I keep waiting for Marvel to fuck up their cinematic universe. For their gravy train to go the way of Guitar Hero games, saturating the market with too much of the same. Call it cynicism, but I keep waiting for them to put out something I find un-watchable. Well. Technically that already happened with Agents of Shield, where, despite my early optimism and professions of faith, I was driven away. But the beautiful thing about their long-game battle strategy is their stuff (in success) stands on its own. I am free to ignore AOS (and Agent Carter, for sheer lack of time) and keep enjoying their other offerings. So it is with Jessica Jones; which, if you will forgive hackneyed praise, is their best offering yet.
Brian Michael Bendis, the author of Alias, which serves as the source material for the show, is a polarizing figure in comic book fandom. He is almost as much of a character as those he writes, with an instantly recognizable back and forth conversational style, and a habit of radically re-imagining or re-tooling characters regardless of their established personalities or lore. On the one hand, that's kind of obnoxious. On the other hand, that's part and parcel of comic book storytelling. Mythologies are subject to serialized schisms; diverging, sometimes competing, interpretations of characters and canon. If he wasn't so willing to take a fresh spin on characters, we would never see this hard-drinking, short-fused, utter mess of a superhero turned PI.
The first volume of the comic didn't wow me. It was a flagship title of Marvel's MAX Imprint; a line of comics aimed at adults, where heroes were allowed to swear, have sex, and do more terrible things to each other than their mainstream books. Conceptually it was a great initiative, but V1 of Alias is laced with try-hard profanity and plotting that feels aimless due to clumsiness rather than by design. One thing it does manage to capture is the theme of embattled agency. Jessica isn't really in control of the story, or her own destiny. For example (mild spoiler), the first arc ends with Jessica unable to defeat the villain, and unwilling to side with him, leaving him to be taken out by a deus ex helicopter gunship.
And that's what the show is about: agency. What it means to make your own decisions, or to use people, and where accountability begins and ends, down to the moral implications of choosing between evils (or just two very dark paths). Up until the closing scene of the season, the show is presenting characters with difficult decisions.
The show outclasses the comic by is by using Jessica's best bad guy right from the start: Kilgrave, the Purple Man. His super power is the horrifying ability to compel people to do his bidding with nothing but his voice.Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of Wilson Fisk single-handedly elevated Daredevil from a pretty good show into something genuinely compelling. He stood tall as the best villain in the MCU to date, outclassing the world destroying threats of the blockbusters by having a personality worth exploring. His episodes (and character arc) were more engaging than Matt's. And Netflix managed to bottle lightning twice with David Tenant. Famous for portraying the much-beloved tenth Doctor, Tenant manages to transform a super villain (an archetype so manipulative and cruel that he feels like a parody) into a real person, which somehow makes him all the more hate-able.
JJ wins out over Daredevil for the simple reason that its cast of "good guys" are also interesting; morseo than Matt Murdock and his crew. Jessica is a wreck, tortured by more tangible and believable demons than a burning desire to punch bad guys in the junk. She's an alcoholic, played for pathos over humor. She's often selfish, self-destructive, and acerbic in a way that will still manage to bite jaded audiences. And she is wrestling with monstrous PTSD. Despite all that, she has a clearer drive to do good than Matt. She is desperate to be a good person. Kristen Ritter (who I knew and loved from The B**** in Apartment 23) breathes fresh life into that antihero package, resulting in the kind of character I cannot help but love.
Her supporting cast is brilliant too. Patsy Walker is perhaps the most straightforward character (performed by Rachael Taylor), but she provides a crucial counterpoint to Jessica. Eka Darville steals almost every scene he is in as Malcolm Ducasse. Mark Colter is perfect as Luke Cage, (it takes a very special man to deliver the catchphrase "Sweet Christmas" in an authentic way) and I look forward to spending more time with Power Man in the future. Erin Moriarty exudes conflicted guilt and vulnerability as Hope Schlottman. My impression of Carrie Anne Moss has always been that she is somewhat cold and wooden, (okay, the exact phrase I used when talking to Grace was 'frozen cardboard') but that actually serves beautifully in her portrayal of Jeri Hogarth, a shrewd dragon lady of an attorney. Despite her 'understated' mannerisms, she made my sympathies for her character do some very impressive contortions. The only underwhelmer is Will Traval's Will Simpson, and (spoiler to follow) that's primarily because the script calls for a very abrupt and forced Face-Heel turn in Episode 9.
JJ lacks the brutality (and stunning fight choreography) of Daredevil, but it is by far the darker show, touching on everything from abortion and rape to an incredibly acrimonious divorce, with murder and suicide sprinkled throughout. There is blackmail, extortion, and every other stripe of people using people that you can imagine. And, yeah, I think that is to the show's credit. That kind of content is not inherently mature; in fact, poorly handled it makes you look juvenile, but the presentation is strong enough to provoke thought and conversation. Once you hit that benchmark, to get people talking beyond "wow, that was poorly handled" or "wait, what?", you've succeeded.
I have very few complaints. JJ never really pays off the promise of its noir posturing, because there is very little mystery; just tension. Also, for the first 6 episodes, I felt like I was at least one step ahead of the plot (and oftentimes the dialogue) at all times. Even when things were slow, I never thought "that was a lame call," and I very rarely had quibbles with the lines, which is rare for superhero fare. Some people have complained about the sluggish start, but keep in mind that this was a show written with binging in mind, and once it edges past the half-way point things go nuts. I stopped feeling like I could call the shots. More importantly, I forgot to. Turning off your audiences' incessant inner critics is one of the surest signs of success, because it means your stuff is entertaining enough that the mental peanut gallery doesn't care, or it is finding so few faults in what you're doing that it gives up.
If Marvel's big screen and network offerings have struck you as either childish or canonically intimidating, the Netflix series are your best bet, and Jessica Jones is the stronger of the two by virtue of its characters. Somehow, defying all odds, there are legs in this thing yet.