Sunday, January 17, 2016

Marvel Television: Jessica Jones and the New Era for Marvel

I'm about two months behind everyone else finishing the Marvel Netflix series Jessica Jones, a spiritual sibling of the much celebrated Daredevil, and as far from the TV-logic and twee shenanigans of Agents of SHIELD as you're likely to get.

I'm going to throw this out there, and I'll ask you to stick with me:  Jessica Jones may be, to live-action superhero media, what Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were to comics in 1986.

Way back in the late-90's/ early-00's, I was reading a lot of this new kid, Brian Michael Bendis, who had some indie success with Goldfish, Torso and other gritty crime books (and Torso is still an amazing read, the based-on-real-events story of famed lawman Elliot Ness trying to find a serial killer in Cleveland after putting Capone behind bars).  He followed this by teaming with Oeming on Powers, a "cops in a world with capes"  comic with a decidedly Rated-R bent, and I followed that series for years.  Around 2001/2002, Bendis and Gaydos brought Alias to Marvel and minted their new MAX imprint - a line of comics with a hard "R" rating, but absolutely within the Marvel Universe.  Something even DC blanched at, separating Vertigo from DCU proper circa 1994.

This was about fifteen years after the atom-bomb of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns exploded in the comics world and, in the aftermath, the idea that comics could reach an adult audience was left behind in the radiation and sand burnt to glass.  Bendis was part of the generation who came into the field when a few things were happening.  (A) Reaching an audience older than 17 was now possible - which meant the very real-world problems facing actual humans could be discussed in comics, even with a superheroic bent, which (B) meant that the comics companies were setting up imprints to deal with this idea, keeping their mainline branding safe for the parents associations who would show up and breathe fire and throw comics retailers in jail from time-to-time for not carefully shelving their wares.  And, of course, (C) Marvel was dealing with bankruptcy.  I have very little positive to say about 2001-era Marvel honcho Bill Jemas, but he was certainly willing to try new things, and all of that risk-taking has indirectly led to the Marvel we think of today.

Alias showed up in this market as a sort of indie-within-the-Big-2 title.  It was something to see a character who smoked and drank and had sex with Luke Cage (which she does in the first few pages of the series - so I feel spoiler free), and met Carol Danvers for coffee.  It was a detective series.  There was something in her background we'd get to sooner or later, some dark reason she'd quit heroing, but at the outset, it seemed to just be a series about a failed superhero making ends meet and seeing real human foibles and crime in the underbelly of the Marvel U.

So... the TV show.

I won't lie.  While the 13-episode order was done for what I suspect are traditional TV-producing reasons, my opinion is that the show should have run either 8 episodes or 22.  At some point mid-way through, the show began to feel a bit wash-rinse-repeat as Jessica captured and lost Killgrave again and again.  That, and the fact that Jessica keeps going home when every indication suggests that she's actually most vulnerable when she's in her apartment, started to become a bit irksome by episode 10.  And, that the NYPD and FBI weren't starting to build a pretty thick file on some British guy who was abusing the wealthy and privileged in NYC.

But those are my complaints.  That's it.  And even for a show I'll sing high praises of like Agent Carter, I usually have a half-dozen small issues.*  But, at the same time, Agent Carter's 8-episode run seemed to be just about right.

Looking at the series as an adaptation of a superhero comic:  I've never been particularly comfortable with superhero comics' heavy use of mind-control as a plot device.  It's nefarious and a good way to get Superman to punch at Batman (and plausibly lose that fight), but standing behind Superman while shouting "Get him!" as zombie-fied Superman started swinging at Batman always struck me as a pretty loud way to go about your business.  It seemed to me you'd know your limits quickly and figure a life of wanton exploitation of others would work better if it was hard for anyone to know what you were up to.

In too many cases it made the writing feel lazy.  In other cases, like the writers lacked imagination or commitment.

Until Alias (and, to a lesser extent, a storyline in Gaiman's Sandman), comics hadn't had the guardrails taken off enough to illustrate the horrible potential for what one might get up to following the little demon on their shoulder, and, certainly, how you'd begin to lose your own humanity immediately.

As recently as Agent Carter, we've seen another villain with at least the ability of a sort of super-hypnosis, and as much as that character put our heroes in harms' way, it was all pretty broad super-agent style nefarious plotting.  The kind of stuff we've seen in comics for years.

But there's no question that this would be awful and traumatic.  With one foot set in reality, the survivors here form a support group, no matter how big or small what Killgrave did to them, they're lending an ear to the invasion of person and mind.

Unlike the comic of Alias, which took over a year's worth of issues before it began to broach the subject of Jessica's past, within a couple of episodes of Jessica Jones, we've heard the name Killgrave.

As with many Marvel properties, there's no working around to the storyline we'll be focusing on.  The show boils down the 28 issues of the comic to the final volume of the trades, filling out the 13 episodes with what amounts to a far more complex version of the events of the later issues and a take on Killgrave that's maybe there in part in the comics, but hampered both by Killgrave's background as a very real Marvel villain known as "The Purple Man" and what I think was likely an editorial mandate, doesn't take on the same dimension.


Even at the time I was reading the series, while we're all protective of our characters with whom we've come to sympathize, after everything else that had been established, everything that a MAX title seemed willing to get into from drug abuse and addiction to the consequences of violence - the idea that our focal protagonist was a rape survivor was a bridge too far.  In short - Jessica never has sex, consensual or non-consensual, with Killgrave.

Let me be clear, I take no pleasure in the thought.  But it felt like the writers or editorial abruptly broke the trust - not trusting either us as readers or themselves as writers or Marvel as corporate entity.  We got a story that Killgrave was torturing Jones by not allowing her to be raped.  Diabolical and certainly not something you'd see in a Code-approved comic, but it also gave Marvel a safety valve to avoid controversy in both comics and mainstream press.  Of course, Killgrave is raping co-eds right in front of Jones, but he keeps her on hand for 8 months of this torture.  It felt... absolutely untrue to everything else we'd been told.

And in a series that seemed to have been drawing a connect-the-dots of Jessica Jones' character for 20-odd issues, of showing the Marvel U in a new light, with very real crime of the sort police deal with daily, it demonstrated why the industry kept failing over and over again as it struggled to deal with the transformation as a medium for adult readers.

That's a hugely problematic statement, and I get that.  Rape (and the threat of rape) and violence toward women in general as helpless victims has been a trope of comics for a long time, and it certainly got worse in the era after Watchmen as a genre and medium tested their new boundaries, mostly poorly.  Transforming Alias into a survivor's story seemed to make sense, and it remained so, certainly.  But it felt more like editorial mandate the way story unfolded rather than anything that held together, even in a world of comic book logic.

END Spoilers

The television show is, instead, a rape survivor's story.  Full stop.  I commend Marvel and Netflix for making this choice.  Emphasis on survivor.

The show deals with the subject in a litany of ways, maybe not having Jessica use the words til several episodes in, but it's clear what occurred - and eventually she uses the words herself so we're clear.  There will be no soft-peddling in this version.

Jessica's reality and memories have created a world in which she has built personal barricades a mile high with only her adoptive sister holding a key to entry (ironically, it's that same sister who has built the physical barriers to keep the world at bay as Jessica's own home is so porous, in half the scenes of her arriving home, it seems someone is waiting for her - her own nigh-invulnerability a poor security system).

Bendis was no dummy when creating the comics' version of Killgrave, and the seeds are there.  Showrunners for the live action version have taken it a step beyond, studying the playbook of abusive boyfriends and stalkers.  Killgrave has lost his empathy for the world long ago, and his wish of everyone is their command.  He holds onto the injustice he sees done to him long ago as an excuse to abuse everyone else, up to and including the parents who hoped for nothing but the best for him.  

When it comes to Jessica, she's ruining his image of himself, what he wanted the world to be, and he can't have that.  He's the crazed ex calling in the wee hours, the guy sending harassing emails, posting revenge porn, destroying the world around a woman because she can no longer share his space or intimacy.

I've heard some throw around the MRA label, but Killgrave goes beyond being the dope in a fedora and neckbeard on Youtube bitching about how some girl behind the counter at Orange Julius was a bitch to him for not smiling at him -  he's the ex who spreads lies to make your friends and family suspicious of the real you, what you did to him on your way out.  He'll separate you from the world whether to keep you close to him or to make you think about him whether you want to or not.  He shows at the same Chili's you've gone to for a first date and makes a scene, just when you're trying to go out on a date and feel normal again.  He's the ex-boyfriend who gets drunk and shows up at your house blasting his car horn at 3:00 in the morning, getting your neighbors to turn on you for getting woken up all hours.

No one deals well with injured pride and a broken heart, and in Killgrave's case - there's nothing which can stop him.  The notion of control, whether the "super-power" of the show or the real mental control in too many abuse and rape cases - of the assailant's place that occupies the victim's mind, makes the trauma make sense in a way that Red Skull and his power cube never quite gets beyond an odd cartoon version of WWII.  It's something common, something with real victims.

Of course, like so many abusers, Killgrave states he loves Jessica.  And, of course, he just might in his own pathetic way.  Unfortunately, he doesn't know any better way of getting the girl's attention than pulling pigtails.  How can he see himself as a villain when he's trying to show the object of his affection how very special he finds her, especially when he finds no one else worth a passing thought?

If I said I felt the series had the potential to be considered the Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns for live-action superheroics - it's in how those series stepped it up and tried to reach an adult audience with adult concerns with characters that were recognizably human and flawed, and driven by specific motivators that made sense.  In short - where we've now had 15 years of superhero movies in the modern era sometimes working on the allegorical level (particularly the work of Bryan Singer), Jessica Jones is the first to truly feel like it's super humans are humans first, their struggles both allegorical and real, not boiling down to the plans of a mad scientist with a MacGuffin and running timer.  It is not the translation of a pulp kids' fantasy with extra swears and bleeding to make it make sense to adults.

I love that kids' fantasy stuff.  You guys know that.  But it would be a shame for the genre and medium not to grow and change the way comics can and do.**  Any narrative  success for Jessica Jones will not result in a show where Captain America drops the mask and shield to become a social worker - that shouldn't be the lesson here (although the realism bit did lead to Cap dropping a secret ID in the comics in the early 00's, so he's never had one in the movies).  What it should do is tell us that there are other kids of stories we can tell about different kinds of heroes and protagonists, that the genre is okay with not just being escapist fantasies where we can deal with NSA wiretapping by punching a flying boat.

Jessica Jones may not be DKR or Watchmen***.  It may be early-career Frank Miller finding his footing before writing longform superhero socio-political satires or Alan Moore writing winding narratives about the flawed humans inside the capes.  I can't say.  But it's definitely a line in the sand.

The show also brought us terrific performances almost to an actor.  Krysten Ritter is already known in part for her role in Breaking Bad - by me.  And, she's been in high profile starring roles I guess in Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls, which I've never seen.  In other hands, she might be a sloe-eyed gamine, but the producers clearly trusted Ritter's instincts to play the tightly wound drunk, relentlessly defensive.  In the tradition of the great detectives, she's also got a strong moral streak that nags her even as she tries to ignore it, and she's quick to crack wise with anyone giving her trouble.  Or, you know, pick up their car.

She's a survivor with survivor's guilt, and Ritter nails the character's need to run the razor's edge, tough as nails, but because she has to be, wanting so badly to just get on with it and be left alone, to stay away from the needs of others.

New to me was Rachael Taylor, playing one of Marvel's oldest characters, Patsy Walker - here known as Trish Walker, and not yet in Hellcat mode.****  Taylor and Ritter had great chemistry as a pair of sisters and survivors, and while Trish was imported in to give Jones someone to talk to, the character works like crazy, in no small part due to Taylor's portrayal as someone just as determined in her own way as Ritter's Jones.

We'll have much more to say about Mike Colter as Luke Cage at some point, but I literally cannot imagine how the casting could have been better for one of Marvel's most underserved characters.  I very much look forward to his own 13-episode run sometime soon.

I'd be remiss not to mention David Tennant, for many, their favorite of the Doctors.  I quite liked him myself when I was watching Dr. Who.  Tennant gets this character, never playing him as sneering or hand-wringing, but as a spoiled child, petulant and angry.

If I took exception to anyone's performance, it was Colby Minifie as Robyn, not because the character was properly annoying, but because her delivery sometimes felt a bit actor's workshop, like she forgot she didn't need to convey to the 40th row when the camera was right there.

As I said, the show has some logistical and narrative issues.  It's hard to believe someone could keep walking into the penthouses of the fabulously wealthy in New York and either leave them alive or dead without the cops eventually figuring out something was up.  It's not that big of a town.

And, yeah, there was a point just before and during the episodes when Killgrave purchased Jessica's childhood home that I stopped to check to see how many more episodes were coming.  Because if there's one thing that wasn't going to be different in Jessica Jones from other Marvel shows, it was that the bad guy had to get their comeuppance and it just felt really stretched out during this section.  Part of me wondered if that whole middle section was written in after the showrunners were told they needed more episodes than originally ordered - but that is total speculation, and I haven't heard anyone else feeling the show dragged here.

From the Marvel U, pulling in Patsy Walker, Luke Cage, Night Nurse (yay, Rosario Dawson!) and Simpson - who Daredevil readers will remember as Nuke, the mad jingoist in Marvel titles up through Rick Remender's Captain America run - and, hey, nice touch dressing him up to look like civilian Steve Rogers, right down to the well-kempt sideburns.

It seems a bit odd to say this show is important - that's not something I usually toss the way of superhero media.  I appreciate the allegories and exploration of themes of the capes and spider-web movies, but look at them as escapism laden with symbolism.  We can all find inspiration in comics, and I could talk endlessly about how Superman, Mr. Miracle, Batman, the X-Men, Wonder Woman and even New Gods have had a positive impact on me.

But there's something beyond allegory in Jessica Jones, there's a specific real-world take-away from the show as the story of a survivor taking back her life and ending someone else's claim on her existence.  It's not too hard to imagine the critic out there offended that something sharing DNA with Ant-Man is taking on rape and abuse, and indulges in the same superheroics inherent to the Marvel U.  But I also hope there's some young person out there who sees their tormentor in Killgrave and sees them for what they are.  And that they can be beaten.

I can't imagine they'll need another season of Jessica Jones, but literally as I was typing this idea, Jamie looked at her phone and said "Jessica Jones got renewed!".  So, what the hell do I know?    Certainly the final scene of Jones realizing her burden would not end with the conclusion of her Killgrave case was the perfect ending to this 13-episode run.  Clearly Marvel sees potential beyond the Killgrave storyline, and that in itself sounds like a win for Jessica Jones.

While the goal of all media is to get as many eyeballs on it as possible, the expectations and realities of producing a series like Jessica Jones for Netflix produced an environment in which the show could become something other than a color-by-numbers detective show or a superheroes without tights program.  In this format, you do not need to make a half-billion dollars at the cinema in order for the show to be considered a success, you don't need to rely on the first two weeks of release in order for the show to get an audience.  It can be like an album or book that gets good word of mouth and the audience can find the show.

My hope is that this market Marvel has established on Netflix, away from the network suits and their bright ideas gives Marvel room to grow and breathe.  Jessica Jones may be a fluke.  There may be nowhere to go but down from here - but I doubt that.  I'd like to think we're on the verge of something new, something that reflects the greater diversity even within the superhero medium and even within the Big 2.

There's a Defenders and Luke Cage series set for Netflix.  Another season of Daredevil.  If we're lucky, maybe a Hellcat run.  In some ways, it's a little hard to square Jessica with a world with The Hulk or Cap, but the comics have always made it happen, and, man, you know, real life can be a bit that way as well.

*really, right now, the only shows I have virtually no quibbles with are Fargo and The Americans.

**we can argue whether comics have regressed to a safe spot for the time being.  I'd argue comics have gotten weirdly conservative in nature as they've embraced a new audience and completely bent backward to be completely about themselves in 2015-16 (especially if Marvel's Secret Wars is any indication).  And while I'd argue that Marvel would hit a point they'd need to do a Crisis-type event was inevitable once we saw the Ultimate line, the fact that's what they chose to do tells me Marvel may need to start really reconsidering how they're making decisions and failing to learn from the Distinguished Competition.

*** The Watchmen movie should have been a warning to everyone about Zack Snyder's inability to get his head around the material.  Nobody seems to have told him Watchmen was not intended to be an actual superhero movie, just one where we got to hear bones break and people had sex in front of the camera.

****for one of Marvel's weirdest decisions, always keeping Patsy Walker in play is both bizarre and a delight, and I couldn't have been more pleased to see her show up on the show.


J.S. said...

I liked the show. Although I kept wondering why Jessica Jones didn't just wear earphones and listen to loud music to not hear Kilgrave and avoid the mind control. Then, in the final confrontation of the show, Trish wears earphones...

The League said...

I think she did wear ear buds in a couple of scenes. Almost certainly when she, Simpson and Trish went after Killgrave the first time with the van. But, yeah. Couple loopy-loo plotholes there. You'd think she would have started carrying ear buds with her at all times.