Saturday, January 2, 2016

"Jessica Jones" Delivers a Punch

The biggest influences on "Jessica Jones" are not from the Marvel universe.  Jessica may have her origins in a Marvel Comics title, but her television show is the offspring of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Veronica Mars," and maybe just a bit of "Orphan Black."  Our heroine is a gifted, resourceful young woman who finds herself up against the forces of darkness, and goes through considerable personal strife in reconciling with her inevitable status as a do-gooder.  However, she has a harder time of it than most.

Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is introduced as a private investigator operating out of Hell's Kitchen, who has super strength and can almost fly.  She's constantly drinking, has a terrible attitude, and hates herself.  Her allies are few, but include an attorney who sends her work, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), a junkie next door neighbor, Malcolm (Eka Darville), and her foster sister Trisha (Rachael Taylor), a successful radio talk show host who refuses to give up on Jessica.  There's also her new love interest, a bar owner named Luke Cage (Mike Colter) with unbreakable skin.  Most of Jessica's problems stem from her past encounters with a villain named Kilgrave (David Tennant), who can control minds, and forced Jessica to do terrible things under his influence.  Kilgrave's inevitable return forces Jessica to get her priorities in order, and prepare for battle.

I've complained before about how some of the recent Marvel Universe films aren't as kid-friendly as the earlier ones, despite being aimed at a younger audience.  I'm perfectly fine with Jessica Jones cursing up a storm, multiple sex scenes, and a constant stream of teeth-clenching, gut-churning material involving Kilgrave, because the series emphatically makes clear that it's for adults.  The series format allows for a much more nuanced, carefully considered portrayal of a more complicated set of characters, and their more complicated problems.  Of course, this is still a genre show, so expect the usual outsized melodrama, wild plot twists, and pontifications on the nature of good and evil.  Occasionally it gets a little carried away displaying how dark and twisted it gets to be, but the show is never too gratuitous.  I also found it unusually sensitive in the way that it deals with violence against women, exploring myriad types of abuses through a fantasy lens, without ever feeling exploitative.  Kilgrave is the ultimate nightmare ex-boyfriend/stalker who likes playing mind games and knows too many secrets.

I really like the cast in this.  Krysten Ritter is appropriately sour, but still vulnerable and sympathetic.  She's not easy to root for at first, though, so I'm glad that the series also introduced Mike Colter's excellent Luke Cage here, who will be getting his own Netflix series next.  And then there's David Tennant as Kilgrave, who is by far the most terrifying and effective villain that the Marvel Universe has served up yet.  I was a little worried at first that the marketing was leaning so heavily on Tennant's involvement to sell "Jessica Jones," but rest assured that he doesn't overshadow our heroes.  I also came away from the series impressed with just about every member of the ensemble - Darville, Taylor, Moss, and Wil Traval, who plays a police officer caught up in Kilgrave's schemes.

I'd put the first half of "Jessica Jones" up against anything else in the Marvel Universe, or any television series that premiered this year, even.  However, the second half fell prey to some bad writing and wonky plotting, that seemed to be aimed at stretching out the content to fill thirteen episodes, but just ended up killing a lot of the momentum.  "Jessica Jones" probably would have been better as a ten episode series, or even less than that.  However, I like the way that it builds its characters and their relationships, clueing us in to what happened in the past bit by bit.  I like the way it keeps its connection to the rest of the Marvel Universe to a minimum, and that it took risks that it didn't need to take - the lesbian divorce subplot, for example.

"Jessica Jones" could have been done better, probably, but for fans of comics who want something more adult, that reflect the strides that the medium has made in the past few decades, it's a big step in the right direction.   It's disappointing that the film series is never going to have a place for a hero like Jessica, but it's heartening to find that she fits right with all the other anti-heroes and kickass ladies on television.


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