It’s been eight years since the last time a live-action superhero property starring a solo female lead character was released – 2005’s Elektra, the Jennifer Garner-starring Daredevil spinoff that rather sank without trace. Whether the failures of that film and the previous year’s Catwoman were a contributing factor in studios’ reluctance to make movies or TV shows about superheroines is unclear – but what is clear is that there’s a balance that needs redressing.
Marvel Studios have made excellent strides with the representation of their female characters – with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow about to make her third movie appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, supporting characters like Pepper Potts and Jane Foster being turned into arguably more interesting and capable figures than they ever were in the comics, and original creations such as Thor‘s Darcy Lewis. But the fact remains that still, none of them have yet headlined a solo movie or TV show.
This means that the news that one of the newly-commissioned Netflix miniseries – under the loose banner of The Defenders – is to star the character of Jessica Jones is a pretty big deal. But even those who would generally consider themselves pretty clued-up about Marvel’s roster of characters could be forgiven for being confused by the announcement. Certainly, when set aside the other three names – Daredevil, Luke Cage and Iron Fist – Jessica is conspicuously a less well-known character. So what is it about her that makes her worthy of top-lining her own TV series?
If you summarise Jessica’s biography chronologically, she doesn’t necessarily sound like the most fascinating character. Orphaned in the car crash that gives her super powers – a relatively mundane (by Marvel Comics standards) set of enhanced strength, toughness, and flight that she can’t really control – she eventually becomes a mid-tier superheroine named Jewel, briefly allying with several of the Avengers.
An unpleasant encounter with the mind-controlling villain The Purple Man leads to her retirement from heroism – and, after a brief attempt to return to the game in the new guise of Knightress, she becomes a private investigator, often taking on cases that specifically relate to superpowered individuals. Eventually, she falls in love with her long-time friend Luke Cage, and the pair have a daughter – Danielle – and marry, with Jessica joining Luke as he serves with the New Avengers, occasionally pulling the costume back on to fight as both Jewel and, later, Power Woman.
It’s not Jessica’s history, however, that makes her interesting. In fact, while you could be forgiven for thinking that all of the above played out in chronological order over decades’ worth of Marvel comics, she’s actually only been around for a little over ten years. She debuted in writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos’ series Alias in 2001 – and as you might have guessed from the title, the series was about her post-superhero, private-investigation days.
The series was one of the launch titles for Marvel’s “Mature Readers” imprint MAX, and immediately attracted controversy for both its language – the word “fuck” is said three times on the series’ very first page – and for a (deliberately non-titillating) sex scene featuring Jessica and Luke Cage. Beyond this apparent shock value, however, it was clear that this was a dialogue-heavy, character-driven series filled with intrigue and complexity. The first issue ends on a huge cliffhanger as Jessica – on a seemingly innocuous missing-persons case – accidentally discovers Captain America’s secret identity, drawing her into a web of government-level conspiracy.
Jessica is quickly established as a great character – one of the best new characters, in fact, to debut either at Marvel or in comics in general for quite some time. She’s tough – and tough-talking – but also a deliberately flawed character, with a vulnerability that is largely manifested in self-deprecation and doubt. What’s especially notable, however, is that she has a dedication towards doing right by people, even while not actively serving as a superhero. The cleaner-cut heroes might not agree with her chosen path in life or her methods, but when it comes to unflinching morality she can mix it with the best of them – as evidenced by a cracking one-shot story in which J. Jonah Jameson attempts to hire her to find out Spider-Man’s secret identity.
Over the course of Alias‘ criminally-short 28-issue run, Jessica’s backstory was peeled away, as Bendis sought to retrospectively plant her in the Marvel universe. Friendships with characters such as Carol “Ms Marvel” Danvers, SHIELD agent Clay Quartermain and one-time Ant-Man Scott Lang were established – and when finally telling her origin story towards the end of the series, Bendis and Gaydos even cleverly placed her in the background of Spider-Man’s debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, setting her up as a high-school contemporary of Peter Parker’s (with an unrequited crush on him, to boot).
Once Alias finished, Jessica was moved more directly into the “mainstream” Marvel universe, first appearing in the even shorter-lived Daily Bugle-based series The Pulse before making regular appearances with Luke in New Avengers. Since becoming a mother she’s mellowed to some extent – and, not being in a MAX book, isn’t allowed to swear quite so much any more – but she still has an edge to her that marks her out, and her relationship with Luke has been one of the most engaging and rewarding longer-term storylines in the Marvel books.
It’s pretty early in the day to be speculating about which phase of Jessica’s career is likely to be covered by the TV series – but given that it’s in the pages of Alias that she interacts most heavily with both Luke Cage and also Daredevil (his alter ego Matt Murdock is her attorney, and she and Luke later work as his bodyguard), this would seem a far more likely bet than trying to make a series about her time as Jewel. It’s the kind of setup that’s perfect for a TV series – indeed, back in 2010 ABC were said to be working on a pilot, titled AKA Jessica Jones (presumably to avoid confusion with a certain Jennifer Garner-starring spy series), that ultimately came to nothing – and gives the opportunity to tell the kind of stories, about the kind of characters, that the MCU hasn’t really covered yet.
Certainly, while many fans’ ears have been pricked by the idea of the Daredevil series – and consider this writer hugely excited about that one, too, for the record – for those of us who’ve read Jessica’s comics, hers is arguably the far more intriguing prospect. And it might just show Marvel’s movie division that there is an audience out there for well-written female lead characters after all…
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