Review: Marvel’s ‘JESSICA JONES’ Is Pure Noir Cool

David McGinnis & Nathan James talk the latest Netflix comic series.

My greatest weakness: occasionally I give a damn.

–Jessica Jones

DAVID: When Daredevil kick-punched its way onto our streaming services earlier this year, it was a clarion call for a new era at Marvel Studios. In their movie franchises, Marvel has has carved out territory as the more fun, brightly-colored, joke-filled alternative to the oppressive gloom of DC, but television is like a mirror universe. With its Matt Murdock series and now Jessica Jones, Marvel is putting on its hoodie and rolling around in the dirt. Its heroes are messed up, its action more grounded in realism, and people are generally uninterested in turning on the lights.

I binged Jones in just a few days over my Thanksgiving break, and loved it to pieces. There is no one earth better suited to the title role than Krysten Ritter; her hard edges and soft center make her someone to be feared, admired, and loved. Her chemistry with Mike Colter (as Luke Cage) nearly made my TV burst into flames. David Tennant is creepy as hell. Even if the story seemed a bit too stretched out for 13 episodes, the individual elements were so strong you get lost in its mood and its heady themes. Nathan, what’s your verdict?

NATHAN: This show is a damn geek hipster. It just reeks of pop-culture-cool but in a slightly offbeat way, and I absolutely love it. It’s a show where Trinity plays a lesbian lawyer, Doctor Who plays a villain, and Calamity Jane from Deadwood and Lester from The Wire show up as ancillary characters. It’s a show that takes a big step for Marvel, finally placing a woman squarely in the titular role (though it could be argued that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has made solid strides in that direction), fitting a very-capable Krysten Ritter with the helm of the most female-centric, Bechdel test-friendly property in the Marvel roster. Most importantly, it’s a show that gives us more of that dark-Marvel Hell’s Kitchen stuff that the out-of-nowhere wonder Daredevil brought us earlier this year.

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Enter Jessica Jones: she’s the hard-drinking, guilt-ridden, PTSD-battling superhero that, frankly, we need right now to cure our ever-growing case of “superhero fatigue”. In fact, while watching Jessica Jones it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a superhero show, right up until Krysten Ritter tosses someone across a room or picks up a car. Jessica Jones wonderfully defies genre; it is at times a noir mystery, a psychological thriller, and occasionally an action show that all just happen to star someone with superpowers.

It doesn’t hurt that the superhero in question doesn’t much care to be a superhero — not that she rejects her gifts, just that she doesn’t embrace the burden of being a “do-gooder” and would rather be numbing her grief with cheap whiskey than, say, be Captain America. And that’s where Jessica Jones really shines as the cure for the over-inundation of all things super: she’s relatably flawed, she’s broken, in a constant struggle with her past, a person clawing themselves up from rock bottom. She’s not fighting to be a hero, she’s fighting just to be a person again.

I hate feeling this way, I don’t know how you handle it.

–Trish Walker

It’s called whiskey.

–Jessica Jones

DAVID: The noir elements are what hooked me right away. It’s so different from anything else in the MCU — anything else in superhero-dom, really — and it’s handled so elegantly you can overlook when the plot is grinding its gears. That chiaroscuro lighting, the hard-boiled voiceover, the mournful trumpet on Sean Callery’s excellent soundtrack — it’s real genre filmmaking. Jones is a detective show, out of a Dashiell Hammett-penned Bogart film from the ’40s, if Bogart had the ability to lift cars and fly, sort of. (More like falling with style.)

But its real masterstroke is its deep feminist streak, thanks to creator Melissa Rosenberg. Jessica has been a victim, but it doesn’t define her. David Tennant’s Kilgrave is a real monster: arrogant, impulsive, manipulative (obviously), and believing he has a right to any woman he desires. And with his abilities, he can make them want him back, at least temporarily. There’s not a woman alive who hasn’t felt unwanted attention from a creep, and Jessica gives them all a voice, as well as fighting back as only she can with the help of her adopted sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), and high-powered lawyer boss Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss, gender-swapped from the comics) — strong women, all.

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The major difference between Jones and Daredevil is that this series is much more single-minded in its approach. It’s all Kilgrave, all the time, and every episode revolves around Jessica trying to bring him down. The seams show during the season’s middle stretches, when subplots like Jessica’s obnoxious neighbor’s witch hunt against her feel like the distractions they are. And you could make the case that the show over-does it on depicting Kilgrave’s awfulness, but David Tennant is so ridiculously magnetic in the role, you still find yourself wanting to see what he’ll do next.

NATHAN: The biggest thing you have to initially forgive with Jessica Jones is the villain. Kilgrave is a brilliant monster, a wonderful antagonist, but his evil superpower is possibly the most overpowered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Kilgrave can control minds — with a simple suggestion he can make people do ANYTHING — and yet he seems to be content sexually torturing co-eds and making people kill their parents rather than, say, taking over a country or conning Tony Stark out of all of his money. This weighed on me greatly in the early episodes, but (and I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers here) much like Vincent D’Onofrio’s sympathetic Kingpin in Daredevil, revelations of the tragic origins of Kilgrave, coupled with the personal ramifications of his ability, eventually lead the audience to some understanding of his motives and actions. And, at times, even sympathy for this purple-clad devil.

Once you get over that hurdle, Kilgrave is the perfect villain for a show that is more about overcoming psychological obstacles than defeating alien armies, and David Tennant uses his naturally likable look to his advantage channeling the twisted sociopath.

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DAVID: And the accent! Don’t forget that accent. I swear, my wife wasn’t even sure at first if she was supposed to root against him. Tennant is on a different level. But we also can’t forget to talk about Mike Colter as Luke Cage, and the handoff to the third of Marvel’s Netflix series (titled, naturally, Luke Cage). Colter is smoldering, and he and Ritter are an incredible match — a testament to chemistry reads in the casting process, certainly — as for much how they challenge each other emotionally as, ahem, physically. Not that I doubted Ritter’s abilities, but she hasn’t ever really had the opportunity to tear into a part with this many layers. She’s at her best when sharing the screen with Colter, especially in the final scene of “AKA You’re a Winner!”

The rest of the supporting cast, Rachael Taylor excepted, doesn’t come off quite as well — but that’s probably because the series just isn’t as interested in, say, Eka Darville’s Malcolm as Jessica and Kilgrave’s pas de deux. (He’s excellent, though, particularly in the season’s back half where he becomes its conscience.) Wil Traval doesn’t ever really fit in as he-who-would-become “Nuke,” seeming only to provide some filler before setting up whatever Season 2 will be about. Many of the episodes, without a clear theme or setpiece to call their own, just kind of run together — the novelization of television writ large. The best episodes, for my money, are “AKA WWJD” and “AKA The Sin Bin,” which are strong, self-contained hours with clear arcs despite running back-to-back. But, honestly, Jessica Jones rocks and I need to see her and Matt Murdock together ASAP.

Breaking and entering, my specialty.

–Jessica

As well as punching, kickin’, drinkin’ and talkin’ shit.

–Luke Cage

The four essentials of being a P.I.

–Jessica

NATHAN: While I’m just as excited to see Jessica, Daredevil, Luke and the as-of-yet unseen Iron Fist come together in the forthcoming Defenders series, I would happily watch a hundred episodes of Jessica Jones, functioning alcoholic superhero private eye, and her sidekick Trish “Hellcat” Walker, doing procedural crime-drama television. However, I highly doubt that the second season will move in that direction. Frankly, I’d be fine with leaving Jessica Jones as a one-off, as this season is (to date) Marvel’s finest single-story arc ever put onscreen (Daredevil came close before botching the finale), and while I’d love to return to the character, they’d be hard-pressed to design a better, more stylish, or more compelling season of conflict and growth than what Jessica Jones Season One delivers.

David’s Grade: A-
Nathan’s Grade: A

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