This spoiler free Jessica Jones review is based on the first seven episodes. We’ll have more spoiler-y stuff coming after it premieres on November 21st.
Jessica Jones isn’t a superhero show. Calling it a “comic book show” is misleading. Sure, it features a handful of characters who have appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics, but even our titular heroine has only appeared in a handful of them. There are no costumes. There are some understated super powers. There are fights. But there’s nothing you’d consider superheroic.
There’s just tremendous storytelling and performances.
For all of its ambition, spectacular cinematography, parallel storytelling, and incredible fight choreography, Marvel’s Daredevil Netflix series was a superhero show. It was still a masked do-gooder in a costume taking down gangsters for the good of his neighborhood, and peppered with loving references to Marvel Comics history. I loved Daredevil, mind you, but it wasn’t terribly likely to convince anyone who might be tiring of the increasingly prevalent “masked guy fighting crime” genre. By contrast, Jessica Jones ditches virtually every superhero trope in favor of emotional high stakes, hard-boiled detective voiceovers, and a heart pounding, edge-of-your-seat style that we haven’t seen from any comic book adaptation.
Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones is the proprietor and sole employee of Alias Investigations, and like all the best PIs, she drinks to excess, screws the occasional client, and has an almost poetic grasp of profanity. She just so happens to be strong enough to lift a car, able to leap a tall fire escape in a single bound, and can take more punishment than you and five of your friends are likely to dish out on your best day. Jones is tormented by events from her past which are far more terrifying than anything that fascist crybaby in Gotham City ever had to endure.
In her ongoing quest to make ends meet and tame the demons of her past, Jessica crosses paths with Luke Cage, a bar owner who, unlike Jessica, prefers to mind his own business. It’s worth noting that Mike Colter is almost impossibly cool as Luke Cage, a good thing, as he’s next up on Marvel’s Netflix series parade. Colter’s future status as headliner is irrelevant here, though, as Jessica Jones never strays from the business of telling its own story, a welcome relief from the pathological interconnectivity that occasionally burdens Marvel’s big screen efforts. Seven episodes in, and there’s no danger of any of that to be found here.
Jessica Jones isn’t a character who is particularly well defined to anyone outside of a relative handful of comic book fans. But if you’re one of those fans who had any lingering doubt about Krysten Ritter’s casting, you can put ‘em to rest. Her sense of humor and comedic timing are deployed liberally, and everything plays like a perfect distillation of the jaded wit on display in the Alias comics. Ritter is alternately haunted and hilarious, and her willowy frame only serves to further emphasize the surprising power that Jessica wields when things get physical.
The action in Jessica Jones is less spectacular than what we got in Daredevil, but direct physical violence is far less central to the themes of the show. Instead, Jessica Jones is a legitimate thriller, trading martial arts or explosions for the kind of heart-pounding tension nobody ever expected from something with the Marvel brand name.
To that end, the villain, David Tennant’s Zebediah Kilgrave, is the first truly terrifying villain Marvel has managed to deliver to the screen. Tennant, straying as far from his Tenth Doctor charm as possible, is as menacing off screen as on, and Jessica Jones delivers something completely unexpected: legitimate scares. He’s defined by his absence for much of these episodes, referred to in hushed tones, and popping in from the shadows as an illustration of Jessica’s occasionally dizzying bouts with PTSD.
We see the results of his monstrous actions far more than we see him, and the effect is more akin to a horror movie than a Marvel project. The skeevy implications of what Kilgrave can do with his powers are explored to their fullest, and in this grimy corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where Avengers are alluded to only as the guys who nearly brought New York City down around everyone’s ears, and where nobody is coming to anybody’s rescue, he may as well be a god. Kilgrave isn’t a problem Jessica can solve with her fists, although you’ll desperately want her to.
It’s difficult to find fault within these seven episodes. There’s one important plot point that leans a little too far towards the coincidental for my taste, and Rachael Taylor’s turn as Jessica’s best friend Trish Walker, a talk show host with secrets of her own, hasn’t yet felt fully formed. The good news is that Jessica Jones doesn’t seem to fall prey to the pacing issues Netflix dramatic series often suffer from (Daredevil was no exception). Several episodes unfold like network police procedurals, a genre that a less adventurous version of Jessica Jones could easily have slotted into. But here, that structure is quickly subverted, and it’s used to drive home the fact that in this world, one shouldn’t trust the familiar or settle into a routine.
Jessica Jones is more than Marvel’s most mature effort, or its best small screen one. Remove the brand name and the occasional background reference to events of 2012’s The Avengers, and it’s a completely standalone thriller that could comfortably sit alongside some of the most acclaimed dramatic TV of the last few years.
For all of Marvel Studios’ talk about moving away from the traditional superhero genre in recent years, they never quite accomplished it…until now, with this show, which might just be their best effort. You don’t have to like superheroes to enjoy Jessica Jones. In fact, it might be better if you don’t.
Jessica Jones premieres on Netflix on November 20th.
Mike Cecchini has rediscovered his taste for whiskey, and it’s all Jessica Jones’ fault. Follow his tipsy ramblings on Twitter.