Anyone ever heard of earplugs?
by Thom Yee
People ask me all the time, they ask me, “Thom, when’s this whole… superhero thing gonna end?” Well… they ask me that after the considerable time they’ve been forced to spend with me and after I’ve finally lightened up enough to let them practice a bit of their own free will.
After they’re pummeled to the point of submission by a group of my various bodyguards and henchmen for such impudence — the impudence of suggesting that superhero movies will go away and the impudence of speaking to me as if I owed them (or anybody) an answer — I tell them the same thing I tell myself:
Superheroes will never end!
That’s a lie. But they believe me anyway.
If I had to put my finger on it, I would say we’re just past the half-way point of this renaissance-like age of popular superhero media, spearheaded most obviously by the efforts of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. That’s a bit of a misnomer really, at least in regards to what most people view as cinema, as Marvel’s attempts at media dominance are actually comprised of three heads:
- The movies with which we are all familiar;
- The network television series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter; and
- The Netflix miniseries, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, with the likes of Luke Cage and Iron Fist soon to follow.
That’s a pretty good range, and it’s a range that allows the various Marvel Studios producers to explore the company’s deep back catalogue of characters in whatever live-action format is best for the story they’re trying to tell. TV shows and movies are obvious extensions of any brand, and they’ve been employed by all the major media brands since pretty early on, but that Netflix option was a particularly smart move by Marvel Studios that allows them all sorts of other-than-normal storytelling opportunities. The movies are the headliners, the big time and the place where the real money is made, the network TV shows provide support and long-form storytelling possibilities to fill the calendar with Marvel properties on a weekly basis, but Netflix lets the company explore the seedier side of the Cinematic Universe in a grittier, prestige-format, 13-episode mini-series.
Earlier this year we had the opportunity to see the fruits of Marvel’s Netflix labours with Daredevil, a show that went over well with most critics, and now we’ve arrived at the company’s second Netflix series with Jessica Jones. Is it worth your time, is it good enough to binge watch, should anyone really even care? Yes, maybe not, and read on to find out.
What’s it about?
Like your classic private investigator, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) lives a dark, dour life of drinking, debauchery, dissension, and at least one other word that starts with ‘D’. And like most of the important people in the Marvel Universe, she also has powers. Blessed with superstrength, Jessica had once considered a life of heroism until the day she met a man known as Kilgrave (David Tennant), who used his ability of mind control to enslave her. Though she is eventually able to escape Kilgrave’s influence after suffering extensive physical and psychological abuse at his hands, Jessica now finds herself forced to confront Kilgrave after she agrees to protect his latest victim, a young woman named Hope Shlottman.
With Jessica Jones, we’re in finally hitting new territory in terms of my pre-existing knowledge of the character. Usually I know more than just about any normal person when it comes to any major superhero movie or TV adaptation, but I have to admit I never read the source material, Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias comicbook from the early 2000’s. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in the premise or turned off by the characters, I literally just didn’t (and still don’t) have enough money to buy every comicbook I’m interested in. I am, however, aware of the latter parts of her superhero-ish career as she would go on to become a major cast (though usually not team) member of the Avengers, begin dating and eventually marry Luke Cage, and even have a child with him (none of which I think are necessarily spoilers since there’s little chance of those things happening in the Cinematic Universe [and I sincerely doubt you were ever going to read the comics anyways]). The character’s past as a failed superhero who was victimized for months by a mind-controlling supervillain is haunting and disturbing, and it points to the range of storytelling possibilities of a superhuman world. Normally in a comicbook, when someone gains superpowers they’re faced with a series of adventures that are a mix of danger and excitement, and even in the worst cases there’s an inherent nobility and worth to their exploits, but in the case of Jessica Jones, you have a character whose noble career aspirations were cut short and whose agency was completely circumvented by a type of evil we don’t usually get to see (or that we would rather not contemplate too thoroughly) in the oft-thought-to-be-lightweight world of superheroes.
Kilgrave, on the other hand, known as the Purple Man in the comicbook universe, was a fairly disposable supervillain from the ‘70s who I mostly remember from the times he tried to take on a variety of street-level superheroes in campy adventures from those comicbooks you picked out of twenty-five-cent bins when the stores were trying to clear out their inventory of old stock. Mind control makes for a pretty simplistic supervillain concept, and it’s one that easily facilitates one of the perennial superhero conceits — superheroes fighting each other — but pretty soon with a character like Kilgrave you either fall down the rabbit holes of “How can we defeat this man who can control us all?“ or “… Um, I’ll just put in some earplugs.” Back in the ‘70s, there was a lot more of the latter than the former. And then Brian Michael Bendis went ahead and made him terrifying.
Is it any good?
Jessica Jones has a lot going for it, especially in the strength of its characters, actors, and its premise’s lack of need to tell a conventional superhero story. Even more than Daredevil, it’s a very ground-level story that explores the implications of superpowers and their effects on real people in a way that doesn’t shy away from the true “ick” factor of what these people can do. Especially compared to the movies, Jessica Jones is operating on an entire new level from anything else that’s come out of Marvel Studios, and in a lot of the ways that really matter, it makes a shallow mockery of shows like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
We start off with Jessica Jones as a clearly disaffected, disillusioned private detective whose superhuman strength is far from the biggest asset she brings to her investigations. She may not seem especially professional, she may be headquartered in a seedy part of the city where she’s forced to interact with crazy neighbours and drug addicts, and she may not care that much about anything, least of all herself, but she seems to get results. Her story slowly unfurls throughout the course of the series as you learn about her childhood, her previous life, the origin of her powers, and her time with Kilgrave, each element of which adds to your fundamental understanding of the character as she is today. As portrayed by Krysten Ritter, she’s the type of damaged character who’s earned every bit of the internal anguish she can’t help but exude despite her exterior toughness, though if I’m being honest, I did find her more convincing in some of her past roles as a ‘B’ than her present role as a private ‘eye’.
Jessica is eventually brought back into conflict with Kilgrave, a character who she had previously thought (or at least hoped was) dead, when she’s commissioned to investigate the disappearance of Hope Shlottman, a star college athlete and Kilgrave’s latest victim. Hope is eventually arrested for crimes Kilgrave forces her to commit and the two form a bond that frames the rest of the series as we meet a cavalcade of supporting characters in the Jessica-Jones-verse, including her childhood-to-present-day best friend, Trish Walker, a former child star and current radio host; Jeri Hogarth, a powerful attorney who frequently employs Jones for her cases; Will Simpson, a police officer who fell temporary victim to Kilgrave; Malcolm, Jessica’s drug-addicted neighbor; and perhaps most importantly Luke Cage, a bartender with ties to Jessica’s past who’s also superpowered (and destined for his own Netflix series). Though each has an important role to play in the story being told, of all of these characters, I think I most appreciated Carrie-Anne Moss’s Hogarth whose cold exterior never gives way to any real warmth underneath. After three separate rounds of Matrix installments from the previous decade, its her role as Hogarth now in the 2010’s that finally convinced me that Carrie-Anne Moss can act, and there’s one particularly vicious scene involving her ex-wife, a knife, and mind control towards the latter part of the series that left a pretty permanent mark in my memories of the series.
The early talk around Jessica Jones as it was starting to trickle out to media outlets was how mature the series is, especially with its sex scenes, but for a mature audience, I don’t think any of the sex is really going to stand out. The element of maturity that should stand out is the maturity of the show’s themes. Jessica Jones is a series that fully understands that it’s a story about rape, both literally and for everything it represents as a complete loss of agency, hope, and faith in mankind. Jessica is a character who was completely victimized by Kilgrave and who’s forever lost a part of herself at his hands. That’s something you never lose sight of through the course of the series, and yet you can still have just the slightest sympathy for David Tennant’s Kilgrave. Most of that comes from the charisma and inherent whimsy of an actor as good as Tennant, who most of us can never fully disassociate from his time as the Doctor, but there’s also a genuine reason for the character’s lack of humanity, one that, at times, almost seems the equal of the horrific acts he commits on a regular basis. Almost. At times.
Unforunately, the same maturity of theme is sometimes lacking in the show’s execution. There are a few problems, some small some large, that come up throughout the course of the series, including Simpson’s back story as, initially, just a policeman victim of Kilgrave, but one who, of course, winds up having a complicated past of his own that just seems not nearly random enough for a realistic series like this, the sense of danger that fluctuates greatly throughout the series and seems inconsistent with the types of actions people would take in this sort of situation (Why do you keep going back to your apartment, Jessica? Kilgrave knows you live there. You both know where to find each other!), and the relationship between Jessica and Hope, the technical foundation of the series, that feels underserved, with Hope’s character coming off as unlikable in a way that makes you forget she’s a victim.
More important than any one flaw, Jessica Jones doesn’t feel like a series that uses its time or format well. For a 13-episode limited series, it seems padded, and it’s not that any one moment feels like a waste of time so much as it all eventually builds to a point that makes you wonder about and sometimes almost forget what got you to the moment you’re watching. Sometimes there’s a lack of urgency, sometimes there’s side stories that being feel explored at the expense of the more important things going on, and a lot of the time it just doesn’t feel like we a pro and antagonist who are really after each other. At some point you may find yourself just going along with the story because you want to get through it instead of openly questioning its choices the way you would if you were really engaged.
So should I see it?
In order to be part of the pop culture conversation right now, you pretty much have to see Jessica Jones, and for the material it explores, it’s a show that’s something you’ll want to see, but it’s not nearly as quick or brisk as its 13-episode, all-available-at-once format might suggest. There are a lot of really strong moments in Jessica Jones, including the character work done with the title character herself, some truly shocking moments as we explore the extent of what mind control can really do, an interesting villain who can be intense and dangerous and funny whenever he wants to be (and who eventually comes across as a bit of a baby, but not in a bad way like Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk), and pretty much any scene with Luke Cage.
I don’t know if any of the above comes across as a truly ringing endorsement, though, and it shouldn’t. Overall, I wouldn’t say there’s anything about Jessica Jones that’s truly bad so much as the entirety of the series can feel like a bit of a drag, not because it’s a downer of a story but because it’s not told with the energy, urgency, and efficiency of a truly great series.
That’s the truth. And even if it wasn’t, you’ll believe me anyway.
Thom’s Jessica Jones final score
On the Edge
- I see Marvel still has their Beats by Dre endorsement going.
- That’s it for us this year, folks. We’ll be back in January with our Top Ten movies of 2015, our review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, some Oscars coverage, and maybe a surprise? Or two?