BY JENNIFER CLEMENTS
Jessica Jones has none of the trappings of the traditional female superhero.
For those who haven’t spent their weekend binge-watching the new Netflix show, Jessica Jones is a modern-day noir, based on the Marvel comic series of the same name. Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is a woman in her 20s with superhuman strength and the ability to almost fly (it’s more like guided falling, we are told), though mostly she puts these skills to use as a boozy private investigator in Hell’s Kitchen. And there’s a creepy British sociopath (David Tennant) who can control people’s minds, compelling them to do whatever horrible thing he wants. He calls himself Kilgrave, he was Jessica’s longtime tormentor, and until the show’s pilot, everyone thought he was dead.
That’s the distilled hero/villain binary.
Except, Jessica never signed up for the superhero gig. Not really.
There’s a great bit, shown in flashback, where Trish (Rachael Taylor), Jessica’s only friend, presents her with a hand-sewn superhero unitard. It’s white and shiny and features a fake blue gemstone on the hip, with an eye mask reminiscent of Zorro.
Jessica looks it up and down and speaks what every viewer is thinking: "The only place anyone is wearing that is trick-or-treating. Or as some sort of kinky role-playing scenario." She quickly dismisses Trish’s suggestions for a superhero name, which are no better than the costume.
And so, like any antihero, Jessica comes to her role as Force for Good reluctantly, because she must. Fueled by self-preservation instincts and the need to stop Kilgrave, she begins to track him, plot against him, leverage the unique skills she has that suggest she can be the one to take him down.
Her jeans, hoodie, and leather jacket seem more than adequate for the job, for the record. But Jessica herself is a work in progress, even before the crime and retribution and brandishing superpowers.
For starters, she’s not exactly a people person. Apart from Trish, she has no friends, and she judges strangers harshly. On a bad day, a noisy neighbor might get pinned to the wall. Her apartment is a wasteland of empty whiskey bottles, peeling paint, and a chronically broken front door. She drinks often, forgets to sleep, occasionally showers. Doesn’t smile much, broods instead. Occasionally shatters glass walls or windows or her own ceiling. Her cell phone is always running low on charge. Even in flashback we see her floundering--working not to bring Kilgrave to justice, but as a giant hoagie distributing flyers on the sidewalk.
The hot mess of her life extends, of course, to her superhero interventions. She’ll extract critical information from a source, and in the next moment run out of toilet paper. Or she’ll accidentally get someone killed. The second scenario happens more often than the first.
To state it frankly, Jessica Jones is a hot mess of a superhero. And this makes for one of the most compelling dimensions of the show. Because it furthers an important message: You need not be perfect to wield great power.
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This is somewhat unique in the superhero world, as the folks behind Jessica Jones take the brokenness and turmoil of every character in this landscape to extremes. We’ve seen other supers use tragic pasts as a means to propel them toward hero status--Batman springs first to mind, then Spider Man. Even Astro Boy has childhood horrors to overcome. The backstory is a part of the formula we’ve come to expect, yet rarely do we see the backstory influence the non-super parts of a character as much as we do here.
Especially with female superheroes, or female characters at all, it is more uncommon than it should be to find someone who straddles both the capacity for fictional greatness and the grittily real. Look at someone like Natasha Romanoff, Marvel’s Black Widow. Her past is pivotal in motivating her superdeeds, but the muck and mire of her history isn’t there with her in every frame. She’s slick and styled, her existence isn’t troubled with mundane tasks like emptying the trash or dealing with loud neighbors. She’s a superhero, not built for flaws or failure.
The unpredictability of Jessica Jones makes it addictive to watch--the potential for failure isn’t a plot device to cliffhang viewers to the next episode, but instead an aspect of character.
As a persona relatively new to the Marvel lineup--emerging in the comics in just 2001--Jessica Jones seems the antidote to tidy binaries of good and evil. While we want Jessica to succeed, we also see her efforts slipping at times into murky territory, her judgments lapsing, and all the while she manages to gain more of our sympathies. Because we see ourselves in her, a bit.
Jessica Jones is the superhero perched on the street corner instead of a pedestal. She’s you or me or that friend who’s always a little hungover, trying to make good and trying to make rent. It doesn’t make her weak. It just means, like anyone, she’s complicated.
Jennifer Dane Clements is a writer and editor based in Washington, DC. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in publications including Barrelhouse, Hippocampus, WordRiot, Psychopomp, and The Intentional. She is a prose editor of ink&coda and a staff writer for DC Theatre Scene. She holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University.