Skip to main content

Since season 1, Jessica Jones has struggled to mix horror with superheroes

Since season 1, Jessica Jones has struggled to mix horror with superheroes

/

The genres blend well, but after a ferocious kickoff season, the series stopped combining them effectively

Share this story

Significant spoilers ahead for season 1 of Jessica Jones.

The horror and superhero genres approach the world from opposite directions. Horror is meant to make the audience feel disempowered and terrorized. Superhero stories, by contrast, make viewers feel empowered and triumphant. Both genres often set out to give the audience the same thing — a big, satisfying burst of catharsis — but in different ways, and for different reasons.

But at the same time, the genres draw liberally from each other. To heighten the empowerment sensation, the superhero genre often uses horror elements. In the recent film Shazam!, the hero is menaced by oozing, hulking nightmare monsters, and his victory is sweeter because he’s initially terrified by what he has to overcome. Horror, on the other end, often includes a final victorious, empowering reversal. An aging Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in 2018’s Halloween remake survives a seemingly fatal fall and comes back to brutalize the villain, Michael Myers. She might as well be the Punisher, taking a brutal beating and coming back for more. Empowerment and disempowerment in these stories aren’t opposites: they’re complements. The superhero and horror genres fit into each other, creating a single monstrous or heroic amalgam.

Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s Jessica Jones television series has been particularly fascinated with the line between superheroes and horror. The series’ title character (played by Krysten Ritter) is nominally a superhero. She has super strength and can make super-leaps. But she isn’t that strong; she can bust locks, not tear apart buildings. It’s difficult for villains to convincingly threaten Superman — that requires heavy special effects intervention, or obvious plot fixes like Kryptonite. But threatening Jessica is easy: she isn’t much harder to damage than a regular person. In the show’s most recent season, she’s wounded and has to have her spleen surgically removed, which has to be a first in a superhero story. Jessica is an empowered person always teetering on the edge of disempowerment.

Jessica Jones’ initial season brilliantly exploited the tension between horror tropes and superhero stories by pitting her against a terrifyingly powerful antagonist. Kilgrave (David Tennant) can control minds — whatever he says, people do. Jessica was under his influence for years, but eventually developed an immunity to his power. But everyone around her is susceptible. Kilgrave can manipulate Jessica’s friends and lovers, her neighbors, the police, even random bystanders in the streets.  

Jessica Jones’ first season is essentially an extended slasher movie. The virtually omnipotent Kilgrave stalks Jessica through 13 episodes, orchestrating elaborate nightmare scenarios and murdering whenever the whim strikes him. Around Jessica, daughters smile while they kill their parents, and boyfriends set themselves on fire. The show is even more viscerally disturbing than most horror films because the sense of disempowerment is so absolute. As in horror films like The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, that sense of futility is explicitly linked to sexual violence. Kilgrave has raped Jessica before, and the threat that he will do so again hangs over the series. Like an abusive spouse or parent, Kilgrave controls the entire world. There’s no way out.

Photo: Netflix

And that makes Jessica’s triumph all the more satisfying and empowering. Like Ripley in Alien, or Laurie in Halloween, or many other Final Girls before her, Jessica snatches victory from defeat, facing the undefeatable and becoming undefeatable herself. Her final confrontation with Kilgrave is a perfect encapsulation of the empowerment / disempowerment dynamic which links horror and superhero narratives. She seems to be completely defeated, losing her self and soul. The threat of further sexualized violence is obvious. And then she suddenly has the power, and her enemy doesn’t. The series has repeatedly questioned whether it’s all right for heroes to kill villains, but there’s no question that Jessica has to kill Kilgrave. She’s a superhero, but he’s put her in a slasher story.

After Jessica Jones’ brilliant first season — easily the best single season of any of Netflix’s Marvel shows — showrunner Melissa Rosenberg has struggled with ways of balancing its horror and superhero leanings. The second season used a Frankenstein-type story, with Jessica’s mother Alisa (Janet McTeer) gaining super strength much greater than Jessica’s after undergoing medical experiments. Those same experiments leave Alisa unable to control her anger. The story unfolds as a kind of tragic horror melodrama (again, Frankenstein-like), with Jessica powerless to prevent her mother from destroying herself and others.

Season 3 has shifted back toward the slasher storyline of the series’ beginning. The main villain is a Hannibal Lecter-like super-smart serial killer named Salinger (Jeremy Bobb). He doesn’t vastly outmatch Jessica as Kilgrave did, so the horror aspects don’t come through as clearly. Rather than running for her life, Jessica spends most of her time trying to figure out how to get evidence for the police. Justice by the book is sometimes a concern of superhero shows, but it’s not something slashers generally worry about much.

Photo: Netflix

Still, as Samantha Nelson points out in her Verge review of season 3, the genre confusion does raise interesting questions about heroism, and less explicitly, about horror. Salinger constantly sneers at Jessica for “cheating” by getting her superpowers through luck, rather than earning them. But Salinger didn’t work for his brains either. Empowerment isn’t really about fairness in superhero or horror narratives. It’s a rush, not a deserved achievement.

And to heighten that rush, to bring home the sense of power, someone else needs to be disempowered. Both horror and superhero stories require unfairness and imbalance. In superhero stories and horror stories alike, there are strong people and weak people. The main difference between the genres is which group viewers are supposed to identify with. Salinger’s resentment of Jessica in season 3 echoes the reactionary bitterness of white male entitlement: he’s angry because he’s used to feeling powerful, and he finds it unfair that someone else — a woman he’d otherwise feel superior to — has more power than him, without “earning” it in a way he approves of. But he’s also angry because he’s a horror villain who’s stumbled into a superhero story. He sees himself as in control, until the darn superheroes get in the way.

Jessica Jones, for her part, often feels like a superhero who’s wandered into a horror narrative. She tries to fight for truth and justice, but like most people’s powers, hers are limited. She’s cynical, bad-tempered, and often drunk because she’s trying to be a hero in a world that has its teeth more than half-sunk into a different genre. It’s appropriate that the show has been the last Marvel Netflix series to be canceled. Jessica is a superhero familiar enough with horror to know that sometimes empowerment is just being the final girl standing.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Two hours ago Striking out

E
External Link
Emma RothTwo hours ago
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.


A
Youtube
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.


A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


A
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.


A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
Image: Netflix
J
Twitter
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.


A
External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.


A
External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.