Jessica Jones Is Our First Real Super-Antihero

And Netflix’s new series about her is excellent.

Carrie-Anne Moss and Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones.
Krysten Ritter, right, and Carrie-Anne Moss in Jessica Jones.

Photo by Myles Aronowitz/Netflix

The first thing that jumps out about Jessica Jones, the new Netflix series about a “gifted” private investigator running both from and toward her haunted past, is how startlingly different it is than anything Marvel Studios has done to this point. It’s dark, funny, edgy, spooky, and through the first seven episodes, there’s barely a whiff of capes or costumes. The second thing that jumps out is that it’s really, really good.

At its most fundamental level, Jessica Jones is a detective noir with a fistful of twists. For starters, this detective is strong enough to lift cars and can even fake her hand at flying  (“more like jumping, then falling,” as she describes it). Jessica Jones also feels like a procedural in which the central mystery is the detective herself: Jones’ backstory is revealed piecemeal, in flashbacks and cryptic dialog. Through seven episodes we still don’t know the source of her powers, outside that it had something to do with an “accident.” Lastly, the detective in question is a woman, an interesting wrinkle to throw into the noir obsession with the femme fatale. Is this role filled by her mysterious paramour Luke Cage (Mike Colter), blessed with his own gifts of super strength and seeming indestructibility, thus continuing the gender inversion? Or is Jessica Jones’ femme fatale actually Jessica Jones herself?

Jessica Jones will likely be described as a “feminist superhero” story, which is probably true in a broad sense. But it’s also Marvel’s first real superhero antihero story, a show about a cloudy and damaged soul who often seems to wish her “gifts” had come with a return receipt. The title character is played Krysten Ritter, who turns in a terrific performance as Jones, always sullen and always stressed, her character swinging between swaggering arrogance and jittery vulnerability. In lighter moments the show recalls the underrated 2008 film Hancock, in which Will Smith plays a derelict superhero looking to rehab his image. Jessica Jones is Hancock without the rehab: Among other things, she drinks as though that accident gave her an iron liver.

Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones has a relatively modest-size cast of characters: Aside from Jessica and Luke Cage, there’s Jessica’s best friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), a former child star turned talk-show host (comic readers familiar with the history of this character will enjoy a number of sly meta-Marvel jokes), and Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeryn Hogarth, a powerful and shady lawyer.  The show’s main villain is a terrifying man known only as Kilgrave (David Tennant), who’s obsessively hunting Jones. Kilgrave possesses the ability to control the mind and actions of anyone he comes into contact with; Jones was once under Kilgrave’s thrall and did terrible things but has since escaped, if incompletely. One of the show’s central tensions is Jones’ competing desires to confront and flee her tormentor, a tension that boils down to the obligation to help others versus the right to mind one’s own business. With great power comes great responsibility, as someone once said, but Jessica Jones is not the responsible type.

Jessica Jones will likely be widely discussed for its treatment of sex, which it addresses with unprecedented frankness for a Marvel property. The first episode features a torrid sex scene between Jones and Cage that’s shockingly detailed, not in terms of graphic nudity but rather in its depiction of fumbling desire and angsty energy and the sheer mechanics of superheroes having sex. Later there’s an amusing scene of a thwarted (female) orgasm; characters crack jokes about female superhero costumes and “camel toe.” Perhaps most strikingly, there’s a harrowing abortion-related plotline that enters around Episode 6 and is dealt with in surprisingly forthright terms. It’s nearly impossible to imagine any of these sorts of things in a Marvel movie.  

Jessica Jones feels more genuinely adult than anything Marvel has produced to date, for all these reasons and more. The show is obsessed with failure: A considerable amount of Jessica Jones is devoted to plans going awry, to things not working out, to people disappointing themselves and others. There’s something compelling and unexpectedly invigorating about this, and it works well with the show’s inclinations toward the procedural. But these explorations of failure are also uniquely enabled by the format—you have more time for this sort of thing in a 13-hour series than a two-hour film (if only they were only two hours).

Like everything else it owns, Marvel has big plans for Jessica Jones, and for Jessica Jones. The studio has already announced plans for a future Defenders Netflix series that will team up Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, and the still un-introduced Iron Fist, and Cage himself will get his own series sometime in the first part of next year. This makes the introduction of his character in Jessica Jones both necessary and somewhat awkward—the fact that he’s going to have his own show means his character can only be developed so much. He’s mysterious but in a way that feels less alluring than simply confusing; he disappears for entire episodes at a time, then reappears seemingly arbitrarily. One of the problems of the Marvel machine in recent years has been the exigencies of franchise management getting in the way of pesky details like character and narrative, and as Netflix gets closer to the Defenders team-up, it’s an open question as to whether this will get better, or worse.

Jessica Jones unfortunately also continues Marvel’s recent tendency to splash around in the shallow end of social commentary via heavy-handed allegories that link “the incident”—the climactic sequence of the first Avengers film when giant space lizards laid waste to Manhattan while superheroes exchanged one-liners—to a real-world terrorist attack. I have absolutely no issue with superhero fictions taking on serious issues provided they do so seriously, but there’s no evidence so far that Marvel’s corporate overlords are capable of this. In the meantime, wielding mass murder and PTSD as cheap plot devices or smirking red herrings is at best idiotic, at worst reprehensibly glib.

They should knock this off, and particularly here, because much of the time Jessica Jones feels pretty close to Marvel at its best, or at least whatever “Marvel” and “best” means in 2015. The character of Jessica Jones is herself a fairly new addition to the Marvel universe, first appearing in 2001, a year after Bryan Singer’s X-Men and a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the two films most responsible for kicking off the Marvel movie onslaught. In a sense she was born on a cusp, between eras of what the company had been and what it would become, and now she’s been reborn on a new one, a super-antihero in the still-experimental medium of binge-watch television. It’s a precarious but exciting situation: after all, with great irresponsibility comes great possibility.