The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has expanded dramatically in 2015, with the comic giant’s Netflix partnership producing two incredible new TV shows in the form of Daredevil earlier in the year and Jessica Jones, which just hit the streaming service on November 20. More than anything, Marvel’s Netflix offerings have shown that the company is serious about taking its properties in as many different directions as possible. That being said, it’s difficult to think that anyone, including Marvel, thought that these Netflix series would be as good as they are. In particular, Jessica Jones — a hard-edged gumshoe detective drama that just so happens to feature a superpowered protagonist — is not only better than Daredevil, but is so consistently brilliant, it puts everything else in the MCU to shame. While comparing Marvel’s film and TV businesses is a bit unfair considering how dissimilar they are from one another, there’s a strong case to be made for Jessica Jones being the best thing Marvel has ever put to screen.
10. Avoids The Origin Story Trap
Comic book films and TV need another origin story like we all need holes in the head, which makes it all the more refreshing that Jessica Jones doesn’t follow the traditional origin route followed by the Spider-Man or Batman films. Instead, much of Jessica’s past, including how she got her powers, remains a mystery for a good portion of the season, with intermitent flashbacks used to fill in some knowledge gaps. This leads to a far more interesting brand of storytelling than the traditional origin story model, as we are introduced to Jessica at a specific point in her life, long after she first received her powers. While Marvel has been deviating from origin stories a bit in the movies (Guardians of the Galaxy focused on the team’s origins rather than any one individual’s), it would be refreshing to see future films adopt the Jessica Jones model. After all, we really don’t need to see a third retelling of the Spider-Man story.
9. Deeper Plot
If the current crop of superhero TV shows has demonstrated anything, it’s that television is a better format than film for telling richer, more complex superhero stories. While Daredevil, Agent Carter, and even The Flash have all made great strides when it comes to serialized storytelling, Jessica Jones is arguably the best use of the format yet, as it achieves layers of complexity and nuance that the Marvel films can only dream of. Obviously, a story told over 13 hours is going to be much deeper than one told over 2, but that still doesn’t really convey why Jessica Jones nails plot so well. The season’s main conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave takes center stage, of course, but other plots are introduced and allowed to develop over multiple episodes, with hardly any of it feeling extraneous — except maybe the Malcolm and Robyn subplot, which gets dangerously close to pulling the whole show down around it in later episodes. Still, every show has elements that don’t work and Jessica Jones has very few vices among its laundry list of virtues.
8. It’s Experimental
Jessica Jones deviates from the Marvel films considerably by featuring an anti-hero as its protagonist and that is more significant than you may think. Every hero in the MCU is flawed in their own way (even the boy scout Captain America) but Jessica Jones is the first “hero” to definitively turn their back on being a superhero. This is a post-superhero story and because of that, Jessica Jones is able to experiment with the format in ways that the films simply can’t. For one thing, Jessica constantly screws up and makes the wrong decisions, which gets people hurt and even killed. For all of her power and good intentions, Jessica can’t save everyone and this comes to be a constant struggle for her. In that way, Jessica Jones is something of a meditation on the limits of heroism and how one deals with not being able to save everyone. Every superhero messes up occcassionally, but Jessica does it so often over the course of the show’s first season that every conflict is punctuated by dread because the show trains its viewers to expect Jessica to fail. That’s a refreshing change of pace and it would be great to see Marvel take more risks like it in the future.
7. The Action Is Sparse, But Thrilling
There is a definite formula to the way the MCU movies are laid out. One of the most consistent complaints leveled against films such as Iron Man 3 or Captain America: The Winter Solider is that their big action setpieces all feel the same and that’s because they pretty much are. These are blockbuster films, after all, so it’s practically mandatory that they include some form of final act showdown littered with CGI and explosions. Fortunately, Jessica Jones doesn’t have to play by the same rules and it’s arguably better for it. Most of the show’s thrilling moments come from its character drama, but this is still a superhero show at heart, so there’s definitely still action and it’s almost always enjoyable. In particular, there’s a late-game showdown that rivals anything in an Avengers movie and it’s just two people brawling. The show probably could have gotten away with having more action than it does, as we don’t quite get to see Jessica display her powers enough, but what is here is thrilling and always has a purpose behind it.
6. Tackles Heavy Subject Matter
It would be unfair to accuse the Marvel movies of not addressing important themes, as they are actually some of the most thought-provoking blockbusters around. That being said, nothing in any Captain America or Iron Man film even comes close to the thematic resonance on display in Jessica Jones. This show tackles some seriously heavy subject matter, with everything from rape to abortion informing the conflicts that arise. Jessica herself is a rape victim, albeit one that refuses to let that trauma define her, and this kind of deep-seeded trauma informs so much of what happens over the course of the show that it’s almost incredible to behold. This is a show that depicts a woman getting over a violent attack by having vigorous, empowering sex with her attacker (it’s complicated). Simply put, Jessica Jones takes on so many loaded themes it’s astounding, as nobody in their right mind would have expected Marvel — a studio owned by the typically conservative Disney Company — to be so refreshingly progressive.
5. A Complex, Riveting Villain
One of the most consistent issues with Marvel’s films is their lack of compelling villains. There have been 12 films released in the MCU since 2008 and yet, only one truly memorable villain has emerged among that crop: Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (which is why he’s made multiple appearances). Daredevil made great strides with a commanding performance from Vincent D’onofrio as Wilson Fisk, but even he can’t quite match Jessica Jones’s primary antagonist. As the mind-controller Kilgrave, David Tennant is both deeply unsettling and revoltingly charming, striking a nice balance between being completely immoral and yet, surprisingly sympathetic at times. In an era when on-screen villains are lacking in nuance, it’s refreshing to have a villain who is so detestable, but strangely likable at the same time. Plus, it’s hard to think of any other show that’s depicted mind control in as terrifying a way as Kilgrave wields it here.
4. Jessica Jones Is Powerful, But Vulnerable
A lot of credit needs to go to showrunner Melissa Rosenberg for taking a so-so comic and turning it into such a riveting piece of television. That being said, Jessica Jones wouldn’t be nearly half as good without Krysten Ritter in the lead role. Ritter imbues her character with the perfect mix of strength — both physical and mental — and vulnerability, as Jessica is a woman gifted with incredible powers but haunted by serious trauma that constantly makes her question how heroic she can actually be. It would have been easy for this show to take Jessica’s alcoholism and run with it, but her brand of brooding self-hatred goes so much deeper than having a simple drinking problem. While Jessica is incredibly capable (especially when it comes to throwing someone through a wall), her power is kept in check by some serious personal demons, which translates to arguably the best female lead in any superhero show or movie yet, a truly exasperating realization when you consider that the MCU hasn’t even released a film with a female lead yet.
It sounds obvious to point out that a show featuring a woman in the lead role is feminist, but Jessica Jones goes so much further than most other shows featuring a female protagonist that it’s actually surprising. For one thing, it’s difficult to think of many other female-driven shows that actually depicts its female characters as being more capable than the men. The central relationship between Jessica and her best friend/foster sister Trish is realistic in its emotional complexity — one could make the argument that the show is really about them discovering their love for one another — and both women support each other through every conflict, turning to each other first in times of crisis and rarely seeking the help of men. Jessica and Trish are also allowed to act on their sexual desires without being punished for them, which is another rarity across all entertainment. Compare that to Avengers: Age of Ultron, which received criticism for its portrayal of Black Widow, its sole main female character (Scarlett Witch was more of a supporting player), and Jessica Jones feels positively progressive.
2. Characters Without Powers Are Just As Important
If you’re in a Marvel movie and don’t have a superpower of some sort, you might as well not even be there because the film isn’t going to give you the time of day. That is definitely not the case in Jessica Jones. Sure, the characters who do have powers — namely, Jessica, Luke Cage, and Kilgrave —are still the main event, but the show manages to finds things for the other characters to do beyond simply being victims to be saved. As already mentioned, Trish is much more than a damsel in distress and probably saves Jessica just as often as the reverse. Hogarth, the lawyer played by Carrie-Anne Moss, has some pretty significant personal problems that go well beyond those thrown at her on an episodic basis by Jessica. Even Jessica’s drugged out neighbor Malcolm has an interesting arc that other shows simply wouldn’t allow for. This all goes a long way in making a Jessica Jones a show that is just as much about its lead heroine as it is about everyone she comes into contact with, which is the mark of a good ensemble TV show.
1. The Tone is Perfect
With how dark and adult-oriented Daredevil was, it’s really no surprise that Jessica Jones also adheres to a similar tone that is far removed from that of the films. That being said, Jessica Jones triumphs where Daredevil occasionally stumbles, as it hits a pretty much perfect tonal balance between gritty violence and charming humor. This is a show that can switch from horrific scenes of body mutilation to self-mocking jokes at the drop of a hat and amazingly, it all holds together splendidly. The Marvel films occassionally suffer from tonal imbalances as they try to infuse world-threatening devestation with kid-friendly humor, but Jessica Jones establishes its tonal balances early and runs with it. Although it does trip up from time-to-time (everything does), it’s hard not to look at this show and wonder why every piece of comic book entertainment can’t be this well-realized.