“Jessica Jones” brightens Marvel Universe

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 10: Krysten Ritter filming "Jessica Jones" on March 10, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/GC Images)

By RAFAEL SWIT

When Netflix released “Daredevil” in April of this year, they changed the game of comic book television adaptations.  They created a dark, compelling, character-driven story that few have been able to achieve in the realm of traditional broadcast television.  Netflix sets the bar high with “Daredevil”;  “Jessica Jones” leaps over that bar, landing not-so-gracefully, but with purpose.

Set in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU), “Jessica Jones” inhabits the same disheveled corner of fictional New York as “Daredevil”: Hell’s Kitchen.  And while “Daredevil” is far more concerned with the overall fate of the city, “Jessica Jones” revels in the plights of its individuals.  Jessica Jones, played by Krysten Ritter, is a private investigator, an orphan, a self-described asshole, and an alcoholic.  Oh, and she has super strength.  The series’ inaugural season follows Jessica as she attempts to take down Killgrave (David Tennant), a delusional, love-obsessed fashion snob with the power to control minds.

Though part of the MCU, “Jessica Jones” focuses on its own unique story for the most part.  Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who will be headlining his own show in 2016, is introduced early on and serves as a dynamic and compelling character throughout the season.  His significant presence indicates future crossovers between the two shows.  I was pleasantly surprised that Daredevil himself didn’t make an appearance, though we do see some crossover supporting characters.  We also see some small references to “The Incident” as we did in “Daredevil,” but these mentions mostly serve to ground the series in the world viewers have already come to know and love. “Jessica Jones” makes the right choice keeping the majority of the MCU in its peripheries; the show is strong enough on its own, and I imagine that an overexposure to other parts of the universe would only bog down its narrative.

The show is excellent from the get-go, delivering one of the more riveting pilots I’ve ever seen.  The show creates tension early and sustains it throughout the episode in its entirety.  The writing is nothing if not fantastic as the showrunners manage to create an unlovable anti-hero that everyone can empathize with.  Jessica is abrasive to everyone she meets, is constantly drunk, and has attachment issues.  But she’s also notably traumatized by her experiences with Killgrave that occurred before the pilot.  Through insight into the adversity she’s faced, viewers gain a new understanding of her behavior, and can’t help but sympathize with and root for her.  On top of all that, Ritter delivers a genuine and nuanced performance that is measured even when her character isn’t.

That is where most of the show’s strength lies: its characters.  Jessica Jones is the titular character, but the show isn’t just about her; she has a stellar ensemble cast backing her up.  The writers certainly focus on Jessica, but they do a fantastic job of giving the audience a full look at the entire ensemble.  Killgrave gets a hell of a lot of screen time and we get a lot of insight into his backstory as the season progresses.  Through Tennant’s truly disturbing performance and some great writing, we actually come to empathize with Killgrave.  I would venture to say that Killgrave is probably Marvel’s best cinematic villain to date.  He’s as horrifying as he is human, he’s as funny as he is cruel, and he’s a hell of a lot of fun.  Jessica’s best friend, Trish (Rachael Taylor), serves as an excellent counterbalance to Jessica and many of the show’s great moments occur between the two.  The beautiful thing though, is that all of the ensemble characters have their own problems as well.  Too often we see shows focus on the conflict with the main character, but “Jessica Jones” isn’t afraid to give its supporting cast depth and humanity. Not having all conflict framed through the lens of the titular character creates a refreshing viewing experience.

The show is also wonderfully shot and beautifully lit.  It makes great use of tight shots, close ups, camera stability, and shot framing to deal with themes of control; quite appropriate for a season whose main antagonist can control minds.  Though it is conventionally shot, “Jessica Jones” does a good job using those conventions to masterfully create an image system that will haunt you in your dreams.  Additionally, the lighting serves to always appropriately set the mood and polish shots into beautiful works of art on their own.

Dark, ruthless, and thought-provoking, “Jessica Jones” is arguably the best comic book adaptation to come to the small screen.  Marvel is starting to carve out a dark niche in the corner of its universe for its adult fans who want more than the action porn that we get from movies like “Thor” and “The Avengers” or television shows like “Agents of Shield.”  If you’re looking for an action fix, this show probably isn’t for you.  But if you want a classic comic book story that is as deeply concerned with humanity as it punching holes through walls, “Jessica Jones” is just a few clicks away.

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