A ‘theme’ that’s been a plague in forums recently has been people whining and moaning about how they want the superhero thing, or the zombie thing, to be over with. That they’re “tired” of it. That they think it’s “played out.”
There are a number of responses to that. First, most of (American) tv and movies are formulaic anyway. Everything follows a formula. One only has to look at the massive over abundance of police / lawyer / hospital procedurals and/or soaps to see that. Second, superhero stories are really more of a setting than a genre, when done right. And third, for every superhero film there are several times more of the ‘standard’ genres like romances or comedies or all the other usual things that fill theaters. So lighten up.
For many many years, superhero films weren’t treated as settings, and weren’t even given the chance to be anything at all. Until Marvel started proving there’s a market with what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superhero stories were considered effects extravaganzas, in the exact same category as Transformers or the Fast & Furious movies or how Hollywood likes to treat SciFi. An action fest, something that focuses mostly on eye-opening effects and amazing stunt strings. And, oddly enough, when you don’t let creators treat something as more than a superficial snooze fest, you rarely get anything deep enough to be interesting. Until Marvel got going.
The studio is continuing to broaden everyone’s horizons, and Jessica Jones is the latest project that again forces the boundary barriers to move back. Where other creators and studios stop and beat a formula (like a dead horse) until the audience refuses to consume any more of the resulting paste (looking at you Fast & Furious franchise; the backlash is coming), Marvel is still seeking to expand the playing field they’ve already cast wider than ever.
Jessica Jones is the latest expansion. Like Daredevil before it, Jessica Jones is a story that isn’t a superhero tale first and foremost. Instead, it’s a story about characters. Several of the characters in Jessica Jones happen to be powered, but the basic story being told would work with only slight modifications if it was ‘reduced’ to a mundane telling. However, removing the powers would take a lot of the heart and punch out of it; which illustrates how useful and wonderful superhero trappings are to storytellers.
In the new series, Kilgrave is a man who people listen to. Literally. At one point, when he’s trying to reduce his use of his powers for plot reasons, he bemoans “how do you people live like this, day after day, just hoping people are gonna do what you want; it’s unbearable”, and then promptly reverts to applying his powers. Because, when Kilgrave tells you to do something, you do it. Mind control, to be quite blunt about it. He says, and you instantly do.
Jessica is a woman who has super strength. She also appears to have a fair amount of healing, but mostly her thing is strength. No top end limit is ever really explored, but for story purposes it doesn’t matter. Several times she’s able to toss beefy guys around like playing cards, and at one point she lifts the back end of a high-end sports car off the ground.
As the story plays out, we learn Jessica had the misfortune to cross paths with Kilgrave. He was immediately infatuated with her, so much so that he not only told the two (controlled) model types with him to get lost, he also kept Jessica around as his permanent companion. When the series begins, Jessica is somewhat recently free of Kilgrave. As we get further in, we learn some of the things that happened while Jessica was enthralled by Kilgrave, some of the things he made her do. Kilgrave considers all of humanity to be his personal servants, in the same manner that you or I might consider how oxygen and sunlight are just always available. To Kilgrave, anyone is really only around to amuse, entertain, or provide for him.
This story is, if you boil it down to the barest bones of an elevator pitch, one of a battered assault victim, coming to grips with how to face up to her tormentor. But here’s the thing. The superhero trappings — that Kilgrave actually does control minds and that Jessica can punch through walls — render most of the metaphor and allusions far more directly than they would be in a more mundane telling of this same tale.
Now, I’m not saying that symbolism or subtly in storytelling are bad. But it can be refreshing to have a story where the themes are right out there. Kilgrave isn’t browbeating or talking people into doing as he says, he doesn’t sway them with money or power or threats, he doesn’t wheedle or coax or romance them into anything. He simply wills it, and they obey. That’s a very direct way of establishing him in this story, compared to how the same role usually plays out. Likewise, Jessica’s fears and vulnerabilities over Kilgrave and what he does and has done are only made much more apparent when we follow along with her abilities. She’s a woman with a lot of power, but no one is inviolate and immune, regardless of how formidable they might seem.
Over the course of the series, Jessica has to come to grips with Kilgrave. He remains infatuated with her, in the same fashion that anyone who’s used to getting his every wish fulfilled can be when they find something that is somehow not so readily available for them to take. As we learn, Jessica didn’t escape so much as become immune to him. She’s now unique in her ability to withstand his commands, and for a time that simply makes him more anxious to win her over. Some time is spent during the middle of the episode run with him trying to establish and conduct a ‘normal’ relationship with her. But, like so many villains, he has the flaws of impatience and becoming easily bored, and starts turning to more traditional — non superpowered — methods of coercion to bring her around. Things like “do as I say or these two innocent people will remove the skin from each other’s faces.” Little things like that.
Kilgrave is a monster, make no mistake. But, refreshingly, Jessica isn’t necessarily a hero. She is the hero of the story, but she’s no knight in shining armor; definitely not some sort of version of Captain America standing there with hands on hips as the wind ruffles her hair, shining in the light and prepared to battle all evil doers. As Jessica tells a bum already encamped in the garbage pile she ends up in after being ejected from a bar for becoming too drunk and disorderly, “I’m a piece of shit. Shit smells.” She also, repeatedly, describes herself as an asshole, or broken, on other occasions. And similar appellations.
The beauty of the MCU is there’s room for all sorts in it, and that makes for all sorts of stories. Jessica is the tale of a damaged person trying to get through the day, hoping that maybe she might get even a little bit closer to figuring out how to fix herself just a small amount more. Most days she settles for drowning herself in whiskey. When she sleeps, she’s haunted by nightmares you are probably not surprised by. Most nights she doesn’t sleep at all, or gives up trying as a bad idea that’s not working. It was done so well that anytime she did get some rest, I was cheering her on. I’m not making that up; scenes where she’d wake up made me happy, because she’d gotten some rest.
When you’ve been through the kinds of things Jessica has, even the smallest and routine of victories is worth some cheering.
Another thing that’s been really annoying me about the coverage I’ve seen about Jessica Jones is how most of the articles place the emphasis on her as a female character. I truly feel that misses the point. It reduces her to a woman, even though (most of, if not all) of the articles are trying to celebrate and herald that fact. Jessica is a person, or at least a character. She’s been through a lot, the kind of things that would break most people. That did, to at least some extent, break her. And the story isn’t one of her triumphing (though we do get triumphs), but is really of her trying to find enough of the shattered pieces so she can start putting herself back together. The story doesn’t rely on her being male or female, it relies on her being broken. And the story doesn’t end with her magically fixing herself; she’s still damaged and in pain at the end of the series. But there’s hope, and that’s enough for a good ending.
The true test of a well written story, in this context, is one that doesn’t depend on gender roles for it to work. Every character role in this show could be gender flipped and the story doesn’t change. At all. That’s good writing, that’s honest writing. This is a story that talks to us about people, not roles. And that’s why it annoys me when I see articles that focus on Jessica Jones as a woman or a ‘female superhero’ or things like that. It’s missing the point. Badly enough that it renders any sort of uplifting the author was attempting to establish as meaningless.
While I do like how certain aspects of the message of Jessica Jones are more direct than is typical, other bits that went — consciously or otherwise — into the symbolism of the story have impressed me. For example, doors.
There are a lot of doors in Jessica Jones. There are a lot of shots of her with or dealing with doors. And how she handles — or doesn’t — these doors is so specific I can’t help but wonder if there really is more to them than just a way for the scene to begin or end. For example:
- Jessica’s door at her Apartment, also the office of Alias Investigations: It’s broken in the first scene. And stays broken for the first few episodes. Everyone who comes across it comments on it. Her friend, Trish, even arranges for it to be fixed and Jessica gets angry at her. Later Jessica gets it fixed but is then angry over how much the work cost and promptly breaks it (a little). Then, later on, it gets completely broken again (along with most of her apartment). And it’s still broken in the last shot of the show. I figure the message here is pretty obvious, right?
- Jerri Hogarth’s door, the attorney Jessica deals with during the story. Jessica always bursts in Jerri’s door without knocking or being announced or playing by the rules. And she never closes it when she leaves. This is consistent behavior across the entire series; Jessica always barges through, and leaves it standing wide open on the way out. Plenty to ponder there.
- Trish Walker’s door, Jessica’s best friend. Most of the series, particularly early on, Jessica never actually uses Trish’s door. She’s always climbing up the side of Trish’s building, bypassing the front door.
- Malcolm, Jessica’s junkie neighbor, has a lot of problems with doors. He’s always opening the wrong ones, and usually can’t find his. And when he does find his own door, he can’t get it open until Jessica intervenes and helps him.
- Luke Cage’s door, at his bar. Jessica never, not once, opens it without spending some time peering in through the bar’s windows. She only goes through that door when she’s had herself a look and a think about what’s on the other side.
- The elevator door in Jessica’s apartment building, when Hope leaves with her parents. Spoiler alerts in case you’re braving the article anyway, but that door closes too soon and gives Hope time to carry out a final deeply implanted — and horrific — instruction of Kilgrave’s. A door that was handled too casually turns deadly, though not for Jessica. It does, however, serve as one more nightmare for her to have to deal with.
- Repeatedly, when Jessica comes across a locked door, she is able to break it hardly without pause. As in, door doesn’t open, she exerts her strength, pop, and she’s in. Over and over. Locks, deadbolts, chains; none of them keep her out when she wants in.
- And most of the series, she’s looking for the right door; the one that has Kilgrave behind it, so she can deal with him.
- Finally, when she does get ahold of Kilgrave for a time before we move into the final climax of the series, the doors securing his cell are difficult and drawn out to open. They don’t open quickly or easily; they’re particular and picky and protracted to pass through. Yes, a lot of Ps for you to ponder there.
Ultimately, the beauty of Jessica Jones is in how it uses the trappings of a superhero story to set up one that mundane audience members wouldn’t consider to be a ‘normal’ superhero story. I suspect this is probably got more than a few of the ‘professional critics’ confused; they like things that fit easily and neatly into the little boxes they keep on their shelves. This is a rom-com, this is a police procedural, this is yet-another-superhero-story. Except Jessica Jones isn’t just another superhero story.
What it is . . . is a story about Jessica Jones. And she’s a great character, written for modern audiences and told with modern flair. The entire cast and creative team has done a fantastic job, from start to finish. No one walks through or phones in their efforts, from the actors in front of the camera to the writers behind it to the producers and directors overseeing it all. Everything about Jessica Jones is well done and quite interesting.
Another standout success for Marvel. Well done indeed.
Hi there. My name’s Dave. I write. If you found this post interesting, you might like one of my books. Have a look and see. Thanks and good luck.