I never liked superhero narratives, with the exception of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movie (2002). I feel bored by the different characters that populate these universes (Note: Avoid mentioning this to rabid Dark Knight Trilogy fans, they will not let you live it down). I find the movies weighed down by decades of comic book history, and the question of loyalty to the franchise versus bringing something original. They take themselves too seriously, as though the world would cease to exist if we missed the showdown between Batman and Superman.
I didn’t watch Netflix’s Jessica Jones for the longest time because it was about a superhero(ine). Female, yes, but even that wasn’t motivation enough. I was wrong, and I’ll tell you why if you are interested in that sort of thing.
When we are introduced to Jessica, we understand she is a mess. She is alcoholic, prickly, difficult to be with and be around. But we are drawn to her. We want to find out what (or who) made her this way, what she hides behind her sarcasm and indifference to human beings, what she drowns in bottle after bottle of whiskey. There are hints at first, of abuse, the nature of which remains unclear. The word ‘PTSD’ is thrown around, and as we wait for clarifications, we begin to piece together bits of her past. Jessica’s mind was controlled by villain-extraordinaire Kilgrave (‘Murdercorpse wasn’t available?’). She suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse during her time with him, as he made her do things one would normally consider repulsive. When she finally breaks free of him (after he forces her to kill an innocent woman), she is so damaged and traumatized that she cannot sleep unless her blood alcohol levels are dangerously high. We do not realize the extent of Kilgrave’s power initially. [So he controls minds, how bad could that be?] Slowly, we are exposed to the horror of such an event. When he forces a young man to “cross the road, face the fence, and stand there forever,” when he forces a woman to kill her own parents, when he forces a man to abandon his child, when he takes over a home and commands the family living there to feel delighted, when he makes his mother stab herself repeatedly with a pair of scissors until she drops dead. “When Kilgrave asks you to work nonstop, you literally work nonstop.” Kilgrave constantly portrays himself as either a hero or a victim, and is convinced his ability is a burden. “I once told a man to go screw himself, can you imagine that?” He complains about having to choose carefully every word he utters. He comes across as a spoilt, privileged man who is so used to having his way, that he thinks his love is sufficient to be in a relationship – the other person not loving him is a mere obstacle that he has to overcome. He is every stalker, every controlling partner, every man who thinks a woman’s love can be obtained with persistence. He demands to know what part of the fabulous life he gave her (dining and wining in five star hotels, beautiful clothes, ‘affection’) would be labelled torture, and she tells him, “The part where I didn’t want any of it.”
What makes Jessica Jones truly transcend the superhero genre is its engagement with our universe as well. Jessica could be a stand-in for women living through domestic abuse, victims of rape, women (or even men) stuck in emotionally manipulative relationships. When a handful of men and women get together to form a support group for those whose lives have been made awful by Kilgrave (Jessica, however, dismisses them as ‘a bunch of circle-jerking whiners’), they discuss how it feels to be completely under someone’s control. It gives you a sense of freedom, someone opines, as you are free from logic, guilt, having to make decisions and be accountable. But this freedom doesn’t come to your rescue once you are left dealing with the consequences of your actions. You wonder if you did those things because someone made you do them, or if you did them because some part of you always wanted it and you were waiting for an excuse to not have to take responsibility for it. As one character says later, “I want to be responsible for everything, good or bad.” That way, you know you are in control of your life. Jessica Jones asks difficult questions, and doesn’t shy away from complicated answers. It understands that life isn’t linear, and not everything can be neatly divided into Good or Bad, Black or White. When Jessica returns to Kilgrave, “out of her own free will,” we wonder how much of it is due to free will. She feels coerced into making that decision, even if it might be for the greater good. We are quick to berate people who remain put in their miserable lives, and we often judge them for making what we perceive to be wrong choices. We don’t know what their circumstances were, and we will never understand their reasons. Jessica Jones tells us it is okay to feel confused, to feel guilty when it isn’t your fault, and that you may never believe it completely even if your brain tells you it isn’t your fault.
The supporting characters are wonderful. It is a pleasure to watch sisterhood on screen, two female friends, whose problems don’t just revolve around men. Jessica’s best friend is Trish, a radio talk show host, who was a TV star (‘Patsy Walker’) in a Disney-like show when she was a teenager. She was controlled too, by a mother obsessed with stardom. The dynamic between Jessica and Trish carries a lot of depth, and their shared past explains their close bond (in spite of Jessica’s attempts to push Trish out of her life, ‘for her own safety’). We understand Trish’s mother took Jessica in (to further Patsy’s image) after her family was killed in a road accident. This accident also supposedly gave Jessica her powers – super strength and a half-formed ability to fly (‘more like jump and then fall’).
Luke Cage is Jessica’s on-off love interest in the show, and he seems to take the place traditionally reserved for women appearing as arm candy. He has his own gifts – unbreakable skin and superhuman strength, and it would be interesting to see how his character is developed. The fight between Jessica and Luke in the penultimate episode of the season is especially riveting (in which they use all their strength) – it is fun to watch a small woman rip out car doors, jump across a large auditorium, and tear through walls with remarkable ease.
We are also introduced to Simpson, an ex-military man who takes performance enhancement drugs to feel powerful. It is terrifying to see Simpson morph into an aggressive alpha male type when the effects of the pills kick in. He is a reasonable and sensitive man otherwise, though he might be suffering from a saviour complex (he set his sister’s doll house on fire just so his G.I.Joe action figures could go in and save her dolls). When on his trip, he turns into the man who thinks brute force can solve problems, whose rage blinds him and makes him unrecognizable, who becomes the monster inside all of us that mostly remains hidden.
The show stands on its own, even if you didn’t know anything about the characters or their origin stories, which is saying something. Jessica might have powers that ordinary people cannot possess; but her most precious gift might be her ability to reclaim her mind, her life, her identity, and that is a powerful message.
P.S. I cannot get over how attractive Mike Colter (Luke Cage) is. Is he for real? Watch out for the scene where he comes out of the shower with a towel wrapped around him (or just about any scene where he’s shirtless), or when we see him sleeping in Jessica’s bed as she works on her case. Objectifying men never felt so good.