Jessica Jones sets a high bar for Marvel superheroines
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Now that you’ve had a chance to get through thirteen episodes of Jessica Jones on Netflix, let’s talk about this marvelous show (no pun intended). Krysten Ritter stars as Jessica, a one-time superhero who, when we first meet her, has been deeply traumatized. She’s not hiding her powers but she’s no longer trying to lead the hero life, either, and she’s got obvious PTSD symptoms as well as an alcohol problem. Jessica Jones isn’t about monsters or aliens or evil robots—Jessica has super strength and can kinda-sorta fly, but she is in no way equipped to fight invading armies. So her problems are, by necessity, much more human. In fact, her problem is one human: Kilgrave. We don’t see Kilgrave until the third episode, but his presence looms large from the beginning. Played by David Tennant (Dr. Who), Kilgrave is a nattily dressed psychopath who has the ability to make people do whatever he says. He’s the most terrifying, evil villain in the MCU, who devastates everyone he comes into contact with.
Jessica Jones is a rape recovery allegory that deals with the long-term fallout of rape. What happened to Jessica ripples outward in her life and affects everyone around her, and the show examines the long-term effect of intimate violence in a community. And it happens to men, too—Kilgrave has male victims. Though they are not physically raped like Jessica, Kilgrave’s mind control is another form of violation, and his male victims react the same way, with shame and anger. I wish they had gone all-in on having a male rape survivor, simply to make the point completely explicit, but the allegory stands—intimate violence can happen to anyone.
But the show emphasizes healing as much as it does the initial violation and its ripple effect. Hope (Erin Moriarty), the college student Kilgrave uses to get his hooks back into Jessica, is pregnant due to her rape, and she wants an abortion. “Every second it’s there I get raped again,” she says, and it’s blunt and painful. Jessica and Jerri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), the lawyer she works with, do not hesitate to aid Hope’s request. She has made a choice, and the characters, and show, are supportive of that choice. Recovery is on the survivor’s terms, and no one else’s.
Likewise, we see Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), Jessica’s adoptive sister, supporting Jessica through her recovery, even if it means respecting the distance Jessica puts between them. And Trish is a survivor herself. A former child star, we see the abusive relationship she has with her stage mother, and how insidious that kind of relationship can be, and how hard it is to break that cycle. And she’s also got to deal with that roided-up Captain America wanna-be, Will Simpson.
The real villain of Jessica Jones is male entitlement, embodied by Kilgrave, a man who is literally incapable of understanding consent. Even in the flashback of pre-Kilgrave Jessica, we see her and Trish deal with a bar bro who interrupts their night out to hit on them, because if a woman is in a bar, yes, she must exclusively be there to gain male attention. And Kilgrave is always demanding that Jessica smile, going so far as to force her to text him a daily smiling photograph or else he’ll kill everyone she knows. Kilgrave has mind control, but he’s definable by real-world terms—he’s a Nice Guy creep, a stalker, a predator, a serial rapist. What makes him evil is not his power, it’s his entitlement. Kilgrave is terrifying because he’s REAL.
The counterpoint to Kilgrave is the other man in Jessica’s life, Luke Cage (Mike Colter). Luke has his own set of superpowers (impervious skin), and they have wall-banging super-sex and are generally very hot together. Luke is kind and supportive, But Jessica is haunted by what’s happened to her, and she’s complicit in Luke’s wife’s death, so it’s complicated, to say the least. These episodes are about Jessica’s recovery, which is a road she’s still traversing, but Luke shows her she is capable of forging relationships, even if she’s still got a ways to go before she’s really ready for him—and he for her. Luke’s own series will premiere in April, and hopefully we’ll see more of them together in it.
Then there’s Will Simpson, who is not nearly as scary as Kilgrave, but he represents the same kind of toxic masculinity. Himself a survivor of Kilgrave’s manipulation, he tried to kill Trish under Kilgrave’s command, but repentant, he begins a relationship with her. At first it’s promising. He’s a veteran and a cop and seems like a Boy Scout, and he’s enthusiastic about going down on Trish—it’s great to see a scene of explicit female pleasure in a comic book adaption, which is such a sausage fest normally—but Simpson’s got a temper, and he really just wants these females to get out of his way. Even without Kilgrave’s influence, he’s a classic abuser. And his vitamin regimen is not helping. (He’ll probably become the villain Nuke, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s styled to look like a low-rent Steve Rogers.)
And we’re still not really getting into the lesbian affair/divorce drama, IGH, Trish’s potential as Hellcat, Malcolm, or Luke’s wife. But overall Jessica Jones is a thematically satisfying, grown up take on superheroes. This is the most R-rated thing we’ve seen from Marvel, and it’s better for being able to explore Jessica’s sexuality and alcoholism, especially as those things play into elements of her recovery. But what really makes the show great is how it presents male entitlement as the villain that needs defeating.
Attached - Krysten Ritter arriving in Brazil last week.