In the 2004 Marvel Comics one-shot What If… Jessica Jones Had Joined The Avengers?, writer Brian Michael Bendis jokes about Jessica Jones’ experience as a superhero: “She had a handful of ‘adventures.’ All good and all fine… but nothing they were going to make a movie about. Not even a TV movie of the week.” Bendis is technically commenting on Jessica’s low-profile vigilante career, but his words also speak to the superhero industry’s general reluctance to tell the stories of complicated, powerful women that don’t have preexisting ties to popular male heroes.
This is a problem in comics, but it’s even more pronounced in film and television. Looking at the female characters that have headlined movies and television shows—Supergirl, Catwoman, Elektra, and Peggy Carter—they’re all directly connected to men with better name recognition. Wonder Woman’s ’70s television series is the big exception, but after years of trying to get new projects with the character off the ground and failing, Warner Bros. is introducing the big-screen version of the world’s most popular female hero in a movie about Batman and Superman fighting each other.
A hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, promiscuous private investigator living with PTSD caused by her brief, tragic foray into the vigilante lifestyle, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) isn’t a likely character choice for a live-action project, and her odds were far worse when Bendis made that joke 11 years ago. So what changed to get to a point where Jessica is the star of her own TV show? To start, darker plot points and visual elements became more popular in superhero projects after the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, and Nolan’s films coincided with the rise of Marvel Studios as a big-screen juggernaut thanks to Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers. As more male-driven superhero movies were produced, the cries for properties led by women became louder, and while a woman hasn’t headlined her own superhero film since 2005’s Elektra, superhero TV has been more welcoming to female leads, particularly in the past year with the debuts of ABC’s Agent Carter and CBS’ Supergirl.
2015 has also been a landmark year for female antiheroes on television, with shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, How To Get Away With Murder, UnREAL, and You’re The Worst embracing the complexity of damaged women who operate in murky ethical territory while approaching each lead character’s unique circumstances from very different narrative angles. It’s the perfect time for Jessica Jones to debut with a superhero spin on the female antihero, and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg breaks major new ground for female representation in live-action superhero properties by focusing on one woman’s ongoing struggle to overcome the severe trauma she experienced under the mind control of a deranged man. It’s actually a stretch to call Jessica Jones a superhero show; it’s more like a mix of The Fall and Veronica Mars, combining the staunch feminism and psychological horror of the former with the neo-noir aesthetic and sense of humor of the latter.
Jessica Jones holds a pivotal place in Marvel Comics history as the star of Alias, the first comic published as part of Marvel’s MAX Comics imprint of mature readers titles, and the relaxed content restrictions allowed Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos to make Jessica unlike any other female character at the publisher. One of my major concerns for Jessica Jones when it was first announced in 2010 was whether or not the TV show would have the edge and intensity of Jessica’s comic series, and I doubt it would have if it ended up going to series at ABC as originally planned. Thankfully, the show was delayed and then announced again as part of Marvel’s first wave of Netflix original series, and the relaxed content restrictions have allowed Rosenberg and her colleagues to make Jessica unlike any other female character as Marvel Studios.
“AKA Ladies Night” takes a number of specific lines and shots directly from the first issue of Alias, and while there are some significant changes in the TV series’ approach to Jessica’s story, the explicit connections to the comic reveal that the Jessica Jones creative team is committed to maintaining the tone and style that make Bendis and Gaydos’ comic so remarkable. The show is even more stylized than the comic, leaning heavily into the neo-noir elements with a jazzy score by Sean Callery and atmospheric cinematography from Manuel Billeter. The show’s use of color is particularly effective, best exemplified by any moment where Jessica’s PTSD kicks in, resulting in a wave of purple that quickly associates the color with Jessica’s past trauma.
Jessica Jones relies on its aesthetic to distance the title character from the rest of Marvel’s heroes, firmly cementing that even though Jessica has super strength and can leap tall buildings in a single bound, she isn’t a fantastic superhero, but a down-to-Earth private investigator that just happens to have superpowers. That’s very much in line with Bendis and Gaydos’ vision for the character, but the show deviates from the comic in how it structures Jessica’s overarching narrative. Bendis keeps Jessica’s trauma a secret for much of Alias, making it clear that she was emotionally damaged by her past, but not specifying why until the final arc. He builds up Jessica’s character without explicitly labeling her as a survivor of sexual abuse, but this element of Jessica’s character is heavily emphasized on the screen.
With its first female-led project, Agent Carter, Marvel Studios directly tackled misogyny in the workplace post-World War II, and Jessica Jones has a similar focus on gender dynamics and detailing the struggle of women in a patriarchal society. In the case of Jessica and the young girl she’s hired to track down in this episode, that struggle is rooted in sexual and emotional abuse brought upon by a man that has no concept of the word “no.” That man, Kilgrave (David Tennant), appears in “AKA Ladies Night” as a ghost that haunts Jessica, whispering in her ear on the job and licking her face when she sleeps, and keeping the villain elusive at the start makes him all the more frightening. He doesn’t have to be near Jessica to terrorize her, so when Jessica learns that her greatest enemy isn’t as dead as his death certificate led her to believe, her first reactions are intense fear and panic.
The subject matter here is very dark, but Rosenberg makes sure to incorporate moments of humor to keep the episode from becoming overbearingly bleak. Much of that humor comes from Jessica’s sarcastic, prickly, take-no-shit personality, all qualities that play to Krysten Ritter’s strengths as an actress. Her two most notable past roles, Don’t Trust The B—— In Apartment 23’s Chloe and Breaking Bad’s Jane Margolis, were the perfect training ground to prepare her for Jessica; Chloe honed her comedic skills, and Jane forced her to explore the emotional depths of a severely broken character. Ritter delivers cutting one-liners and projects a tough, cool persona when Jessica is interacting with others, but she also fully captures the fear and pain that grip Jessica when she’s alone.
Jessica copes with her PTSD by drinking, and that leads to her making some ill-advised decisions. This episode doesn’t reveal why Jessica spends her sleepless nights watching swoonworthy bar owner Luke Cage (Mike Colter) from a fire escape, but it’s still not a good idea for her to sleep with a man she’s spying on. Unfortunately, Luke’s charming, sexy as hell, and pouring free shots, a triple threat that Jessica can’t resist. He flirts, she drinks, and their steadily building chemistry eventually leads them to Luke’s apartment, where they have rough, passionate sex. Jessica Jones is a turning point for sex in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while it shies away from nudity, what it lacks in skin it makes up for in action. Luke’s aggressive thrusting would earn Jessica Jones an R rating if it was a film, and that’s before Jessica flips over and has him penetrate her from behind.
Jessica and Luke’s sex scene is perhaps the most famous moment from Alias #1, largely because it implies that they’re having anal intercourse. It’s easy to draw that same conclusion from the TV show’s interpretation of the scene, especially considering how the moment is set up. Jessica flips over when Luke warns her that he’ll break her if he uses his full power, and engaging in anal is the ultimate way of proving her strength to him. She’s been broken before, and what she’s doing with Luke is nowhere near that experience. This is pleasure. This is escape, and every new sensation with Luke pulls Jessica away from her real pain. Sex is a mighty thing, and Luke and Jessica’s playful relationship morphs into something far deeper and more intimate after their very hot scene, proving the value of sex as a character development tool.
While the sex between Luke and Jessica is explicit, the details of Kilgrave’s sexual abuse are much more vague. Kilgrave’s relationship with his victims is definitely sexual in nature, but this episode doesn’t go into the specifics. It gives the viewer enough information to draw conclusions, and those are horrible enough. The scene where Jessica finds Kilgrave’s latest prisoner, Hope (Erin Moriarty), pinned to a hotel bed in her lingerie, stuck staring at the clock while she lies in her urine, is deeply disturbing, and it only gets more unsettling when Jessica tries to pull Hope away. Kilgrave’s mind control commands force Hope to buck and scream when Jessica tries to take her off the bed, and the sight of an abused captive desperate to stay in her prison as another woman tries to save her makes for a chilling rescue scene.
Jessica is the only person that understands what Hope is going through, and she immediately gets to work helping Hope process her turbulent emotions once they get back to her office. The ties to sexual assault are strong in this scene, and Jessica is essentially playing the role of a rape counselor, making sure that Hope doesn’t blame herself for whatever she was forced to do under Kilgrave’s control. What Jessica doesn’t know is that Hope still has some commands to perform, and when Hope gets in the elevator to leave with her relieved parents, she shoots her mother and father dead.
It’s a shocking, incredibly sad event to end the episode on, and it establishes just how atrocious Kilgrave is as a person. He compels Hope to murder her parents, and then tells Jessica to smile when she sees the carnage because he’s that kind of asshole. He’s a person that makes the lives of women hell and then expects them to smile for him, and there are probably a significant number of women watching this series that regularly come into contact with men sharing Kilgrave’s casually sexist mindset. Jessica Jones is the hero for those women. She won’t smile, and she won’t run, even though her every instinct tells her to get as far away as possible. She will fight until she puts an end to the man who abused her and so many other women, and her greatest superpower ends up being her ability to overcome fear and take action.
- We’re doing something different with the coverage of Jessica Jones: Binge-watchers can read Caroline Siede’s reviews that will be going up all weekend, but viewers that want to go at a more leisurely pace can check out my reviews twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays (with an exception made for today’s premiere).
- While I could do without the sudden burst of rock guitar in the second half, the opening sequence is an evocative introduction to this world with its sultry music and bold use of color. It channels the look of David Mack’s Alias covers, which combined painting, photographs, and collages to give the comic a more innovative design sensibility, and Mack’s style shines through because he actually worked on the opening.
- Carrie-Anne Moss’ Jeri Hogarth is the MCU’s first openly gay major character, and it’s refreshing to see the script embrace her sexuality. Her extramarital affair with her secretary isn’t the most captivating story, but the character is a big step for queer representation in the MCU.
- The second half of this episode introduces Rachael Taylor’s Trish Walker, the character filling the blonde best friend role Carol Danvers had in Alias. Patricia “Patsy” Walker is one of the oldest female characters in Marvel’s stable, originally starring in teen romance comics before getting a superhero makeover as Hellcat, and it’s fun to see how Jessica Jones interprets elements of Patsy’s history for Trish’s character in later episodes.
- Moments pulled directly from Alias #1: Jessica’s client being thrown through her door; “And then there’s the matter of your bill.”; the shot of Jessica passed out on her desk before Kilgrave licks her face; “You don’t feel good going to work, find new work.”; Luke and Jessica’s sex scene; the shot of Luke’s back when Jessica walks out of his bathroom.
- The banter between Mr. and Mrs. Schlottman in their first scene makes them feel like real characters, which makes their final fate all the more tragic.
- Malcolm: “You use sarcasm to distance people.” Jessica: “And yet you’re still here.”
- Jessica: “Look at that, I found a cut.” Raj: “You destroyed my art!” Jessica: “Mercy killing.”
- “You turn that thing on, I’ll pull your underwear through your eye.”
- “Laser eyes. Moron.”
- “I could have said my hands were blenders.”
- “I don’t flirt, I just say what I want.”