The Heroism of Jessica Jones Is as Real as It Gets

Slowly I turn: Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones.

Slowly I turn: Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones.

From Ant-Man to Daredevil, it’s a golden age for men in tights. But in Hollywood, as in real life, fangirls have been long waiting for their comic-book champion. Enter superpowered private investigator Jessica Jones, played by Krysten Ritter in the Marvel/Netflix show of the same name. To paraphrase The Dark Knight, Jones may not be the hero we were looking for, but she just might be the hero we need. Jones is a grown woman with complicated, real problems—and the scars to match. (Spoilers ahead.)

A somewhat newish character—her first appearance in comics was in Marvel’s Alias, November 2001—Jones benefits from a pop-cultural landscape already populated by girl-power characters such as Buffy Summers and Veronica Mars. But she’s not a chosen hero in training a la Buffy, or Kara Zor-El of CBS’ Supergirl. And even though Jones may be a network sibling to Netflix’s Daredevil, Jones quickly demonstrates that she’s cut from a different cloth, telling one character, “I don’t give a bag of dicks what kinky shit you’re into. Just be into it quietly.”

With a moody narration and score that recalls Blade Runner, Jessica Jones arrives fully formed. We meet the sardonic Jones in midstride, living in a hollowed-out bunker of a life that’s fueled by booze and bad choices. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg—formerly of Dexter—keeps Jones’ story moving at a fast clip that’s refreshingly bereft of burdensome exposition. There’s no time wasted on an origin story. Indeed, when it comes to heroism, Jones has not only been there, but has been burned by it.

Jessica Jones’ big bad, the aptly named Kilgrave (David Tennant), initially lurks unseen, building momentum and dread. His power to control minds, illustrated for viewers by flashes of purple light, leaves a wake of psychosis. Those who survive his attacks come away damaged by the terrible acts he forced them to commit—from abandoning a baby on the sidewalk to grinding up evidence of murder in a garbage disposal.

At first we see Kilgrave’s violence as a metaphor for rape, but all too quickly we learn that his control over victims—including Jones—has led to actual rape. Jessica Jones performs a rare service for rape survivors: It offers an unflinching exploration of the real-world aftermath of sexual assault. The survivors of Jessica Jones are real people negotiating the realities of PTSD, flashbacks and unwanted pregnancy. (Also, Jessica Jones treats abortion as a salvation and not a handwringing, moralizing lesson—a television first.)

Jones lives between black and white. She feels guilt for her complicity in the crimes Kilgrave made her commit, while enduring the trauma from what he did to her personally. There’s plenty of trauma to go around, even for supporting characters like fellow anti-hero Luke Cage (Mike Colter)—who, incidentally, threatens to steal every scene he’s in—and cutthroat defense attorney Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss).

The show is revolutionary in so many ways, and Ritter is such a delight to watch, that it feels almost unfair to quibble over its weak spots. Compared to Daredevil, the fight choreography on Jessica Jones is unimaginative (with the exception of scenes featuring Cage), amounting mostly to Jones smashing bad guys and broad jumps, like a petite Hulk.

Still, we’ve rarely met a reluctant hero like Jessica Jones. She has little patience for justice. She just wants to live under the radar, even as people from all over Hell’s Kitchen jam her voicemail with cries for help.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Wonder Woman will turn 75 in 2016—just two and three years younger, respectively, than fellow DC icons Batman and Superman. We’ve been waiting a long time to see more female heroes on a landscape crowded with men. It’s impossible for one hero to make up for all that lost ground, but Jessica Jones takes a huge, entertaining step toward narrowing that gap.