Superhero stories began as adolescent male power fantasies, where the meekest among us were revealed to have hidden strength that they could use to solve any problem they wanted. Over time, the genre has layered complications on top of that – the angst of Spider-Man, the oppressed minority metaphors of the X-Men – but more often than not, these stories present superherodom as the best possible life.
Not “Jessica Jones,” though. Her story isn't a power fantasy, but a nightmare. It's a superhero saga as rape survivor tale, where it doesn't matter how strong you are – or even that you can fly like Superman himself – because there will always be someone who can find a way to hurt you and make you feel like less than nothing.
The series, which debuts Friday on Netflix (I've seen the first seven episodes), is based on “Alias,” a 2001 comic(*) by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, about Jessica, whose brief and unremarkable career as a costumed heroine ended disastrously after she crossed paths with Zebediah Kilgrave (aka the Purple Man), a sociopath with the power to make anyone do anything he tells them to. Broken and full of self-loathing, she works as a low-rent investigator in Hell's Kitchen. Her powers are used only to pay the bills (super strength comes in handy when you need to get through a locked door) rather than to serve some higher heroic calling – until Kilgrave comes back into her life and she realizes the enormous threat he poses to everyone she cares about.
(*) No relation to the Jennifer Garner TV series that debuted around the same time.
“Jessica Jones” showrunner Melissa Rosenberg has taken Bendis and Gaydos' hard-boiled private eye tale and made it even harder. It's by far the darkest and most adult of any of the current wave of comic book TV shows (Jessica's swearing alone would make Agent Coulson blush), and instantly one of the best, even if it suffers at times from tunnel vision.
Jessica's played by Krysten Ritter, an actress with elongated features and a wry delivery that the business has largely tried to apply to comedy. (She was the title character of “Don't Trust the (Barleycorn) in Apt. 23.”) But when she's played dramatic roles – say, as Jesse Pinkman's doomed girlfriend Jane on “Breaking Bad” – her sarcastic armor often reveals a vulnerable and damaged individual underneath, which makes her a perfect choice for the role of a woman convinced she'll break everything she touches.
“I don't get asked on a lot of second dates,” she admits while flirting with local bar owner Luke Cage (Mike Colter, aka drug kingpin Lemond Bishop from “The Good Wife”), who has secrets – and powers – of his own(**).
(**) “Jessica Jones” is the second of five planned Marvel series for Netflix (“Daredevil” was the first), with upcoming solo series about Cage and martial artist hero Iron Fist coming soon, followed by a “Defenders” series featuring all four street-level heroes.
Jessica was a relatively late addition to the Marvel canon – as well as the best character the company has introduced this century – and the comics got to have fun plopping her in the middle of a densely-populated superhero universe. In early adventures, she helps out Captain America and J. Jonah Jameson, and for a while dates Ant-Man. (It's also revealed in flashbacks that she went to the same high school as Peter Parker, and got her own powers around the same time, just to drive home the point that with great power comes not only great responsibility, but the ability to screw things up on a massive scale.) All those characters are obviously off-limits for the TV show, and Rosenberg has to mix-and-match with some lesser-known figures – Jessica's best friend here is Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), who in the '40s and '50s (going by Patsy Walker) was the star of Marvel's answer to Archie Comics, and later became a superhero herself, while Carrie-Anne Moss plays a gender-flipped version of Iron Fist's lawyer Jeryn Hogarth, who throws Jessica occasional work – while also keeping Jessica out of spandex.
For that matter, Kilgrave is without the purple skin that's his creepy trademark in the comics, but David Tennant plays him with such casual menace that no other markers are necessary. He is a monster with the ability to get whatever he wants, from whoever he wants, like it's his birthright, and the scenes where Jessica learns the stories of fellow Kilgrave victims after the fact are as chilling as the ones where we watch his power in action.
Tennant is also an innately watchable actor, which the role and “Jessica Jones” both need, because the series is focused almost entirely on the Kilgrave story. Like an increasing number of streaming series, it's less a collection of individual but linked episodes than a really long movie. While concentrating on Kilgrave makes sense both narratively (he's a great villain, who provides an instant hook for the series) and thematically (Jessica once had her entire life taken over by this guy, and now fears he's in the process of doing it again), it gets wearying at times, even with occasional breaks for subplots about Jessica hooking up with Luke, Jeryn's complicated love life (Robin Weigert plays her wife), Trish's backstory as a former child star, etc. The comics did a slow build to Kilgrave, first letting us watch Jessica work cases so we could get a sense of her self-destructive behavior – as well as the innate heroism she refuses to admit is still there – before getting at the root cause of it. The TV show heads there very quickly and only makes token attempts at showing Jessica doing her day job.
But Ritter and Tennant are both outstanding, and Colter owns the role of Cage from the moment he appears. The fight scenes aren't on par with “Daredevil,” but nor are they trying to be: the big hits on “Jessica Jones” come less when we're seeing her or Cage flexing their muscles than when we're seeing the emotional toll that men like Kilgrave have taken on them and their loved ones.
Jessica's still hanging around in comics, and was even briefly an Avenger, but she's still among the more obscure properties Marvel has decided to adapt for film or television. Sometimes, though, lesser-known stories have more potential than the ones we know by heart. At the time we meet her in the TV show, Jessica is convinced of her worthlessness, telling Trish, “I was never the hero you wanted me to be.” But she has a lot more to offer than she gives herself credit for, even after what Kilgrave did to her, and “Jessica Jones” draws that out of her in exciting ways.
Power fantasies are fun, but even a seemingly limited genre like superheroism has room to tell other kinds of stories. “Jessica Jones” is unlike anything Marvel or DC has tried in the live-action realm, and it's excellent. Hopefully, it leads to even more risk-taking with the kinds of characters and stories that get taken from page to screen.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org