First and foremost, Marvel’s Jessica Jones is about survivors. The show’s titular heroine, played by Krysten Ritter, was once a superhero, capable of flight and gifted with immense strength, until her powers were diminished after she fell under the spell of Kilgrave (David Tennant), a powerful, sadistic, and mind-controlling villain known as the Purple Man. When we meet Jones, now a sardonic alcoholic working as a private eye, the series homes in on the echoes of her abusive relationship with Kilgrave, who forced her to constantly flatter him and, ultimately, kill for him. The series is one of the more emotionally complex and intermittently bleak Marvel adaptations to date, a kind of melodrama about the fight for self-assurance and personal strength in the wake of immense psychological abuse.
As such, Jessica Jones is a far more socially aware series than Netflix’s Daredevil, but it lacks for its predecessor’s consistent, enveloping style; that series presented a shadowy view of criminally plagued Hell’s Kitchen that reflected its hero’s literal blindness. As Ritter’s character makes her way around the same slice of NYC real estate as that of Daredevil, the camera often catches her from afar, with a clock or a set of curtains in the foreground, suggesting both Jones’s distancing from herself and her paranoia about being watched. The latter feeling becomes a potent narrative element, but none of the show’s directors quite establish a unified visual style to fully reflect the sense of fear Kilgrave evokes in Jones, as his abilities allow him to make literally anyone a puppet for his goals.
This isn’t to say Jessica Jones isn’t, on the whole, handsomely and inventively shot. In close-ups and medium tracking shots between two characters, it stresses the intimacy among the survivors of rape, violence, or other tragedies that Jones has aligned herself with, as well as the larger community she serves and lives alongside. The show’s strength is in its vast array of damaged yet resilient characters, none of whom fall into the overplayed conception of heroes as physically flawless and emotionally stable, which is true of nearly all of the Marvel characters that have appeared on the big and small screen. Jones, like Luke Cage (Mike Colter), her local bartender and occasional love interest, and Trish (Rachael Taylor), her best friend, openly wears her haunted past, distrust, and cynicism, and the show’s writers thankfully never feign that these elements of her persona will ever fully go away.
In Kilgrave, creator-writer-producer Melissa Rosenberg has molded perhaps the most menacing of all the villains that Marvel films and shows have offered thus far, and Tennant etches the role with a mixture of risible entitlement and reckless sadism. One of the key elements of the character, which Tennant gives the rigid physicality and delivery of a privileged, self-satisfied misogynist, is his insistence that his female victims smile for him. His obsession is with control, over people and the world around him, and the series brandishes a furious view of how insistence on smiling, along with catcalling and other misogynistic tendencies, ultimately reveals a need to have women acclimate to a masculine ideal of femininity and the world.
And yet, Jessica Jones is ultimately strikingly hopeful about undermining and overcoming the acts of such men, offering Cage, as well as Sergeant Will Simpson (Wil Traval), another one of Kilgrave’s victims, as examples of men who can respect, endear themselves, and be sexually appealing to women in equal measure. The friendships, and romantic interests, formed between the central characters are plagued by indecision and fear, and are all the more convincing because they endure in spite of the feelings of hopelessness and ceaseless suspicion brought on by Kilgrave’s powers. Jones’s past with Kilgrave means that her neighborhood, her very life, is lined with psychological land mines, as literally anyone, under Kilgrave’s spell, could be her next attacker, and this offers a remarkable, expressive take on the PTSD that victims of physical and psychological violence often endure.