Tragedy nearly always informs a superhero’s choice to walk the path of heroism. The loss often hardens them and inspires them to do what others cannot or will not do. Often, like in the cases of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, they’re orphans, and this lack of familial support paints a loner path that is often marked by hiding from who they are followed by embracing the good they have within them. This is the standard for most heroes who decide to put on a cape or cowl.
When Marvel Comics began to define their identity in the early ’60s under the guidance of creators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, it was something of a revolution for the superhero genre. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and other Justice League members over at DC Comics were relatively untarnished authority figures. Superman and Batman may have been orphans, but they were fairly well-adjusted, and their adventures were often straighforward morality plays. Marvel, on the other hand, focused on characters who couldn’t escape their tragic histories or the physical and psychological scars of their origins.
The Fantastic Four, the characters who helped usher in the new era, argued, wanted to be famous, held grudges, and were far from the seamless unit seen in the stories published at DC at the time. Iron Man was the story of a former arms manufacturer who turns his life around after being taken captive and forced to work for the people who attacked him. Without the backdrop of World War II, Captain America developed a severe case of survivor’s guilt after witnessing the death of his best friend, Bucky Barnes. Spider-Man still feels the guilt of tangentially getting his uncle killed and not being able to save the first love of his life, Gwen Stacy.
What was once revolutionary ultimately became the norm for the superhero genre, and the flawed hero became accepted pop culture shorthand. As superheroes made the leap from the page to the screen, their tragic backstories are often glossed over in order to serve the narrative. Tony Stark ends up looking like his worst flaw is his wealth and arrogance, while his alcoholism, a major factor in his development in the comics, is only vaguely referenced on the screen. Captain America’s survivor’s guilt is intact, supplemented with some anti-establishment paranoia, but he functions pretty well for a guy who slept for 70 years. Spider-Man continues to take the weight of the world on his shoulders, but the consequences of the loss of Gwen Stacy were completely glossed over when they were brought to the screen at the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Our modern crop of movie heroes rarely linger on the deaths they caused or the pain that lies in the heart of their chosen paths. They hide behind their costumes and aren’t allowed to breathe into the moments that altered their lives forever.
Jessica Jones trades all that in for a pair of combat boots and a drinking problem. And while the series hits many of the main points of Joseph Campbell’s heroic journey, (particularly death and rebirth and atonement), Jessica is one of the first screen superheroes to have more layers to her past beyond losing a parent and having way too much money. She has snark and sass, but not because she has been isolated by pillars of money or uses the sarcasm to deflect questions about her true calling as a hero. It comes from seeing the world and being broken by it.
If Jessica Jones on Netflix has done anything right, it is showing a superhero who is utterly and incredibly human – a woman not defined by the obstacles she has to overcome but whose heroic journey is informed by a past full of pain and a present guided by recovery. Jessica is coping throughout the series. She is managing profound heartbreak and fear; and while she attempts to hide these things from the people around her, both are shown to the audience without sugarcoating.
Whereas male heroes are often seen fighting their rage and their darker tendencies to present a happier lighter person to the world at large, Jessica is what she is. She is dark, she is messy, she is an alcoholic, she is a survivor, and she is the modern woman. In short, she is the kind of superhero we see in our daily lives.
Throughout the series, Jessica fights against the lasting effects of trauma, choosing to be a hero, not because she sees herself as predestined, or because she has a chip on her shoulder and sees herself as the only one who can fix the world, but because underneath her smartass exterior, she’s a good person.
Before her experiences with Kilgrave she wanted to help people. After him, she still wants to do the same, only there is hesitation and uncertainty, since helping people landed her in Kilgrave’s clutches. She is aware of consequences and how the best of intentions can be shifted and coerced to darkness. She is unsure of herself and the consequences of her actions. In many ways, she is the most “Marvel” superhero that has ever been taken to the screen, taking that original mission statement of “flawed” superheroes and foregrounding it.
Like the modern pantheon of angst-ridden heroes, Jessica’s choices aren’t always those of a hero. She makes the tough call when others can’t. She puts the right thing over the need to get to Kilgrave. Sometimes, she’s even more selfish than that. She doesn’t lie about her identity in the series, which is usually the crux of even more angst for superheroes – lying to their friends about their extracurricular activities.
Instead, she lies about killing Luke Cage’s wife. She lies even while entering into a physical relationship with him. Her trauma is not rooted simply in Kilgrave’s rape of her, or the many ways in which Kilgrave took her life and her agency. Jessica killed someone. Instead of glossing over this, they show that it is part of her PTSD. They allow her to vomit and panic over it; they show her using her coping method to keep from spiraling. She makes the wrong choice by not telling Luke, but the point is that we get to see it all.
Maybe it reflects the need for modern media to portray men as strong and unbreakable, save for getting beaten up, then rallying later on, but it’s rare to find a superhero who is allowed those moments to be human, to remember that taking lives comes at a cost, to have flashbacks that shake them, and cope with things like PTSD on a daily basis. Jessica is allowed to be both heroic and a survivor. She is allowed to be a drunk and someone who manages to talk her neighbor out of killing himself via drugs. She is allowed to make mistakes and still win in the end. She gives people around her hope; these people in turn become fiercely protective of her, eschewing the loner mentality of most heroes even if it takes her a little while to get there. She has a support system, whether she takes advantage of it or not.
Jessica Jones as a series has its flaws, but presenting a character who is coping with trauma and dealing with some honest to goodness life problems isn’t one of them. Jessica struggles with fear. She is scared of Kilgrave and afraid of what he’ll do if he ever gets her back. She is manipulated and coerced, her story reflected back in those of Hope and Malcolm, but the arc they give her isn’t to smile or feel joy she doesn’t feel. It is to allow people in and be the hero that she can be with those closest to her helping her. This is an insanely good thing for superheroes going forward and will hopefully offer a broader spectrum for screenwriters to paint all the colors of the human condition and to pull from the comics those characters who are damaged but heroes we see every single day.