Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Idiot Boxing: Jessica Jones (2015)

Marvel's Jessica Jones (2015)

Bold and worthy of respect in many ways, if not exactly a masterpiece.

As a devoted geek for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I was greatly anticipating this Netflix-exclusive series. Prior to Jessica Jones, Netflix allowed the creators of Daredevil the freedom to create a series that, while part of MCU canon, could tell a darker superhero story in a more measured, mature fashion. Jessica Jones took this lead and ran with it.

As the trailer indicates, this series delves deeper and darker than anything the MCU has done before. The titular protagonist does possess the superpower of greatly enhanced strength, but she is a mess of a human being. Jones is a private investigator who, true to the PI character type in classic noir tales, drinks hard and has zero tolerance for complications. Once Jones's alcoholism and toughness are established (this takes all of about 2 minutes), the series is given over to how she came to such straits. We gradually learn about a horribly dark period in her life, one which helped shape the overtly apathetic, degraded gumshoe. When the person responsible for this horror, initially known only as "Kilgrave," returns to Jones's life, she is compelled to revisit and attempt to cope with trauma that she has long been trying to drown with booze.

The title character may not look like the typical
superhero, but her low-key approach to flexing
her considerable muscle is a big appeal of the show. 
There is much to Jessica Jones that plays like the procedural crime dramas which have been all the rage on network television for the past decade. While this can be a weakness at times, this show has the ace up its sleeve of having a few super-powered main characters. In the case of the arch villain, this adds the kind of spice that no typical "real world" TV show can emulate. The cat-and-mouse between Jones and Kilgrave is often packed with plot twists and tension which can only happen when the opponents possess supernatural abilities. Interestingly, much like George R. R. Martin's use of magic in his Ice and Fire series, these powers are used deftly and sparingly, only to enhance the more human tale, rather than being the tale itself.

A major element to the series, and the one that has received many of the well-deserved praises, is the gender issue. Jessica Jones can be seen as a metaphor for female empowerment on many levels. Even if a viewer chooses not to read this much into it, the simple fact is that this series features dynamic female characters far more prominently than most TV shows, and definitely far more than anything the MCU has done to date. Yes, there have been female superheroes like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Sif, and a handful of others. However, these have always been relatively minor roles who have played second or third fiddle to male leads like Captain America or Thor. In Jessica Jones, nearly every major player is a woman, some of whom are admirable and heroic, and some of whom are despicably selfish and cunning. In fact, there are only three notable male roles: the villain Kilgrave; and Luke Cage and Will Simpson, who are both removed from the playing field before the ultimate resolution of the story.

Jessica and one of the few male main characters, Luke Cage.
A show that features a variety of female main characters is a
very welcome addition to the MCU. 
Another laudable aspect of this series is something that it avoids - being an "origin" story. The MCU, as with nearly every other superhero movie, has often relied on the origin tale as the go-to formula to launch new movie series. Much to its credit, Jessica Jones eschews this approach. We very quickly see what she can do, but there is virtually no explanation as to how she obtained her prodigious physical strength. In fact, when the character is asked about it, she simply responds, "Accident." That's all we get. Clearly, the show-runners wanted us to focus on issues far more relevant to the character's current situation. Rather than ask us to simply marvel at Jones's physical powers, we are asked to take a hard, thoughtful look at her damaged psyche and how it influences her decisions and actions.

There are certain points in the 13-episode run where the story drags a bit, to the point that I felt the series was probably 2 or 3 episodes longer than it needed to be. Also, some issues are resolved in ways that, while satisfying in terms of basic storytelling, are not terribly imaginative. As a complete work, though, the strengths of the show far outweigh the weaknesses. To date, this is the boldest work that MCU has crafted. My hope now is that they build on this and continue to explore other styles and themes, both in their TV series and in the feature films.