Marvel's astounding 'Jessica Jones' rewrites the definition of superhuman

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

The new Netflix series "Jessica Jones," which becomes available Friday, is a marvel.

Legally (it's "Marvel's Jessica Jones"), creatively and, it must be said, surprisingly.

Having built an empire on which the marketing sun never sets, Marvel should now, by all rights, be facing audience fatigue if not revolt — how many stories of superheroes can this mortal coil bear?

It's a question creator Melissa Rosenberg ("Dexter," the "Twilight" film series) clearly asked herself before attempting to adapt the lead character of Brian Michael Bendis' and Michael Gaydos' 14-year-old "Alias" comic book series.

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In answer, she, with help from her perfectly cast star Krysten Ritter, rewrote the definition of superhuman.

Yes, Jessica Jones (Ritter) is a woman granted extraordinary strength and, apparently, the ability to fly. But it's her superhumanity, rather than her superpowers, that makes the show so riveting.

Owing more to Tony Soprano, Jane Tennison and "Orphan Black" than Iron Man, Black Widow and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Jessica Jones" is Marvel's first official foray into the Emmy-tempting world of prestige drama.

OK, occasionally Jessica will stop a car with her bare hands. But far more breathtaking is the show's examination of recovery: How does a woman truly survive a sexually, emotionally and physically abusive relationship?

Unlike most other superheroes, Jessica is not standing outside mortal experience looking in; she is drowning in it, and fighting her way out.

With the liquid eyes, full mouth and deadpan delivery of a 1940s movie star, Ritter ("Don't Trust the B— in Apartment 23") slides into the role of hard-boiled private detective (crappy office, smart mouth, penchant for hard liquor) as easily as Jessica slides into her black leather jacket and jeans. Jessica is the quintessential tough girl with the heart of gold, prowling the mean streets of New York with an eye on a quick buck, but also the fallen sparrow.

There are cases to solve, but "Jessica Jones" is not a detective procedural, because Jessica Jones is not hard-boiled. She is scarred.

Nor is she technically a superhero. Though apparently involved in the touchstone of the Marvel Universe, the Battle of New York, Jessica mostly put away her powers after they were used for evil.

At some point, she fell under the spell of the mind-controlling psychopath known as Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man who can make anyone do anything just by looking at them. Why such a man has not tried to, say, control armies is not explained. Instead he is obsessed with Jessica, who, after being forced to commit one depraved act too many, managed to break free.

Or at least break free of the mind control. Like many survivors of abusive relationships, Jessica is still living in fear — of Kilgrave himself, but also his choice to focus on her. Asking a question survivors of many crimes will recognize, Jessica continually agonizes over what it was about her that made her a target.

And now, of course, Kilgrave is back.

Though he doesn't really show up until midway through the 13 episodes, Tennant is a horrific joy to behold, wielding the same charm-boy charisma that helped turn "Doctor Who" from fan favorite to international success. Like many abusers, he makes his pathology difficult to resist.

Though Kilgrave, like Jessica, is clearly something more than mortal, Rosenberg deftly uses them as klieg lights directed toward an only too human experience. Our best and worst instincts can be manipulated by individuals wielding the great power of persuasion.

On a more personal and perhaps resonant level, Kilgrave represents the ultimate domestic predator. The harm he has done Jessica and others turns our continued affection for the I'd-do-anything-for-you notion of love on its head; even his insistence that women smile underlines the subtle but insistent control humming beneath the surface of certain romantic conventions.

Aiding Jessica in her fight against Kilgrave and self-hatred are a wide array of equally interesting characters: Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), Jessica's BFF and foster sister; Jeryn Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), the frosty DA for whom Jessica works; and "unbreakable" bartender Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who will soon be getting his own series.

There are subtle evocations of the Marvel Universe — casual mentions of alien invasion, a kid in a Captain American outfit — and, as Jessica and her team struggle to take out Kilgrave, it is tough not to wonder why no one thinks to summon even one of the Avengers.

But those thoughts are few and far between, easily banished by the sight of Jessica Jones fighting a new kind of alien invader. With a super-strength both metaphoric and spectacularly real, she offers us a whole new type of hero. Just when we least expected it.


'Marvel's Jessica Jones'

Where: Netflix

When: Any time, Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)



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A version of this article appeared in print on November 19, 2015, in the Arts + Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "`Jessica Jones' superbly human - TELEVISION REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe