Daredevil had it easy. The Man Without Fear’s Netflix series may have seemed like a gamble at the time – to the mainstream audience the character was a knockoff Batman with a failed Ben Affleck movie behind him – but, well, at least he had a movie.
Jessica Jones, by contrast, is based on a more obscure comic than any so far adapted by Marvel, DC, Fox or Sony. Its titular lead (Krysten Ritter) is another superpowered hero, but she doesn’t have an exciting visual, secret identity or special training. Instead, she’s a broke borderline alcoholic who tried using her super-strength to help people but failed badly. Now she scratches a living as a private investigator in New York. Her front door is panelled with cardboard, her neighbours are junkies and weird (possibly incestuous) twins and she’s generally having a pretty lousy time of it. And then an old enemy, Kilgrave (David Tennant), comes back into her life – and things get a lot worse...
Kilgrave also has powers – the ability to control minds – and he previously used them on Jessica, forcing her to be his accomplice, occasional hit-woman and, yes, his lover. The full, horrible implications of that are not shied away from – in fact, the show’s entire 13-episode run is focused on it. Kilgrave is the ultimate abusive ex and, unambiguously, a rapist (though smartly the show never shows this). He tries to charm and woo Jessica with contrived acts of chivalry and, when they don’t work, he stalks her and begins to dismantle her world.
The show puts his powers to inventively horrible use – episode one ends with a girl being forced to murder her own parents in cold blood – but strip them away and he would still be a terrifying and recognisable predator. For its first few episodes, Jessica Jones feels more like a horror show than something that exists in the same universe as Rocket Raccoon.
Happily, it’s not too long before Jessica decides to take the fight to Kilgrave and the series grows into a taut thriller with both sides gaining and losing the advantage as the body count racks up. Ritter is terrific in the lead role, all shadowy eyes, snark (“I don’t give a bag of dicks what kinky shit you’re into, just be into it quietly”) and flashes of vulnerability. And while she’s clearly the hero, the show doesn’t paint her as whiter-than-white – she does some pretty suspect things in the pursuit of bringing Kilgrave down.
Ritter is backed up by a fine supporting cast. Tennant plays Kilgrave with insidious charm (he’s even doing his Doctor voice), Carrie-Anne Moss is steely as Hogarth, Jessica’s shady sometime employer, while Rachael Taylor’s Patsy is this show’s Foggy, bringing some much-needed warmth and humour. Then there’s Mike Colter as Luke Cage. It’s an excellent bit of casting, and Colter will no doubt kill it as the lead in his own show. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that he’s not introduced later in the run. Bringing in another superhero right at the start does slightly take away from Jessica’s uniqueness.
There are other niggles. The theme music, with its wah-wah guitar, is bafflingly awful. A few clumsy references to the Avengers feel like unnecessary nods to the canon. And some of the B-stories don’t quite work – the ongoing feud between Hogarth and her ex-wife is dull, and a last-minute twist with NYPD cop Simpson (Wil Traval) comes out of the blue and goes nowhere very interesting, presumably setting up events for a second season.
These are minor gripes, though, because Jessica Jones is an otherwise remarkable programme. It’s shot through with compassion and intelligence, with even minor characters growing over the course of the 13 episodes. It’s thrillingly visceral (especially the bit with the shears…) and frightening, but not childishly nihilistic. This is a world where terrible things happen, but where flawed people can make a positive difference. And while the big-screen MCU has been slow to acknowledge its female heroes, this is a show that puts the lives of three entirely believable women front and centre. With this and Daredevil, Netflix is now making the best genre shows on TV.