do out of it.
But the show’s real focus is Jessica’s inner world—her attempts to reconcile her trauma and move beyond it, while being repeatedly drawn back in by her inability not to help others, whether it’s her addict neighbor (Eka Darville) or a kidnapping victim (Erin Moriarty) or Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a hot local bar owner with mysterious ties to the Kilgrave story. She regularly makes sacrifices for others in spite of her rudeness, her toughness and her belief in her own intrinsic selfishness.
Ultimately, I think, Jessica Jones might be the consummate New Yorker.
Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. magazine newsletter.