As traction for "Jessica Jones" picked up at the Marvel marketing machine, I couldn't help but buy into the hype myself; with each passing trailer for the Netflix series, I felt my expectations for the show growing to dangerously high levels. However, much like the titular character, the first seven episodes of "Jessica Jones" manage to defy them on every level, making this Marvel Cinematic Universe installment the best yet.
Much of this is thanks to Krysten Ritter's portrayal of the hero-turned-private-investigator. Ritter has done for Jessica Jones what Robert Downey, Jr. did for Tony Stark; though her character is deeply flawed, Ritter pulls off the role with such charisma and gravitas that it's impossible not to be invested in her struggles. Ritter boasts an impressive range here, shifting from Jess' snarky swagger to her deep-seated self-loathing and insecurity to her full blown panic in the blink of an eye -- and she sells every single moment without missing a beat. She maintains a level of intensity that keeps viewers looking around every corner right alongside the character. Despite my initial skepticism when she was cast, Ritter makes it extremely clear this is the role she was born to play.
Like Iron Man, Jessica Jones has a certain complexity about her. Though she has an underlying drive to help others, her gut reactions to most situations are selfish. She uses people; she's rude; she keeps secrets; she leaps into situations without thinking them through; she's impatient; she's judgmental -- but, under all of that, she has a sincere desire save those in need, whether or not she's responsible for their plight. The series balances these flaws with her strengths (and I don't mean her physicality); while she occasionally stumbles, she has a fierce loyalty to her friends, she's smart, funny, incredibly protective, driven and more. The show has such a scope that it allows her to make mistakes, grapple with regret, learn and move on, which leads to incredible character development in addition to establishing her as a relatable character -- something the series pulls off with Ritter's nuanced portrayal.
Ritter's Jessica Jones wouldn't be as strong a character if she didn't have an equally competent supporting cast, not the least of which is Mike Colter's Luke Cage. Colter's chemistry with Ritter feels natural and organic, and he swings between righteous rage and genuine tenderness with aplomb. He adds incredible poignancy to scenes between Jess and Luke. Similarly, Rachael Taylor plays Trish Walker with striking subtlety; much can be inferred about her character's background through her reactions and stubbornness, and -- despite the difference between Trish's sunny attitude and Jess' hard-earned pessimism -- Taylor wordlessly conveys a lot about her character. Additionally, Carrie-Ann Moss strikes a fine balance between Geri Hogarth's distanced apathy, bored interest and flashes of anger and concern.
It would be remiss not to mention David Tennant's Zebediah Kilgrave, AKA Purple Man, as he matches Ritter's performance beat-for-beat. Though his insidious reach is felt long before he appears on screen, he gives Kilgrave a sort of childish charm; you'll find yourself grinning like the Purple Man told you to when he throws a temper tantrum, only for him to pull something deeply disturbing moments later and leave your jaw on the floor in utter horror. Tennant's Kilgrave is at once enchanting and petrifying -- and completely irredeemable. He commands attention whenever he's on the screen, and his performance in and of itself is so magnetic it will leave viewers questioning their own morals and allegiances.
Regardless of Tennant's portrayal, "Jessica Jones" makes no small motion in demonizing Kilgrave, and that's one of the show's strongest aspects. Similar to Wilson Fisk's entry into "Daredevil," Kilgrave's presence is felt long before you see him; his trail of broken, traumatized leftovers builds toward and culminates in a tremendous show of his power. Long before viewers see him on screen, his portrait has been painted by his victims, and it isn't pretty. It's an extremely effective way of introducing the antagonist as more than a match for our intrepid heroine and her friends. The writing and pacing work in tandem to create an unending suspense around Kilgrave; just as Jess expects something to come at her at any moment, so will viewers, leaving them on the edge of their seats.
Likewise, under the guidance of showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, "Jessica Jones" doesn't shy away from difficult subjects, up to and including drug use, abuse, PTSD and rape (the latter of which is not shown, though its consequences are). The show confronts these issues head on, without frills or superfluous platitudes, and each new twist feels like a punch directly to the gut. They are exposed, like a raw nerve, and dealt with by characters who not only don't have answers but are very much trying to reconcile these traumatic events with their own self-images. Presented without judgment, their struggles are not portrayed as inconvenient, melodramatic or pitiful; the characters aren't shown to be too fragile to cope as they develop, and the show treats their growing fortitude as a form of strength. The series is impressive in the complex way it wrestles with these difficult topics, which have so often mishandled in media.
What's more, fans of the comics will be delighted with this adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos' "Alias" series published by Marvel's mature readers MAX imprint. While the show is completely accessible for viewers who have never even heard of the character before, it relies on the comics in a fun, faithful way; panels are shown shot-for-shot and lines are lifted directly from the source material, all without making the scenes feel stilted or forced. The references and nods to the comic will leave longtime fans cheering. As true as it is to the source material, the show does veer off into new storylines, as any adaptation is wont to do. In doing so, the show skillfully updates the character, who was created over a decade ago in a time before the ubiquitousness of smart phones. In addition to artfully using these developments to the plot's benefit, this keeps the story feeling fresh and full of surprises.
While the character acting and complex issues are handled deftly, "Jessica Jones" as a show does have a few flaws. For one, the fight sequences are subpar when compared to "Daredevil" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." This could be an intentional choice, as Jess and Luke don't have the same formal training as the characters in those shows and Jess is more brawler than artist; regardless, the editing and choreography just can't compare, though it is fun to see Jess use her impressive strength (which she does often). Secondly, while the extras and background characters are incredibly diverse, it's a shame none of the main characters are women of color; thankfully, this will shift in "Luke Cage" with the arrival of Misty Knight, but it's a pity to see "Jessica Jones" -- a show with such strong feminist leanings -- miss this opportunity to be more inclusive.
As a fan of the comics, complex female characters and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was thrilled with "Jessica Jones." From its honest depictions of sex and trauma to its nuanced character portrayals, the show is messy and horrifying yet brutally honest. This is Jessica Jones as she was meant to be seen.
Marvel's "Jessica Jones" streams its entire first season on Netflix starting Nov. 20.