What if, one day, you woke up from a months-long coma to find that you were the sole survivor of a head-on collision with a truck full of radioactive chemicals?
What if, after realizing that your entire family was dead, you discovered that being exposed to those chemicals left you super strong and able to fly? What would you do?
Comic book logic says that you would grieve, embrace your newfound abilities, and then set out on a mission to track down the corporation responsible for the crash that changed your life. Realistically, though, the accident, being orphaned, and losing control of your body would probably leave you traumatized.
This is what happened to Jessica Jones, the titular character of Marvel and Netflix's latest collaboration premiering Friday at midnight.
At its core, Jessica Jones is a gritty, noir procedural first and a 13-episode story about a street-level superhero second. As the series unfolds, though, you realize that it isn't so much about a reluctant hero responding to a deep calling, but rather about a person working to keep her demons from hurting others.
Describing what kind of hero Jones is compared to Daredevil or Spider-Man is difficult, but a maxim of hers might read something like, "with great power comes more pains in the ass than you feel like dealing with."
In the comics, Jessica Jones is a former Avenger who leaves the team in favor of opening up her own private investigation firm. Like Daredevil, Jones (played by Krysten Ritter) doesn't have any affiliation with the "World's Mightiest Heroes," but her New York City is the same one recovering from the events of the first Avengers movie.
Like her comic book counterpart, Jones is struggling to cope with her past interactions with The Purple Man, Zebediah Killgrave (David Tennant), a man with the ability to control people's minds. The parallels between their relationship and that of an abuser and a survivor are obvious, but instead of glorifying the visuals of sexual violence, Jones' story zeroes in on the lasting impact that trauma like that can have on a person.
Though he never physically abuses her, Jones explains that in addition to forcing her to use her powers to hurt people, Killgrave spent months torturing her psychologically. "We never actually see, literally, [her] history with Killgrave," Ritter recently told the Wall Street Journal. "But we see the effects of it. Ultimately, this is a story about coming to terms with something internally with yourself."
The pain that she's working through isn't explained away in a few episodes and turned into the source of a newly discovered personal strength. The scars that she carries are in her mind, and she copes with them the way normal person would: slowly, making mistakes along the way.
That narrative choice not only provides an in for people not really into comic books, but it also allows writer Melissa Rosenberg to build an origin story around Marvel's first leading female superhero in a way that doesn't feel compromised.
Even though movies like Mad Max: Fury Road have proven that female-led action franchises can be wildly successful, there's still a stigma attached to the idea of women beating up bad guys. Shows like CBS's Supergirl and the CW's Vixen are notable exceptions, but the emphasis on family and conventional femininity make both feel as if they were greenlit as special products meant specifically for a "female audience."
Jessica Jones gets that Jones isn't the "girl on the team" or the cousin of the world's most famous superhero. She's a woman living in New York who happens to be inhumanly strong.
Rather than focusing on making her a model crimefighter, Netflix and Marvel have created a character that feels grounded in reality and in doing so, set a new standard for how studios should approach female characters.
To be fair: there have been a number of female heroes that have made it to the big screen in varying capacities over the years. Storm and Mystique have been hallmarks of the X-Men films from the very beginning and Ant-Man's updated version of The Wasp was a long-overdue addition to the MCU.
Still, those characters' inclusion came with caveats. Storm's never had more than a handful of lines in any film. The Wasp was basically sidelined out of Ant-Man entirely. Mystique, known in the comics for her striking white wardrobe, was reimagined as a sexy assassin who literally never wore clothes.
Depending on the property, the sexuality of most female superheroes is either nullified entirely, conflated with motherhood, or played up to appeal to male audiences.
The Black Widow, Marvel's most visible female hero, is notable for having been hamstrung by all three tropes in a single movie. Not only is she the Avengers' resident bombshell, but it's revealed that she draws her inner strength from the emotional pain of having been forcibly sterilized.
Writing for io9, Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta encapsulated just what made the "Mommy Widow" subplot so difficult to digest:
She can’t just be the coolest aunt, or have made the valid choice that, as an assassin and spy, maybe kids are not in the cards for her. Or even the more radical choice that she just doesn’t want them. No, she can’t ever have babies, so her life is ruined.
This blows. Instead of wading into the “red ledger” of a complicated person who did seriously heinous acts and is trying desperately to buy redemption with good deeds, we get the character who feels ruined by her barren womb.
The personal politics surrounding Jones' sexuality are no less complicated, but they're decidedly more grounded in the idea that she's a woman making her own decisions.
Jessica Jones takes the idea of the traditional femme fatale and uses it to challenge the way we depict "complicated" women. Jones is an independent P.I. fighting to pay her bills on time. Her drinking, anger, and world-weary outlook feel natural and borne out of the very difficult reality of living in modern-day New York.
When it's at its best, though, Jessica Jones is more than just a detective show set in a world where people can (sort of) fly. It's a blueprint for how film studios big and small can do right by an audience that's more than ready to see stories about heroes who are people first and an assortment of larger than life ideas second.
Fusion is partly owned by ABC, a member of the Disney family.