Over the weekend at New York Comic Con, fans were given an unexpected surprise during the Netflix original Marvel series panel when the pilot episode of Jessica Jones was screened. The response was overwhelmingly positive, but there have been rumblings that it has a few within Netflix HQ worried. Not because it’s not a great pilot – because it is – but because it veers wildly off the expected path Marvel has beaten. It could end up being Marvel’s greatest evolution in years…but it may lose some long-time fans on the way there.
For starters, it is dark, and I mean dark. It deals with adult themes that not even Daredevil touched in its first season. While both series have earned a TV-MA rating, Daredevil earned it largely for violence, whereas Jessica Jones will earn the rating mainly for sexually explicit scenes and themes, and a lot of them. Violence in our entertainment is something our society has become accustomed to, even embraced. Marvel fans are used to seeing buildings blow up, city blocks being destroyed, superpowered humans punching other superpowered humans on the regular. Violence is an expected part of the spectacle. Sex, on the other hand? We’re still working through our hangups about that one.
And if mainstream audiences are uncomfortable with sex, than what they’re even more uncomfortable with is female sexuality, at least when it’s presented as something more than mere fulfillment for male characters. The pilot episode gets right down to business, both literally and figuratively, with a hard drinking, emotionally damaged Jessica (Krysten Ritter) hitting on Luke Cage (Mike Colter) in a bar and then taking him home for a one-night stand, where they proceed to have the kind of wild, rough sex that is rarely seen in any movie or TV show, let alone one stamped so prominently with the Marvel brand. Jessica is the one in control the entire time: She is the one who picks him up; she is the one who eggs him on to increasingly furious gymnastics between the sheets. When he flips her over and takes her from behind, hard, it’s exactly what she wants. And, frankly, that’s not something we’re used to seeing on our television screens, much less what the average Marvel demographic expects.
Along with the sexually explicit content, there are other sexual themes that have yet to be broached in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At one point in the pilot, Jessica and her friend, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), heavily hint at having been in a relationship before – in essence, this will be Marvel’s first queer lead character. Likewise, Carrie-Anne Moss’s high-powered lawyer, Jeri Hogarth, is openly gay, cheating on her girlfriend with another woman.
The darkness of the sexual themes comes in the form of Jessica’s traumatic past, the events that have shaped her into the damaged woman she is currently. Jessica is a hot mess, tough and smart, but vulnerable, drinking and fighting and fucked-up in a way that places her firmly in the realm of “trainwreck.” Tony Stark’s love of the bottle ain’t got nothin’ on Jessica. But, then, you would be wheels off, too, if you were dealing with PTSD from having been held captive and repeatedly mind-raped and abused.
Enter Kilgrave (David Tennant), who may prove to be the most psychotic, disturbing villain Marvel has had yet. The diabolical, universe-destroying visions of Thanos and Ultron are horrific, but it’s a horror from which we are removed. At the theatrical level, Marvel’s villains are merely catalysts to spur the action of the Avengers. Their villainous schemes unfold on such grand scales that is hard to take them seriously on an emotional level. In reality, we’ll never have to worry about a giant hole opening in the sky and a horde of Chitauri warriors pouring out. It makes for great entertainment, but it doesn’t grip you in the heart. Still, those are the stakes that the average, 17-year-old Marvel moviegoing fan has come to expect.
But Kilgrave is another story entirely. His brand of villainy makes the skin crawl. Jessica Jones will delve into the aftermath of Jessica having been held captive and mind-controlled by the supervillain – and then repeatedly mentally raped, degraded, and abused at his hands. And while true, psychic mind control is less plausible, the concept of being emotionally and sexually abused at the hands of someone who has broken you down is a very real one. We may not have to worry about the Chitauri, but there’s not a woman out there who hasn’t felt a sick jangle of nerves as she’s walked home alone at night and heard footsteps keeping pace behind her. The story of Jessica Jones is not comfortable, not easily digested or watched – but what it is is very real.
Rape and sexual abuse aren’t themes often explored in our entertainment. They’re too real, too raw. They fill us with a repulsion and horror from a place that comes from deep within, because it’s the sort of violent act that breaks not just the body, but the spirit. Jessica Jones will not tone down that damage for the sake of delicate sensitivities; it will not hold back on exploring what it means for Jessica to be a survivor of the double-rape she endured – first of her mind, then of her free will. It will not be the entirety of the plot, but it will certainly shape the story and what Jessica is experiencing, just as being the survivor of unaddressed sexual abuse does in reality.
Are Marvel fans ready for that? Hell, are audiences in general ready for that? The reaction at New York Comic Con was positive, but, then, it’s hard to get a negative reaction from a room full of hyped up fans at a convention. The real test comes on November 20th when Jessica Jones is released on Netflix.
But even if the average Marvel fan isn’t ready for it, that might not matter. Jessica Jones has the potential to tap into an entirely brand-new audience for Marvel, one that has, to this point, dismissed Marvel movies and television shows as being too fluffy, too primary colored, too much for kids. There is nothing kid-friendly about Jessica Jones.
I suspect Marvel’s newest series is a gamble that will pay off. It’s a risky venture, but I think people are ready for their entertainment to be smarter, ready for their television and movies to explore the difficult, dark issues that so many have experienced in their own lives. We’re ready for a superhero who isn’t very heroic, who struggles with her powers and herself in a way that is relatable. Who we want to be is Tony Stark in his billion-dollar Avengers Tower. But who we actually are in reality is more like Jessica, slapping our alarm clock when it goes off too early in the middle of a hangover.
Jessica Jones might be Marvel’s greatest risk. But in the end, it just might end up being its greatest coup.