“The best noir stories make you forget plot entirely by giving you characters that feel so well realized that you can’t look away as they fall.”
One of the ways I can tell how much I like a particular series is how long it takes me to finish it. If I really enjoy a show I try to drag it out as much as possible. I made Daredevil last a whole week and a half, Sense8 might have lasted two. Jessica Jones, for better or worse, took me about three days to polish off. The latest collaboration between Netflix and Marvel takes a similarly dark, mature theme as Daredevil, this time embracing a kind of contemporary noir that succeeds more often than it doesn’t. However, the tone and story are at times uneven or not fully realized and while there is genuine chemistry and a powerful dynamic between Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter’s character, star of the forthcoming original series, Luke Cage, Jones stumbles slightly when exploring it’s tertiary characters who feel clunky or one-dimensional. And the real juggernaut in David Tennant, at his most brilliant and sadistic, feels a bit over-used. It brings to mind Heath Ledger’s Joker and the less-is-more approach that made him feel like a force of nature, rather than anything human at all. Instead, the excellent sense of dread and foreboding is dispensed with surprisingly early on and I felt myself wishing more had been left to the imagination than explained outright. Such is one of the qualities of noir, it’s a world that should have more shadows than truths but, fortunately, this doesn’t overwhelm the experience of the show as a whole. Missteps aside, Jessica Jones is an absolutely solid addition to Netflix catalogue and more than worthy of its predecessor.
Krysten Ritter is no longer Jane from Breaking Bad. I thought I’d have a hard time separating her from that role but she is a more than capable lead in an unusual story about a jaded, hard drinking private investigator who happens to have a slight case of superpowers. These powers, as they should, take a backseat to the real drama taking place and are almost completely unnecessary to the plot with rare exception and Ritter does an excellent job of bringing Jones to life without them defining her. It’s got to be difficult to walk the line with a character that needs to be an asshole and likeable at the same time and it’s a job well accomplished. Her interactions with Mike Colter are a piece of perfect casting, there are real sparks here although it’s not hard to figure out why. Holy Frijoles, this is one damn good looking man. I mean, it’s frankly a little off-putting and unfair, no one should have genetics like this, otherwise what hope is there for the rest of us. Rounding out the principles is the Tenth Doctor himself and it goes without saying that he makes for a spectacular villain, especially one as horrifying as the sociopathic mind controller, Kilgrave. That being said, I’ll let his performance speak for itself.
This guy makes me feel like I have ovaries.
The supporting cast is where Jessica Jones founders, but not for lack of effort. It’s a unique set of characters but none of them are really very interesting or clearly defined. Primarily, Carrie Anne Moss is a sort of tough as nails litigator going through a divorce (from Deadwood alum Robin Weigert, yaaaay, Calamity Jane) and it’s never really clear how we’re supposed to feel about her. She’s at once serpentine and stoic but completely uninteresting and the narrative keeps returning to her, again and again, often at the expense of pace. Jessica’s neighbors also share some of the screen time and, again, they tend to be a drag on the momentum, particularly the bizarre and wholly unlikeable twins that live upstairs. Comic relief? Innocent bystanders? Average people for the audience to project on? Nope, nope, and completely nope. But they do play their part and that’s not nothing. Oh and Jessica has a best friend who is blonde. Alice? Tracy…tra….TRISH. She’s got a best friend and adoptive sister named Trish and that’s good. Good for her.
But the place where Jessica Jones excels is in the chess match between our unwilling heroine and The Purple Man. The primary drive of the plot revolves around these two damaged superpowered souls stalking each other through the burroughs of New York. The show is at its most addicting and compelling when the two of them are just out of view of one another, one step ahead or behind, scrambling to maintain the upper hand. Speak of dark and mature, holy hell this has got be the darkest manifestation in the Marvel Universe so far. Where Daredevil was violent and stripped down, Jones is borderline horror in its use of mind control as a plot device. It’s striking to find yourself drawn into Tennant’s naturally charming delivery only to hear him give sincerely disturbing commands to strangers without a moment’s hesitation. Again, I’ll let the experience with the character speak for itself.
If I seem overly critical of Jessica Jones my reasons are two-fold. I was absolutely blown away by Daredevil and the approach that it took to a superhero that I was only peripherally aware of; it expands on the source material so well that it effectively stands entirely on its own. In particular, although it is very good, Jones doesn’t have that hallway fight scene. That jaw dropping revelatory moment that sets it apart from what Marvel has done before, so my expectations were pretty high to begin with. Second, I have a high standard for noir, it might be my favorite genre of fiction. I especially love when it’s reinterpreted in different ways, set in high school (Brick) or the supernatural (Constantine, here’s an excellent article explaining how well this other comic book adaptation fits the mold) and this doesn’t just come from the one time I saw The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown or Miller’s Crossing (a dozen times). It also comes from a love of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, and Walter Moseley and everything in between. Jones succeeds at creating the atmosphere and the nuances of detective noir but it falls short of anything other than ‘good’. Traditionally, these stories unravel slowly to reveal deeper and deeper levels of conspiracy and corruption and the broken, often unwilling protagonist is simply a victim of circumstance or fate trying to fix one small corner of the world, however futile the gesture. And I can’t imagine a better setting for an intelligent, sadistic puppet master with the power to control minds; it seems a perfect villainous match. Unfortunately, Melissa Rosenberg, the creator and showrunner, shifts gears too often for this potential to really develop. It feels like they were trying too hard to emulate the Kingpin arc in DD, the attempt to humanize Kilgrave feels muddled and undermines the real revulsion the character deserves. The result is a good superhero show with elements of boilerplate detective novels, rather than good noir and this mostly makes sense. Roger Ebert once said that the superhero genre and noir are, at their most basic, incompatible, because the latter precludes the idea of there being any heroes at all.
All that criticism aside there are a few very good things to take away from Jessica Jones. There is a sexually confident, truly cynical, hard drinking unique new superhero in the greater Marvel Universe who dresses like an adult (well, adult college student) and can run with the best of them. The feminist in me is doing the respectful nod of appreciation. Luke Cage is coming and, much like the Wu-Tang Clan, he’s not something to fuck with. I can’t wait to see where they take…well, the first major black character to have his own show/movie, Mr. Black Panther, you are dragging ass (runs away in fear). So there you go, Diversity Points. Further than that, I neglected to mention that Carrie Anne Moss’ character, originally male in the comics, has been changed to a homosexual woman since it really has no bearing on the plot. Because of course it doesn’t, a divorce is a divorce. So adding all that progressive karma up, Jones is something truly special that succeeds in, again, elevating the genre and in hindsight I might regret finishing it so quickly. As heroes go, Jessica might be the most relatable yet. Reticent. Damaged. And all too aware of how futile it all seems. Well. Is. Which is why I find the genre so romantic. Because in noir and more often in the real world, the cavalry isn’t coming and the bad guys don’t play by the rules. But you fight on anyway. Right after this drink.