Somewhere along the way, Marvel’s expanded universe began using what I like to call the genre roadmap. This is something I explored following the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the notion that instead of starting just with a character or with a comic book for direct adaptation, they would begin with a genre in mind. For The Winter Soldier, they invited The Russo Brothers to make a political thriller. For Ant-Man, they made a zippy heist film. There’s something inherently more interesting about making a genre film instead of making a film in the superhero movie genre.
The same can be said for their Netflix shows thus far. Even though we’re only one, very soon to be two series into their Netflix releases, the pattern has emerged. Daredevil played out like a dark, gritty martial arts film. It lived and bled in the alleys of Hell’s Kitchen and showed off its Korean action cinema roots directly with that amazing hallway fight sequence. It was Marvel’s 13-hour martial arts movie. That’s what made it so much fun, in combination with all the fine details drawn from Daredevil’s comic roots.
The same can be said for Jessica Jones, Marvel’s 13-hour noir experience. It’s exactly that, a stylish crime drama that just so happens to involve a superhero. At its center is the titular character, played by Krysten Ritter. She’s all at once an embodiment of many classic noir characters. She’s the alcoholic, the cynic, the anti-hero and the hard-boiled detective. She’s also a woman with immense powers that has forsaken her like as a superhero.
The world Jessica inhabits is dark and dusty, effortlessly moody and filled with a lot of other noir elements. Like her relationship with Luke Cage, played by Mike Colter, a law-abiding citizen (and fellow person of mysterious power) who is drawn into the dark world of our protagonist.
Thematically and atmospherically, Jessica Jones is the richest tapestry Marvel has delivered yet. It doesn’t have the grandiose scale of their movies, but it uses its noir roots to wrap you in its dark and dusty world, holding on with a complex and unique story.
The atmosphere isn’t the only thing is has going for it, either. As our own Alisha Grauso explained in her review of the pilot, show creator Melissa Rosenberg (a writer and producer known for her work on Dexter, Red Widow and Twilight) is pushing a lot of boundaries. Jessica Jones is unique in the fact that its Marvel’s first truly female-led TV or film property, but that’s not where it stops. The nature of Jessica’s backstory, one that involves being under the control of a sadistic man named Kilgrave (David Tennant), is one that forces the show to deal with issues of post-traumatic stress. It’s about being held captive and being abused and how one deals with that as they try to piece their life back together. And it’s incredibly honest in doing so.
This is one of the things that makes Jessica so interesting as a character: she’s a hero and a survivor. She’s given strength in the performance of Krysten Ritter, whose range is on full display. At times, Jessica goes from being brutally unfriendly to emotionally despondent to being downright heroic in a matter of minutes. Through it all, Ritter shines. As an audience, we aren’t just interested in what she’s doing when she’s kicking ass (she does kick plenty of ass), we’re also intrigued by what’s bubbling under the surface at all times.
Having screened the first half of the series, which is available on Friday, November 20 in full on Netflix, I’m also fascinated by the villain work. David Tennant plays Kilgrave, more commonly known to comic fans as Purple Man. He’s the most psychotic and imposing villain we’ve seen from Marvel yet. Sure, the scale is different from some of his cinematic counterparts. He’s not a raging godlike figure like Loki, but he’s equally terrifying because of what kind of threat he presents to our heroine. Imagine being a person with super strength and durability, which is Jessica’s gift, only to find your mind being massaged like Play-Doh at the hands of a relentless psychopath. That’s a dynamic that, as its played out in the show, is terrifying. Mostly because Tennant doesn’t show up right away. He’s always sort of hovering in the back of Jessica’s mind and creating havoc in her real world without ever really being present. The show uses the color purple to show us when he’s creeping toward the front of Jessica’s mind. It’s a fine bit of work on the part of the show’s writers that I suspect will pay dividends as it moves into the back-half of the series.
The first half of the series is a superb slow-burn. It’s not relying on any cheap trickery or hanging narrative cliffs to keep us moving from episode-to-episode. There’s a confidence at work with Jessica Jones. Rosenberg and her team are using the 13-hours they’ve been given to further let the gritty world of Hell’s Kitchen breathe. And within that world, they’ve populated their story with interesting characters, a truly menacing villain and thematic territory not previously explored by other Marvel shows or movies.
It’s almost the exact same formula that Steven DeKnight, Drew Goddard and team took with Daredevil. It’s easy to see, thematically and aesthetically, how these two shows fit together as part of one universe. But Jessica Jones has been crafted in a way that is completely fresh. It presents us, the audience, with unique challenges and a relentless passion for creating fully formed, nuanced characters.
In her initial pilot review, Alisha asked whether or not Marvel fans would be ready for the dark, sexual and challenging material that exists within Jessica Jones. Having explored the show further, I’m here to report confidently that it’s not just Marvel fans who are ready. The world is ready for this kind of show. It’s a perspective change. A wholly original and equally engaging kind of hero. It is the Marvel evolution that we’ve been hoping for. And they did it by following their genre roadmap and being fearless.