When Daredevil landed on Netflix in March this year, it took many by surprise. With its blend of kinetic fight scenes, superb camera work, taut acting and direction, and an engrossing storyline to boot, it proved a huge hit with viewers and critics alike.
First off, set your expectations. If you’re looking for more of what was on view in Daredevil, you’ll end up sorely disappointed. Jessica Jones centres very little on the chopsocky, instead pitching us a comic book fantasy by way of a noir detective tale.
Jessica is everything you wouldn’t expect from a super-powered protagonist: a heavy drinker, introverted, and not particularly interested in saving the world. In fact, she quite regularly states how much disdain she has for humanity. Sure, she has her reasons though. And the main one comes in the form of the antagonist, a certain Kilgrave, played with vim by David Tennant.
Tennant revels in the role, playing against type, shedding any lingering memories of him as Dr Who. In many ways, he’s a posh, spoilt brat. Unfortunately, he also has the ability to control minds through the power of his speech. Anything he says is immediately taken as an all compelling and irrefutable order to whoever is unlucky enough to hear him.
Anyone who watched Breaking Bad will already be familiar with Krysten Ritter. Hers is the task of bringing Jessica to life. In itself, it’s a prime role. This is the type of character that has been almost wholly exclusive to male actors. It’s good to see a woman finally getting to have some fun (such as it is) playing a hard-boiled, anti-hero role.
Of course, it runs much deeper than that, because Jones is bearing the lingering scars of her manipulation at the hands of Kilgrave. It makes for an interesting, and (when you pause to think about it) pretty disturbing central relationship. She was forced to subjugate herself to Kilgrave and had to submit to both sustained mental, and sexual, abuse. That Kilgrave justifies this with an attitude of “You can’t tell me it’s not what you wanted” is all the more sickening. He goes further, insisting he treated her to the best hotels, flowers, and accessories any girl could hope for. In his mind, she was a willing participant. His moral bankruptcy is complete, and unrepentant.
Whereas, in Daredevil, protagonist and antagonist played out their stories largely separate from each other up until the latter stages of the series, here Ritter and Tennant share large quantities of the running time. They are the focus of this story, with everyone who comes into contact with Jessica suffering the fall-out of Kilgrave’s devious machinations. In this, both actors do a fine job. Ritter does well conveying the sense of anger and loathing Jessica is forced to contain beneath the surface as she goes head to head with Kilgrave, and Tennant is compelling in his obsession with her.
Despite this predominant emphasis on them, there are several significant other characters that play major parts in the plot. Rachael Taylor does a good job as Jessica’s BFF, Trish Walker; Mike Colter brings muscle and significant physical presence as Luke Cage (who, of course, will be the third member of The Defenders, with his own individual series scheduled for release next year); Carrie-Anne Moss, of The Matrix fame, plays lawyer Jeri Hogarth; Wil Traval, as cop-with-a-past, Will Simpson, sows the seeds of a subplot obviously being planted with the second season in mind; Eka Darville is Jessica’s drug-addicted neighbour.
Surprisingly, Darville emerges as the standout performance. He is essentially the “Bubbles” (see The Wire) of the show: human detritus who only Jones shows any concern for. Herein lies the key internal struggle, as she displays her caring side, despite her best efforts to lock it away in some buried emotional prison.
Ritter and Taylor’s interactions are also pretty strong. Trish Walker is the voice of conscience, compelling Jessica to believe in and show the world her heroic tendencies, in spite of herself. She’s a strong character, envious of her friend’s super-powers, yet not allowing that envy to define her, instead concentrating on all the things she can do more effectively than Jessica.
It’s a shame then that the dynamic between Luke Cage and Jones doesn’t quite work. Too often, their interactions seem wooden and forced. It’s as if both actors strayed too far in their efforts to convey their respective character’s strictly guarded nature. There are genuinely sweet moments between the two, and some decent back-and-forth. However, the performances lack the small nuances that would have made all the difference; a case of almost, but not quite.
Returning to the all-important battle between Jessica and Kilgrave, we find another significant weakness in this first series. Because, as he is repeatedly captured, then set free in a succession of increasingly ridiculous plot contrivances, it all starts to get a little frustrating and almost comical. It doesn’t help that this is, in the large part, down to some pretty unbelievable and frankly stupid choices on the part of the “good guys”. A pity, because there are some fine set pieces in amongst it all. It’s just that there are too many of these instances, and you’ll probably find yourself at one point or another saying aloud, “For goodness sake, just shoot him in the head.”
Still, overall, Jessica Jones is worth the effort. Though there’s a fair amount that could have done with being tightened up and left on the editing floor, there’s also plenty that hits the right notes. Indeed, the show deserves praise for giving us a unique take on superheroes, and daring to present some pretty dark and thought-provoking questions about abuse, free will, and whether heinous acts committed while “not in your right mind” should still be viewed through the same unforgiving culpability-lens.