Coming less than a year after the extraordinary success of Daredevil, the next installment in the Defenders series arrives on Netflix with a colossal weight of expectation on its shoulders. Luckily, Jessica Jones is more than strong enough to handle the load.
Carried by a commanding performance from Kirsten Ritter as a kick-ass female superhero, Melissa Rosenberg’s (Dexter, the Twilight Saga) series is a thrilling mix of old school noir and unsettling psychological horror. Taking on dark, challenging themes with wit, depth and a stylish flair, Jessica Jones manages the remarkable feat of being both fascinating and unique in a market crowded with spandex-clad do-gooders of all kinds.
Following a disastrous end to her brief stint as a superhero, the series finds a PTSD suffering Jones trying to piece her life back together by setting up shop as a private investigator in New York City’s crumbling Hell’s Kitchen. Even throwing herself into a fledging career can’t help her escape from her past, though, as she swiftly becomes embroiled in the disappearance of a college student; a sinister case in which all leads point towards the return of a destructive figure from her past, David Tennant’s menacing manipulator Kilgrave.
Kirsten Ritter is outstanding as the hard-boiled, hard-hitting and hard-drinking Jessica Jones. While she of course comes with a traumatic past like almost every other superhero, what makes Jones refreshing and intriguing is her grim determination to avoid heroism at all costs. A manipulative, misanthropic badass, Jones is more concerned with paying the rent and getting through the day without falling to pieces than she is with using her nondescript powers to save her city.
With her battered leather jacket and permanently peeved expression, Ritter absolutely nails this stay-the-hell-away-from-me attitude, but she also elicits incredible pathos during the story’s key emotional beats. Plagued by nightmares and frequent panic attacks, Jones is attempting to self-medicate by downing bulk-bought booze and jumping into bed with any stranger willing to offer her a free drink. These desperate acts reveal an isolated, vulnerable side that helps to soften Jones’ otherwise razor-sharp edges.
Our hero’s significant troubles lead the show down a very dark path as Rosenberg tackles such challenging themes as PTSD, abuse and betrayal with depth and surprising subtlety. It’s entirely fitting for a show that sets itself out as Marvel’s most adult offering yet with plenty of sex, swearing and alcohol abuse to enjoy in amongst the psychological drama.
Much like Daredevil was a crime-drama first and a superhero show second, Jessica Jones eschews its comic book origins for something more akin to a psychological thriller. Director S. J. Clarkson excels at tying our stomachs in knots in the scenes where Kilgrave attempts to worm his way back into Jones’ psyche, using off-kilter camera angles, uncomfortable close-ups and a nightmarish purple hue (a clever reference to Kilgrave’s comic book status as the Purple Man) to disorientating effect. Meanwhile, Jones’ Rear Window-esque hobby of snooping on her neighbours’ private lives serves to further raise the niggling sense of paranoia that runs through the episode.
The horrors Jones encounters stem almost entirely from the despicable mechanisations of her arch-nemesis Kilgrave, played with a creepy charm by David Tennant. Following the maxim that a monster is always more terrifying when it remains unseen, Kilgrave is little more than a shadowy presence in the first episode. Yet his influence hangs heavily over almost every scene as he uses his powers to manipulate innocent people into committing horrific acts of violence on his behalf.
This penchant for cerebral tug-of-war rather than a tangible threat is reflected in the show’s action – or rather, the lack there of. For a show about a near-indestructible woman with super-strength Jessica Jones is surprisingly light on fight sequences, especially in comparison to the bone-crunching brawls that were the main driving force behind Daredevil.
Instead, the series relies on the power of suggestion to raise the pulse and the result is chillingly effective. The scenes where Jones’ reality is distorted by Kilgrave’s powers evoke a palpable sense of fear and anxiety largely because we are never truly certain whether the threat is real or just a trick of the mind.
There are occasional missteps – the first episode is somewhat stifled by the number of characters Rosenberg strains to introduce – but only ones that are inherent of every opening episode. What’s more important is that AKA Ladies Night lays strong foundations for what looks set to be become an extraordinary thriller.
With its strong clutch of dark, complex characters, superb performances and an inventive spin on the psychological horror genre, if Jessica Jones continues on this trajectory it’ll be near impossible not to binge watch the whole thing in one big gulp.
Click here to watch the trailer for Marvel’s Jessica Jones