Jessica Jones came out this past weekend, to critical acclaim and ridiculous amounts of binge-watching. There’s a lot to unpack from the show, but one bit that stands out is how distant it is from the larger Marvel universe. Aside from the occasional obscure sight gag or passing reference to The Avengers, you’d be forgiven for not realizing Marvel was involved in the series at all. Setting the show apart from the wider Marvel universe, though, turns out to be an unexpected strength from a company known for tying its movies and shows closely together.
There are practical reasons for this in the case of Jessica Jones: Marvel should be commended for letting Melissa Rosenberg and her team put together what amounts to a 13-episode rumination on the toxicity of emotional abuse in all its forms. Jessica Jones is a gutsy show that goes deep into territory even most prestige cable networks won’t touch. Jessica’s physical strength becomes an ironic metaphor; she can deal with the things she can hit, but lacks the emotional strength she needs to deal with intangible obstacles. It’s also a smart way to have Jessica struggle with some real baggage without seeming passive, and Krysten Ritter sinks her teeth into this opportunity.
Jessica Jones is undeniably a high-water mark for Marvel in both quality and popularity; it should be a staple of Emmy discussion. But the series wouldn’t sit comfortably next to the high-flying heroics of an Avengers sequel or even the relatively lighthearted hijinks of an Ant-Man, to put it mildly. Like Daredevil, which had passing nods to the larger Marvel universe but kept self-contained, being separate allows the show to deal with darker subjects and ideas without feeling out of place or weird.
Perhaps Marvel learned its lesson from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In that show’s first season, Agents attempted to deliver what amounted to an MCU update each week, to the point where a major plot development in Captain America: The Winter Soldier completely changed the course of the series. But since then, the show has taken a different tack, backing further and further away from the movies while embracing its comics roots wholeheartedly. The second season not only revealed the Inhumans, but made them the center of the plot in a bunch of clever ways; once the show found its mix of paranoid espionage thriller and shadowy superhuman conspiracy, it began firing on all cylinders. It’s now delivering the soap opera that defined Marvel’s classic era mixed with thoroughly modern action and superheroics.
Even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s sister show, Agent Carter, is less about the wider Marvel universe even as it serves as a sort of backstory for much of what happens 60 years later, choosing instead to be a feminist neo-pulp. Even when the show rolls out a Russian agent suspiciously much like Black Widow, it doesn’t play up the connection too much; it’s a shared universe, not a tiny one.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is fun on its own terms, of course, but it’s good to see Marvel branching out from what works in its blockbusters. One of the most powerful aspects of superhero comics is its ability to use metaphor to explore everything from emotional struggles to social issues. With the properties and clout it has, Marvel’s in a great position to bring those elements to its filmed entertainment. The more it exercises that, the richer we’ll be as viewers — and right now Marvel’s TV series are where they’re doing that best.