Jessica Jones S2: Has All My Pet Peeves, Is Good Anyway

17 06 2018

Jessica Jones Season 2 is not about saving the world from aliens, or the city from ninjas, or the neighborhood from ruthless real estate developers. It’s about coming to terms with trauma and power. It’s a human scale story with super-powered people who are eminently believable and compelling. I liked it more than any Marvel tv series, except maybe The Punisher. Which is weird to say, because Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist are some of my favorite comic characters. It’s also weird because JJS2 includes all the pet peeves I’ve been grinding on ever since Heroes got everything all wrong. Let’s go down the list.

1. No costumes, no logos, no hero names. Here’s the thing about superheroes: historically, they are ridiculous. The whole idea is juvenile. But, over time, the audience has matured* and demanded that superheroes mature as well, becoming something greater than throwaway entertainment for young boys. And storytellers have obliged, in many different ways, with varying results (I’ll resist the urge to start cataloguing them here.) In many cases, storytellers’ first step is to dispense with the costumes and hero names.

I can see the logic; the tights are embarrassing, the names are silly, and both just highlight the infantile roots of the superhero. That’s flawed logic though. It strikes me as an outsider’s logic, a poseur’s logic, the logic of someone who wants to sell something to an audience without understanding that audience. The names, the costumes, and the logos are characterization devices. With one look at a superhero costume (especially in the act of using their powers) we know everything we need to know to jump into the story. From that point, our expectations can be fulfilled, subverted, expanded, or whatever the story requires.

In The Punisher and season 1 of Daredevil, the lead character only shows up in costume in the final episode. In all the other Marvel/Netflix series, costumes are absent. The Defenders goes so far as to openly mock the idea of costumes. It’s supposed to be witty, and sort of meta, and inject some true-to-life atmosphere, but it struck me as a played-out tactic. Huge audiences have already accepted Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Captain America. To assume that a costume gets in the way of telling a solid, relatable story is just dumb.

Jessica Jones of course never wears a costume, and never uses any name but Jessica Jones. But it works. The costume is not something her show is running away from. She is just better suited to bluntly asserting her everyday identity in all situations.

2. No supervillains. Too often, superhero stories amount to the heroes fighting amongst themselves, or fighting for nothing more than to retain ownership of their powers. Ant Man is just Hank Pym and Scott Lang trying not to let Ant Man technology hurt people. Iron Man, Iron Man 3, and Avengers: Age of Ultron are, similarly, about cleaning up Tony Stark’s messes. Daredevil Season 2 is mostly infighting between Daredevil, the Punisher, and Elektra. And the whole point of Civil War is heroes in conflict with each other. Which is certainly a rich vein of story to explore. But if the heroes have no reason for being other than mitigating their own existence, the whole thing becomes an exercise in irony.**

Again, I get it. Here in the 21st century, supervillains are even more ridiculous than superheroes. The classic tropes around threatening the world into submission with some doomsday device just don’t make sense any more. The evils that plague us are impersonal and institutional, corruption woven together with legitimacy in a complex web, unsusceptible to the kind of straightforward and gratifying solutions that superheroes are designed to provide. But let’s be honest; this state of things is not new. And it doesn’t make supervillains dramatically impossible, just more challenging. Surely there are ways to embody and personify entrenched corruption, duplicitous media, climate destruction, and so on. To simply not provide a hero with a combatable nemesis is just a failure of imagination.

In JJS2, pretty much everyone treads on all sides of right and wrong. The closest thing to a villain is Dr. Malus, and even he is difficult to write off as irredeemable. But again, in this case, it works. Jessica is up against herself. She’s trying to figure out how to live with her power and come to terms with her past. Malcolm, Trish, and Alisa all function alternately as helpers and hindrances, while their own struggles parallel, intersect with, and illuminate Jessica’s. There’s just no call in the story for a Kingpin or The Hand.

3. Misused/underused powers. Like costumes and hero names, powers can (and should) be a window into the character’s nature. They also should be visually interesting; both comic books and film/video are visual media after all. In general, superhero movies and shows lean heavily on choreographed martial arts. I enjoy that kind of thing, but I also want to see energy beams and inhuman forms and general weirdness. And much of the time, there’s plenty of that other stuff on screen (my favorite thing about Ant Man was the feast of micro-scale imagery). But sometimes it’s clear that fancy fist fighting is standing in for the more expensive-to-produce special effects. Or worse, standing in for creative application of powers (Daredevil is a big offender here).

Jessica Jones’ powers are barely even defined. She’s strong and she’s durable. It’s kind of a minimal default power set, without any thematic rationale like unbreakable skin or spider-strength. The Defenders suffers from a lack of differentiation among its characters. All four heroes do essentially the same things most of the time. I waited in vain throughout that series for a demonstration of Jessica’s superior brute force.

But yet again, what bothers me elsewhere does not bother me in JJS2. Jessica’s broad-stroke powers are her blessing and her curse, a metaphor for all kinds of power people wield and the repercussions of doing so. Which is a common theme with superheroes (hello, Spider-Man’s catch-phrase) but it’s not often explored with the depth and sensitivity of Jessica Jones.

I’ve been nursing a grudge for years against properties that “get superheroes wrong.” There’s no point to such grudge-holding in any case, but it’s clear to me now that I don’t have to cling to any criteria for what makes a superhero story. There is such a wealth of on-screen material out there now… lots of it is still bad, but lots of it is really, really good. And a lot of the good stuff is looking for new angles on the genre, much as the comics started doing in earnest 30 years ago. Ever since 2002’s Spider-Man, I hoped the movie adaptations would follow a similar path to sophistication, only faster. 16 years later, on the whole, storytelling on the screen is rivaling–even exceeding–that of the comics.

Once in awhile, you get what you wish for.

*”Mature” is an odd way to describe staying attached to the comics of our childhoods.

**I’m all for irony. I’d love to see an absurdist superhero movie. But that’s not what Marvel or DC are doing.

 

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