Review: Jessica Jones is the complex (super) heroine we’ve been waiting for

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has never exactly shied away from darker themes, but for the most part it’s in the business of wonder and adventure. The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy are both essentially sunny visions of the same fantasy; put a group of special people together, and they’ll do amazing things. Netflix’s Daredevil flipped that script, setting the action in Marvel’s underbelly and exposing the fantasy for a lie. Sometimes our greatest heroes fail, and it’s regular people who must live with the consequences. It’s what helped make the show one of Marvel’s finest efforts across TV and film when it launched.

Jessica Jones, the comics company’s second Netflix series, returns to Daredevil’s dark corner of the Marvel Universe, and things only get bleaker. In a modern twist on film noir, the series follows its title character as she tries to solve a case while dealing with her terrible past. And it’s excellent, just as brutal and uncompromising as its predecessor. But by placing its stellar female cast in this murky underworld and letting them shine in a way Marvel has never done before, it stands head and shoulders above the company’s other marquee properties to become one of the best new shows out this year. Daredevil was great by Marvel standards. Jessica Jones is just great.

Jessica Jones stars Krysten Ritter as the titular Jessica Jones, a failed superhero-turned-private-eye working in New York City. Based on the Alias comic series by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, the show casts Jessica as the hardboiled gumshoe — a role usually filled by classic tough guys like Sam Spade. Sticking true to noir canon, Jones relies on narration and a jazzy score to set the tone, both of which can come across as a little too on the nose at times. But the same can’t be said for Ritter, who is brilliant in the role, playing a hard-drinking, damaged cynic who only happens to have super strength. She’s armed with a wry wit and real disdain for people’s bullshit, but it’s also clear that she helps others for just a little more than paying rent. Ritter conveys Jessica’s complexity with grace, letting the character’s pain simmer just under the surface as she juggles trying to protect those around her with coping with past trauma.

Trauma is a central theme for the series, and every character — even the terrible ones — has to contend with it. And as much as the series is about Jessica herself, it’s also about the people around her, all mostly just trying to get by in a world suddenly filled with superpowered madmen. There’s Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), Jessica best friend and confidante who’s seen her at her worst. There’s Jeri Horgath (Carrie-Anne Moss), the shark of a lawyer who gives Jessica cases to work. And there’s Luke Cage (Mike Holter), a bartender with secrets of his own. Each of these characters is given a chance to shine in unique ways, and Jessica’s relationships with them are all layered and complex. The show is paced deliberately, even slowly, teasing out each of their backstories in a way that connects organically back to Jessica, deepening the investment in each character with every reveal.

Jessica Jones still

And then there’s Kilgrave, played by Doctor Who’s own David Tennant. Kilgrave figures prominently in Jessica’s past, and, naturally, is less a noir villain and more the kind of supervillain made for graphic novels. Kilgrave — otherwise known as the Purple Man in the comics — casts a pall over the entire series, pulling the strings that set the story in motion. He’s a singular kind of depraved evil, but Tennant plays him with such glee that he’s utterly compelling. Save for Loki and the Kingpin, Marvel’s onscreen villains have a poor track record when it comes to being memorable. Even though he’s a distinctly street-level character, Kilgrave is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best threat yet, and watching him work is both horrifying and transfixing.

Jessica Jones explores how women can be masters of their fate

But the show’s greatest triumph is in exploring how women can be powerful, multi-faceted masters of their fate. Jessica Jones, while nowhere near as bloody as Daredevil, is psychologically brutal, and women largely bear the brunt of that violence. The series delves deeply into abuse, sexual assault, and rape from the outset. But no matter what trauma they experience, the women of Jessica Jones are all consistently portrayed as either having control of their lives or working hard to regain it. No Marvel Studios property — not even Agent Carter — has ever done that so effectively, and after months of seeing a character like Black Widow be sidelined by her male counterparts, this is a breath of fresh air.

2015 is officially a banner year for female superheroes. Supergirl was a success because it embraced the fun that comes with being a comic book superhero. Jessica Jones succeeds because it embraces pain as something women triumph over, without ever needing rescue. It’s about time this mindset made it to the big screen — your move, Wonder Woman.