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Review: Jessica Jones is the darkest, most powerful show Marvel has ever made

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones.
Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones.
Myles Aronowitz/Netflix
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

There are spoilers for Jessica Jones in this post.



Jessica Jones seems like the "cool girl" Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn warned us about.

Her hair is as dark as the shadows in her Hell's Kitchen apartment, she has great sex, she swigs brown liquor as if it were from the last bottle on Earth. She's savvy. She's smart. She's a size two. She burps, she kicks ass, she's witty, and she doesn't take shit. She gets things done.

This is, of course, all on purpose — a grand trick that makes the latter half of the season's first episode all the more damning. When Jessica's entire facade comes crashing down, we can see right through her, and all that strength and that don't-give-a-fuck attitude are overturned to reveal her blazing vulnerability. That point of realization is when the true story of Jessica Jones begins.

This is a darker show than we're used to seeing from Marvel

(Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)

(Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)

Jessica Jones, a comic book superheroine created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos in 2001, is the second of four live-action Marvel superhero shows scheduled to debut on Netflix. And like Daredevil, the first Marvel-Netflix collaboration released earlier this year, Jessica Jones is a mordant show, delving into bloodier, more violent themes than we're used to seeing from Marvel's movies.

Kryten Ritter, all anime eyes and squid ink hair, plays the title character, a troubled private investigator who has the gifts of super strength, durability, and quasi-flight. She's gifted at solving mysteries in her sinful city — a place that, despite the presence of good guys like the Avengers, grows more soulless by the day. Cheaters, murders, addicts — none of them make Jones flinch.

But the show is darker on a more frightening, personal level.

Marvel movies and, to an extent, Daredevil deal with violence on a wide scale: alien invasions (The Avengers), maniacs with Infinity Stones (Guardians of the Galaxy), artificial intelligence trying to wipe out humanity (Avengers: Age of Ultron), and crime kingpins looking to stifle the city (Daredevil). While those are harrowing situations, the humans caught in the conflict are just collateral damage. There is nothing private about the violence.

Jessica Jones, on the other hand, explores the intimacy of abuse. The more personal the show gets as it delves into the abuse, recovery, trauma, and guilt, the harder it is to watch. Amid all this blood, death, and trauma (and there is plenty of all three), the most terrifying thing is watching someone endure it all and go on living. Survival isn't natural. It's work. Hard work.

Jones is a solid, promising show, perhaps the most artistically and thematically ambitious project Marvel has ever embarked upon. There are moments where it's downright sublime.

But it is not a pleasurable experience — not that it ever wanted to be.

Krysten Ritter is bloody magical

Jessica Jones is a great superhero show. Netflix

(Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)

Comic book purists are fickle. They tend to throw explosive, sometimes racist tantrums when the characters in film and TV adaptations don't match what they've read. So it was a bit surprising that when Krysten Ritter was cast in the title role of Jessica Jones, the news was met with a quiet approval. But Ritter had given fans plenty to believe in.

The last few projects in Ritter's career seem like a slow-boil audition for Jessica Jones. As Chloe on Don't Trust the B— in Apartment 23, she proved she could flit her eyelashes and sharpen into sarcasm on a dime. And her work as the wounded, ill-fated Jane on Breaking Bad showed she could play brittle and haunted by addiction. Jessica Jones boasts all of the above qualities.

But these flashes don't so much as hint at the thrill of watching Ritter unfurl her leathery wings and tap into the emotional role of Jessica. The first time we see her, she's thrown a man — a man who has been devastated to learn that his wife is cheating on him — through her office door window. "And then there's the matter of your bill," she says coldly.

Even before flashbacks to Jessica's past trauma, Ritter has shown just how damaged by it the hero has been. She flashes a brittleness when talking to two concerned parents looking for their missing girl; there's a fragility when she sees an advertisement for Trish Walker (more on her in a bit) plastered on a bus. Her frigidness, her sardonic eye rolls, her tough talk — all are moments where she isn't afraid, little pockets of time where she's convinced herself that she's more than a victim.

Ritter has to do the heavy lifting here. Jessica carries most of the show's scenes, and Ritter is tasked with playing a character who is damaged, riddled with emotional scar tissue, but also capable of hope. She turns in a beguiling performance, savvy, tough, and stubborn, and she allows a few glimpses of damage to break through when needed. She's nothing short of magical.

Jessica Jones's villain is the most sinister Marvel villain we've seen

(Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)

(Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)

I'm sure some fans will be tempted to woobify, or create a romantic fandom for David Tennant's Kilgrave. The villain is cut from the pale, charming anglomania of the moment. He's impossibly stylish, he's relatively good-looking, he wasn't hugged enough as child, and he just wants to be loved. Those are all qualities modern fandom often loves.

But romanticizing this man would be a sick mistake.

Underneath the nouveau elegance of his haberdashery and buttery accent, Kilgrave is the most heinous villain we've seen from Marvel. He has the power to control the minds of others, from telling them when they're allowed to speak to pushing them to commit suicide.

His mind control makes for some darkly humorous physical comedy, but Tennant's true gift is in capturing the man's sinister streak while offering the tiniest possible sliver of sympathy — he can't see how psychotic he is because he was experimented on when he was a child. But he also can't see the difference between love and rape.

He is obsessed with Jones because she's the one thing he possessed once but can't control anymore. And he's determined to get her back, which he attempts to do by isolating her and hurting the few allies she has. He can hurt her so deeply because he knows her so well. He understands what triggers her.

His violence is intimate and personal, aimed at the most fragile parts of her psyche. Even when he isn't directly putting her or her friends in danger, the possibility that he manipulated Jones's friends, her lover Luke Cage (Mike Colter), or even adversaries like attorney Jeryn Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), or found a way to convince someone else to kill them, is always looming.

The show doesn't explicitly show everything that Kilgrave made Jessica do. We get glimpses here and there of different points in their abusive relationship. And there's an assumption that he made her and other women his sexual playthings.

That choice makes the final moments of the show, where Jessica says he raped her, more powerful. He calls her testimony into doubt and says she's a liar. But we trust her. Jessica's most constant struggle is to stop blaming herself for the things Kilgrave did to her. She has to, at some point, accept that she was a victim. And she doesn't do so easily.

But Kilgrave isn't the show's only villain. He is part of a larger narrative about control and abuse.

The show can be deeply cynical in its worldview. People with power and control of a relationship, whether between a man and a woman, a parent and a child, the rich and poor, or someone with superpowers and no superpowers, will abuse that power and control. And people who have been abused live in fear that they will lose control again. They become less human, they become less hopeful, they lose their light, and at some point, they can't be saved.

"People can change, Jessie," a child abuser tells Jessica, implying that she's seen the light. The show sees right through this.

"It doesn’t make the bad shit you did go away," Jessica replies. It's an implicit acknowledgement of the inescapability of trauma and why recovery is painful. It's the whole 13-hour season wrapped up into two sentences.

The best episode is episode 5, "AKA the Sandwich Saved Me"

With how dark and gruesome this show can get, the show's fifth episode, "AKA the Sandwich Saved Me," stands out for being the exact opposite. The main plot is a Scooby Doo–like plan to catch Kilgrave, who has turned Jessica's neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville) into an addict and a personal spy.

But we also see Jessica's pre-private investigator life, her friendship with Trish (Rachael Taylor), and her life before Kilgrave found her. There's so much joy in it that it almost feels like a defect off showrunner Melissa Rosenberg's Jessica Jones assembly line.

Take for instance, this atypically playful exchange. "Jewel is a great superhero name," Trish tells Jessica, as they try to figure out what kind of superhero she will be.

"Jewel is a stripper's name, a really slutty stripper. And if I wear that thing [a spandex costume], you're going to have to call me Cameltoe," Jessica replies, holding back a laugh.

It's a tender moment between two friends. It's also a nod to the comic books (Jones went by Jewel in her superhero adventures at one time), and it gets at the show's mentality toward superheroes. They're meant to be joyful. Saving the world is second nature to them.

But in this world, that's easier said than done.

For Jessica, heroism is reactive and personal. She has no grand plan to save the world or even individuals. She just wants to save those closest to her. The fifth episode's main plot, with Jessica fighting for Malcolm's life and forcing him to detox, is more in line with the salvation she can offer — small change compared with the world saving the Avengers are doing, but no less important.

"You'll heal wrong"

(Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)

(Myles Aronowitz/Netflix)

The one glimmer of hope tucked into the dark heart of this show is its perspective on rehabilitation. Just like there is no one way to superhero, the show makes clear that there's no one way to heal and that recovery is painfully personal.

Friends, family, and lovers can only help so much. That understanding — that recovery can't be neatly answered by therapy or violence or both — makes the show devastatingly in touch with raw humanity.

Jessica Jones is also against facile notions of justice. It isn't about getting payback against the people that hurt you. It's deeper and more frustrating than that.

In the latter half of the season, each character has his or her own view on how to neutralize Kilgrave, ranging from punishment to killing to rendering him powerless. Kilgrave, being the master villain that he is, has instituted failsafes — at one point he tells two people to slash their faces off if he doesn't return with Jessica because he knows how much she values human life — rendering all those plans null. It's a literal message that justice isn't simple, and it often isn't satisfying.

"You'll heal wrong," Trish tells Jessica in the 11th episode of the season.

Without skipping a beat, Jessica replies.

"Story of my life." she says.

If there's anything this show has taught us, it's that she's right.