Netflix’s new binge-worthy series, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, has been captivating people all over social media (and in their living rooms, naturally) since its release at midnight on November 20. The show is the second in Marvel’s partnership with Netflix, behind last April’s Daredevil–and it’s the first time the Marvel Cinematic Universe has introduced a character created after the 1970s as a protagonist. Characters like Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, and War Machine might not have been household names, but they’ve existed in a connected Marvel universe for decades, with countless writers creating new interpretations of the characters for new eras.
Jessica Jones, though, is a relative newcomer to Marvel. The character was created in 2001 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos in the title Alias–a series that launched within a few weeks of the J.J. Abrams show of the same name, which is probably why the character’s Netflix show goes by the innocuous name of Jessica Jones rather than the title under which she was published–as part of the launch of Marvel’s “Max” line for mature readers.
Jessica Jones evolved quickly past her initial concept–by 2004, after 28 issues, she was moved away from the indie-inspired aesthetic (and sex and swearing) of Max and into the proper Marvel universe. By the end of her first decade, she was a member of the Avengers–which, to fans of Jessica Jones on Netflix, will seem like a deeply unlikely transition. The series that debuted on Friday is the darkest thing that Marvel has ever done on our screens–there are no big plans to conquer New York or invade the planet, no talking raccoons or even the cartoonish violence of Daredevil. Instead, the 13 episodes of Jessica Jones‘ first season are an intense, claustrophobic look at the ways that abuse manifests in relationships and how men exploit women and claim power over them through those cycles of abuse. It’s not joyless–Krysten Ritter, who plays the title character, is too deft a comedic actress to not infuse the character with humor–but it certainly occupies the same space as “prestige” shows like Breaking Bad and The Americans, rather than the mainstream blockbuster space of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In that way, Jessica Jones has something in common with its comic book counterpart. In other ways, though, the context of the world Marvel has built on our screens necessarily changes the tone and tenor of the character and the story told.
When Alias was published, it was as the first ongoing title in the Max line, where Marvel’s universe could be explored without concern for the recently-defunct Comics Code or young readers. Some of that made for juvenile storytelling (Marvel published an embarrassingly blaxploitation-themed miniseries starring Jessica Jones’ Luke Cage), but when it came to Alias Bendis and Gaydos had a specific goal in mind: Jessica Jones was created, at least in part, as a meta reaction to the 38 years of Marvel Comics that predated her. The conceit behind the character was that she existed in the background of the Marvel adventures that had been published in the preceding thirty years–she went to high school with Peter Parker, she was best friends with Ms. Marvel, and she knew Luke Cage from adventures they had shared during her brief time as a superhero. The character was very much a way to explore violence and trauma in the context of superheroics. Jessica Jones was a failed superhero named Jewel–something that the show drops in as an easter egg–in the Merry Marvel tradition of the ’60s and ’70s, until she met The Purple Man, a supervillain named Zebediah Kilgrave, who used his mind control power to abduct her for eight months. After that, her life fell apart and she eventually rebounded as a hard-drinking private investigator.
Most of the context for that is very different on Jessica Jones, though. There are no decades worth of superheroes and supervillains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengers formed a few years, at best, before the series begins, and Iron Man aside, there are no costumed heroes taking it upon themselves to fight crime. Rather than serve as a post-modern reaction to a world full of Marvel superheroes, in other words, Jessica Jones is responsible for building that world. That changes a lot about the character and the story being told.
David Tennant’s Kilgrave is among the more terrifying villains to appear on our screens in some time. The reason for that is complex, but one reason for that are the stakes that his power–to compel anyone who hears his voice to do what he tells them to do–introduces. Watching Daredevil, there’s no fear that Matt Murdock will be killed by Wilson Fisk. Watching Jessica Jones, though, the point that there are consequences that can be as extreme as death–that being within Kilgrave’s power is the most terrifying thing that could happen to Jessica Jones–and the show maintains the ever-present possibility that this could happen to her at any moment. (Indeed, part of the horror of the first few episodes is in the way it seems to set that up as almost inevitable.)
The character of Kilgrave is one of Marvel’s oldest, though. He was introduced in Daredevil #4, published in 1964, as The Purple Man–an international spy who inadvertently develops the power to command people after being doused in chemicals (a lot of early Marvel stories introduce villains in that way). There’s a subtext to the Purple Man that those early adventures were uninterested (and perhaps unable) to properly explore that was at the heart of the character’s introduction into Alias–namely, the violent sexual overtones that would come with a character who can force anyone to do what he says. This was occasionally suggested in the mainstream Marvel books, but it didn’t come into full frame focus until Alias.
The stakes are also higher for Kilgrave in Jessica Jones than they are in the comics in which he initially appeared because using a villain over 40 years of comic books means that he’s been defeated a lot in that time. Because the character was initially created as a Daredevil villain, for example, Daredevil had to be resistant to his power in order to beat him. If characters like Daredevil (and Dr. Doom) are too strong-willed to be controlled, the idea of Kilgrave–and by extension, Jessica Jones–are less dominant than they can be when those characters are brand new on our televisions.
Not only is there no four-decade tradition of superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Jessica Jones to comment upon, but the important characters in her life are only being introduced for the first time.
Luke Cage is a major part of both Jessica Jones and Alias, but the context is very different for him in each: In Alias, his presence establishes that the character of Jessica has ties to the Marvel universe, while in Jessica Jones, he’s there in large part to set up the forthcoming Luke Cage Netflix show.
That’s the sort of expedient storytelling Marvel has been doing for a while–introduce Hawkeye in Thor and Black Widow in Iron Man 2 so you don’t have to worry about that when it’s time for The Avengers–but it also centers Jessica Jones, as a character, in interesting ways. She and Cage talk about “the green guy” to make clear that this is the same world that The Avengers takes place in, but the idea of ordinary people with powers living their lives is something that hasn’t gotten much play yet on our screens. The fact that Jessica Jones is the first one we get to know as a protagonist means that she’s at the core of what Marvel is building on television–and that she’s also the first female superhero to anchor her own Marvel property.
There’s a lot of room for that to spin off in other directions–it’s not unlikely that Rachael Taylor, who plays Jessica’s best friend Trish Walker, will end up in a costume as “Hellcat” at some point–but the most important part of it is in how it changes the story told in Jessica Jones. In Alias, Jessica reveals her past with Kilgrave to Luke Cage over a heart-to-heart; when he believes what happened to her, and refuses to view her as damaged goods, it shapes the reader’s reaction because we’ve known Luke Cage as a character through thirty years worth of stories at that point. But a big part of Jessica Jones deals with the idea of whether or not people will believe that what she says happened to her actually did–and Cage is very much a part of that theme here. Losing the authority that longstanding characters bring is one of the things that keeps Jessica Jones on uneven ground–and since the series is very interested in what it’s like to be a woman on that uneven ground, it takes something that could be a limitation that comes with the character’s new context, and instead turns it into one of Jessica Jones’ core strengths.
That’s an impressive way to redefine the character, and the story she’s at the center of, while also keeping the things that matter about her–a nasty sense of humor, a refusal to be pitied, and a vivid portrayal of the way people overcome trauma–very much present. Jessica Jones is Marvel’s first entry into the “prestige TV” world not just in spite of the superhero origins, but because of how it utilizes them to be even more effective.