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Jessica Jones Vs. The World

Marvel’s latest superhero takes on the epic battle of everyday life.

Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

Jessica Jones has a problem with doors. Interviewing a missing person’s roommate, she barges in without knocking; confronting an estranged friend, she appears not in the lobby but on the apartment’s terrace, like Superman courting Lois Lane. When we first meet Jessica, played by Krysten Ritter, in the opening moments of Jessica Jones, she’s tossing a belligerent client through the glass panel in her home office’s front door, destroying the only real barrier between herself and the big, bad world. What once read “Alias Investigations” on the door is replaced with a scrap of cardboard stamped with the words “Fragile—Handle with Care.” The words provide as good an introduction as any to the show, a Netflix original whose thirteen-episode first season became available last week. Jessica Jones deserves to be handled with care, and as her story progresses, she slowly opens herself up to people who will be able to do just that. But Jessica isn’t fragile in any sense of the word, and Jessica Jones might be such a riveting and ultimately satisfying show because it is willing to explore the strengths that arise from the difficulty and damage in all its characters’ lives, and not just in its title detective.

Jessica Jones belongs to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Among other things, its characters live in a New York City whose residents are still trying to find their equilibrium after watching the Avengers duke it out with extraterrestrial overlords—though the show keeps this detail under wraps until after the first episode, and keeps this information at the story’s peripheries. Within the first few minutes, however, Jessica does cross paths with Luke Cage, the main character of another Netflix original set to premiere next year. (Danny Rand, also known as Iron Fist, will soon greet viewers in another Netflix series, though the role remains uncast.) Meanwhile, Jessica has already hung out her shingle in Hell’s Kitchen, the same neighbourhood where Matt Murdock, the blind hero of Netflix’ Daredevil, works his day job as a lawyer. (Murdock stays out of the picture this season, at least.) Where counsel is concerned, however, Jessica’s tastes are distinctly more corporate.

It’s clear from the beginning that Jessica’s story doesn’t function as an excuse for writers to throw together as many characters as they can, or to please fans by jamming in endless, winking references to other storylines. “We’re not the world of the comics where you look up in the sky and Thor flies by all the time,” executive producer Joseph Loeb has said. And if Thor were to fly by, it’s hard to imagine that Jessica would pay much attention. She has enough on her plate already. 

Ultimately, Netflix’ line-up of Marvel shows will lead toward a large-scale crossover, with The Defenderswhose release date remains unknown—showing Jessica, Matt, Luke, and Danny teaming up to fight together. Yet viewers can be forgiven for not knowing all this right off the bat, and maybe it’s best if they don’t. If it were handled with any less care, Jessica Jones would probably feel like an obligatory entry in a more important ensemble saga—a story and a character that producers simply needed to check off the list in order to get to the really good stuff. Instead, Jessica Jones is a riveting drama in its own right. More to the point, Jessica herself is not just a member of anyone’s ensemble, or the lone girl lucky enough to get to play with the boys. From the beginning, she’s a character in her own right, and much of the show’s success comes from the fact that it takes the time and effort to explore her complexities.

Jessica Jones begins with our hero slowly emerging from a period of dormancy, rebuilding her life after a trauma that laid her flat and made her cut herself off from the world. As the series progresses, we learn more and more about Kilgrave, the powerful villain (David Tennant) who not only destroyed Jessica’s life, but turned her into an instrument of destruction, and over several episodes we watch her prepare for a confrontation with him, slowly allowing her own formidable powers to reemerge. Yet at the start of the show, all of this is in the background: as far as we know, Jessica is just private eye, a gimlet-eyed wiseass who skulk around fire escapes and parking garages, digging up other people’s dirt. “A big part of the job is looking for the worst in people,” she tells the audience. “Turns out I excel at that.” 

The show’s drama is as much about Jessica learning to look for more than just the worst in people as it is about any great battle. It’s about giving dignity to the small, sometimes seemingly insignificant battles people face every day—for Jessica, it’s knocking down the locked doors she has erected between herself and the world. Anyone who comes to Jessica Jones simply because they’re eager to see the over-the-top exploits of a caped crusader will be very disappointed. The show forces us to get to know Jessica—to care about her, to empathize with her, to see her dark places and cheer for her all the same—before we get to revel in her powers. Long before we savor a showdown between heroes and villains, we have to understand the more familiar traumas of Jessica’s life—the same traumas that any woman, superhero or not, might face. We have to recognize that Jessica’s struggles with PTSD are as brave and harrowing as any fight against an invading army, and that a woman is not rendered worthy of our attention simply by her ability to don a latex cat suit and rattle off one-liners. And before the show’s plot can swing into motion, and Jessica can summon her powers to reckon with her old tormentor, she has to overcome an even bigger hurdle: herself.

In the series’ first moments, Jessica describes the trouble all her clients face when confronted with the information she’s dredged up for them: information they thought they wanted, but which they can never quite face. “Knowing it’s real,” Jessica tells us, “means they gotta make a decision. One: do something about it. Or two: keep denying it. Option two rarely pans out.” It doesn’t pan out for Jessica, either, who first reacts to Kilgrave’s reappearance by trying to flee town. That she does as much is proof of her humanity—as is her decision to stay and fight. More than anything, Jessica Jones is out to prove that certain powers may belong only to superheroes, but that the ones that really matter—courage, compassion, determination—belong to all of us.

ABC passed on Jessica Jones before it found a home at Netflix. Describing how the show changed after its move away from a network slot, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg said the show was “more about continuing story lines than … about case-of-the-week. Because you’re not a slave to commercials and a week in-between each episode, you have all that real estate you normally spend recapping, going to storytelling.” A lot of this salvaged time went straight into to developing Jessica.

Looking at all the ways  Jessica Jones succeeds, it’s hard not to wonder whether Netflix might be the optimal medium for character-driven narratives. With no week-by-week schedule holding them back, viewers can bond fully with a protagonist over a few feverish days or even hours. Showrunners don’t have to worry about generating enough cliffhangers to keep viewers tuning in, or about rendering each episode a standalone package so no new audience members will feel left out. In circumstances like these, a character can finally have the space to shine; so can a lead actress.

Krysten Ritter, the actress who gives life to Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s comic book creation, is no doubt already to familiar to many viewers. She had a star turn as Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend Jane in the second season of Breaking Bad, and more recently was the title role in ABC’s Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. (That the network was too squeamish to spell out the entire title might be enough to explain why the show was cancelled in 2013, after only two seasons.) She’s also appeared in a slew of romantic comedies, in the kooky supporting roles that have long amounted to a kind of Hollywood summer stock for actresses like Illeana Douglas and Judy Greer: in other words, the women who directors and showrunners have never been quite sure what to do with.

Now, we might have an answer. Marvel’s Jessica Jones is an actress’ dream: it gives Ritter room to spread out, develop her character, and to slowly draw the audience in. As Jessica, she is sardonic, funny, resourceful, and vulnerable. Both Ritter and the show’s writers have faith in viewers’ abilities to pick up on the subtleties of her performance, and to keep watching because we want to spend more time with her. The gamble works. Jessica Jones is the kind of character you want as your protector in one moment, and in the next moment want to protect. In other words, she’s human.

Today, viewers can be forgiven for feeling hesitant to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It now encompasses twelve feature films, and four TV shows on two different platforms, and the universe is only going to get more and more complicated—and crowded. The whole enterprise can seem overwhelming, but Jessica Jones is proof that it doesn’t have to be. Viewers who come to the series eager to take in the next volume in Marvel’s mammoth saga will not be disappointed, but the show is just a satisfying when taken in as a stand alone story. While Jessica Jones is a part of the Marvel Universe, Jessica belongs to no one but herself, just as her story belongs to every woman who has known both failure and triumph in the everyday heroics of the battle with her own demons.