The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s bread and butter has been and will continue to be established, well known characters like Captain America and The Hulk, but shedding light on the more obscure corners of their 50+ year publishing history has been pretty lucrative too. Who would’ve guessed that Guardians of the Galaxy would’ve been the highest grossing film of 2014? Comic readers, sure. But your average kid who was War Machine for Halloween in 2013 wouldn’t have known a Groot or Rocket Raccoon from even more obscure Marvel Heroes like Moon Knight or Prowler. Now Star Lord, Drax and Gamora stand shoulder to shoulder with icons like Iron Man, Thor and Nick Fury on toy shelves, video game character select screens, and in the hearts and minds of children both young and old worldwide. Thus is the power of a great adaptation.
Netflix’s spate of small screen Marvel adaptations got off to a similar running start earlier this year with Daredevil, but that was based on a well-known character (even if that public awareness is based mostly on 2003’s polarizing Ben Affleck vehicle), and had several ringers in the cast. Everybody knew D’Onofrio as Kingpin would be a slam dunk, as was Scott Glenn as Stick and Rosario Dawson as a down to earth take on “Night Nurse”. But what about Netflix’s next MCU project, where they’d have to pull out a “deep cut” from Marvel lore, introducing the public to a main character they most likely had no prior relationship with. Nerds love to worry, but in this case it was unfounded, because just as the film division did with Guardians, the Netflix guys dug into the dusty longboxes and found gold with Jessica Jones.
Jones takes Daredevil’s neo-noir Hell’s Kitchen hellscape and dials down the darkness to an absolute pitch black, centering on the titular character of Jessica (Krysten Ritter) and her attempts to run a one woman private investigation firm while suffering from PTSD due to her relationship with Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man with the power to control the mind of anyone he speaks to, who she ran afoul of one night while attempting to use her mysterious “gifts” of enhanced strength and physical resilience to break up a mugging. Thinking she’d rid herself of Kilgrave’s evil after a harrowing incident involving a bus crash, Jessica is devastated to find herself involved in a kidnapping plot involving a mind controlled student who kills her parents in cold blood after being seemingly “rescued”. The truth is as plain to see as the innocent blood smeared across the wall of the elevator in Jessica’s Apartment Building. Kilgrave is alive, and the reluctantly heroic Jones is the only one that can truly stop him, and for good this time.
Without devolving into spoiler territory, let’s immediately get one thing out of the way: Jessica Jones is good, maybe even better than Daredevil. Like I said before, most people are aware of at least the basic concept of Daredevil while Jones has to earn it’s good will from the first frame, and it does so in unapologetically deft fashion. Brian Michael Bendis, creator of the early aughts Marvel Max comic Alias, which the Jessica Jones TV series is based on, served as a creative consultant and it shows, with scenes and even dialogue ripped whole cloth from the highly regarded and influential comics series. Bendis, along with Mark Millar and Ed Brubaker, were the architects of the early to mid-2000’s critical and commercial boom period for Marvel publishing, much of which has served as the basis for the wildly successful MCU since 2008’s Iron Man.
Alias was Bendis’ first chance to play in the “Avengers Sandbox”, so-to-speak, before taking over the mainstream New Avengers comic series in 2005 and bringing obscure characters like Luke Cage and Jessica “Spider-Woman” Drew (who Jessica Jones was originally supposed to be before Marvel pulled the plug and forced Bendis to create his own character) with him. So even though this series, as Daredevil did, takes place in an in-universe “post-Avengers” world (hence all the “alien invasion” and “big green guy” talk), the comic itself was the prototype for the smart, modern superhero writing that Marvel now uses as a license to print money.
As far as how that hard-boiled, superhero noir writing transfers to the screen, well… in the first episode or two you can tell that Krysten Ritter may be having a rough go of it, But soon enough she inhabits the character fully and you stop seeing “Jesse’s dumb girlfriend from Breaking Bad” and see nothing but ass kicking, fully capable Jessica Jones, with just enough understandable and believable vulnerability to keep her from being the “female Terminator” that most writers would reduce a character with her abilities to. And then there’s David Tennant’s Kilgrave, probably as nuanced and sympathetic yet utterly reprehensible a villain as has ever appeared onscreen.
Rounding out the cast is Rachael Taylor as the series’ take on Patsy “Hellcat” Walker, here renamed “Trish” and having the character’s real-life past as the subject of 50’s Archie-esque romance comics hilariously re-imagined for the series as being a Miley Cyrus/Hilary Duff style former teen actress. She’s not quite ready to start busting her own share of heads in darkened alleyways yet but we do get to see her rock some jiu jitsu and be temporarily powered up by an experimental military drug. Speaking of which, an unlikely (though welcome) character to appear here is ridiculous (in a good way) Frank Miller-era Daredevil villain Nuke (Frank Simpson, changed for the series to Will, probably to avoid confusion with Frank ‘The Punisher” Castle’s upcoming appearance in Daredevil Season 2) , here transformed into a Kilgrave-posessed cop, portrayed by Wil Traval, who was formerly part of said strength enhancing military drug experiments. It’ll be interesting to see where these developments go in the future of the shared Netflix universe.
And that future looks incredibly bright. Mike Colter turns up here as Luke Cage and he’s definitely one of the series’ highlights, though they don’t overuse him or hint too much at he and Jones’ domestic future, we’re given just enough of the “man with the bulletproof skin” to make us highly anticipate the debut of his own series, which is next up on the Netflix docket.
Tonally, Jessica Jones and Daredevil don’t differ much, just sprinkling in the concept of “gifted” individuals and largely using science to explain their “powers” away. Luke Cage should continue on the same gritty tack though with a hint of weird science added in, depending on how the creative team choose to portray the experiments that grant Cage his unbreakable skin. The real test for Netflix will be Iron Fist, a character that will most likely be introduced in the Cage series, whose backstory involves alternate dimensions, mystical cities and ripping the hearts out of dragons. Either way, at this point Netflix’s adaptation choices have been extremely solid and if nothing else (though it’s so much more) Jessica Jones proves that Daredevil was no fluke, and that Netflix’s Marvel output will continue to be as deserving of fan anticipation as the latest big screen Avengers adventure