Marvel’s Jessica Jones “AKA Ladies Night” Review (Episode 1) – The One Who Tried

Marvel's Jessica Jones NYCC Poster

Sitting in anticipation of Netflix’s second foray into the darker corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had this one phrase running through my head over and over — and I’m sure I wasn’t the only comic fan who did. It went a little something like this:

“They’ll never let it…”

As in, “They’ll never let it be as adult as the comic was.” “They’ll never let it go as dark.” “They’ll never let it be as racy.” “They’ll never let it be a deceptively mundane.”

All of which amounted to, “They’ll never let it be Jessica Jones.”

And that was important! Because unlike any other Marvel heroes, Jessica Jones didn’t really have an aesthetic to translate. She didn’t have a “look.” Or, rather, her look was purposefully ordinary, her world intentionally drab and sometimes depressingly real. She had no costume (not at first, anyway), and her adventures did not fit the mold for your typical Marvel comic. Her stories weren’t about superpowers, they were about her as a person. She was a literary-style antihero in a four-color world. Adapting her stories to TV meant showrunner Melissa Rosenberg couldn’t fall back on the same sort of tropes afforded Arrow, The Flash, or even Daredevil — she had no visuals to entice us with, so she’d have to capture the essence of the character in the writing, in the performance.

But why was this character — a character most people have never even heard of — important enough to receive an adaptation in the first place?

Open your history books to a chapter I like to call…

AKA Alias
 

Bored Jessica Jones

Y’see, Jessica Jones occupies a very unique place in Marvel comics history: she was their first R-rated character. In 2001, Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos launched the comic series Alias (not to be confused with the J.J. Abrams-created spy show starring erstwhile-Elektra, Jennifer Garner), which became the first title in a new imprint for mature readers: Marvel MAX.

In fact, Alias was the reason Marvel MAX even existed. Bendis, known for the gritty, indie crime comics he’d published before becoming a mainstream creator, was hankering to return to his old genre stomping grounds, but wanted to create something that used the Marvel universe as a contrasting backdrop. In comics like Jinx and Goldfish (which you should be Googling right now), he developed a knack for writing complex, damaged, morally ambiguous characters, as often at war with their own inner demons and shortcomings as they were with external aggressors. His new protagonist would fit perfectly in their company. A jaded, angry, damaged, foul-mouthed former-superhero-turned-private-eye who could observe and comment on the grander Marvel universe without tact or compunction. Her genre would be noir. Her first adventure would have her accidentally capturing Captain America’s then-secret identity on camera and then spiraling down a Chinatown-esque conspiracy as she tried her best to do the right thing while barely keeping her head above water. She was the super-strong Jim Rockford of the Marvel universe — only with more anxiety and a LOT more F-bombs.

It was the F-bombs that made Bendis think his idea would be dead on arrival. Marvel comics at that point had firmly planted their flag in that vague PG13-ish zone of almost-family-friendly almost-maturity, and they had no reason to upset that formula. Yet, when he handed the pitch in to then-President of Publishing, Bill Jemas, Jemas loved it so much that he greenlit not only the comic, but an entire imprint at Marvel, giving creators the opportunity to tell more adult stories for their adult readers.

(it’s even been rumored that much of the Punisher’s characterization in the upcoming Daredevil season 2 draws inspiration from his Marvel MAX run)

(no, “MAX” isn’t an acronym, I just like capitalizing it)

For 28 issues, Bendis and artistic collaborator Gaydos took us down the dark alleys of the Marvel U. It was chock full of bad words, open, if not graphic, depictions of sex, and dark detours into the topics of rape, drug addiction, clinical depression, PTSD, and racism. It was also, believe it or not, quite funny! Jessica took on cases that had her crossing paths with the likes of Spider-Man, Ant-Man, and Ms Marvel, all out of costume, and all more than a little thrown off by her been-there-done-that, hard-drinking, drunken-sailor-with-a-skinned-knee attitude. Much of the humor in Alias came from Jessica shocking the Marvel universe with her absolute lack of filter.

Which brings me to another “They’ll never…”

“They’ll never let her be to the Marvel Cinematic Universe what she was the comics universe.”

This one, at least for now, seems a safe bet. Marvel’s TV properties have notoriously kept a moderate distance from the movies, partially to avoid every project from feeling like a spinoff or sequel to the last, but also because (if rumors hold true) Kevin Feige has zero interest in the TV division and doesn’t want it mucking up the sanctity of his movie world.

That’s a pretty big plot device from the Alias comics that Jessica Jones the series doesn’t get to use: the Zeppo factor. (it’s a Buffy reference; look it up)

So, how does Rosenberg compensate?

The Right Women For the Job
 

Dark Alley Jessica Jones

This show wastes no time on cold opens, instead dazzling us with the insanely gorgeous title sequence, modeled after the work of Alias cover artist David Mack. Unlike Daredevil‘s opening, which is subdued and moody, merely hinting at the shape of things to come, Jessica Jones‘s opening credits hit us with a full blast of color and atmosphere. The title music begins breezy and light before ramping up to an action theme that, along with the visuals, tells us there’s danger lurking in those dark alleyways. It’s a great introduction to the series, followed by an opening scene that further cements the show in the tradition of classic detective fiction. Lurid exploits and smoky jazz music, accompanied by signature voice-over (another classic P.I. trope), introduce us to Jessica’s world and just how bored she is with it.

From there, we get our first easter-egg of the series — a shot-for-shot, word-for-word recreation of the opening scene from the first issue of the comic — as Jessica tosses an unruly client through her business office/apartment’s stained glass door window.

(…yeah, that doesn’t really make sense to me either, but hey — it’s a unique setting. And it saved on the cost of building a separate set, I guess.)

Krysten Ritter IS Jessica Jones; let’s get that out of the way right now. Sure, she takes some time finding her rhythm — at first, I found her Jessica a little caricaturish in her snark, but as Rosenberg’s script dug deeper, so did Ritter, finding beauty and emotion in the smallest of moments.

My favorite has to be when she offers glue to the distraught father who’s trying to fix her front door. She sees the man’s fussy fidgeting for the coping mechanism it is, and is willing to meet him halfway, a sympathetic half-smile offered along with the glue… and then, when he rebuffs her, her expression changes from humoring to mocking, and she’s all business once again. In that one little eyebrow-twitch, Ritter BECAME Jessica Jones. I didn’t doubt her for another second after that.

Right off the bat, the show eschews the traditional formula of the kind of shows it’s trying to emulate. A detective show usually puts one case center stage per episode, and builds all of its story and character development around the unfurling of that plot. Not so with Jessica Jones. Here, we see Jessica hop from case to case, none of them the sort of head-scratchers an audience might expect from the genre. All the while, her main focus seems to be a case we know nothing about: that of the attractive bartender she crawls out of bed to spy on in the middle of the night.

I’ll admit, it all felt a bit jarring and disorganized on the first viewing — but on the rewatch, I realized that the throughline between the disparate cases is Jessica herself. SHE is the story. SHE is the mystery. And each task she takes on is used to reveal more about her… or raise more questions.

(just why IS she watching that bartender? And who’s the woman in the photo in his medicine cabinet?)

Of course, even that turns out to be a smokescreen, as halfway through the episode, the REAL plot of the episode (and the series, if trailers are to be believed), is revealed.

The Purple Man Cometh
 

Purple Echoes Jessica Jones

So, this turned out to be the biggest surprise of the episode for me; that we were being dropped into the Purple Man plot from the jump. In hindsight, I suppose it shouldn’t have been that surprising — he practically IS the marketing campaign of the show. Even the title sequence is saturated in his signature color. But for a fan of the comics, revealing Kilgrave and Jessica’s history this early feels a bit… premature.

In this, the show sets itself apart from fan expectations early on. It’s taken the defining moments from 28 issues of comic book and thrown them all into the first episode of the series. In the comics, it took two years to learn that Jessica even HAD a history with the Purple Man — in the TV series, it takes 30 minutes. All at once, I understand why Rosenberg chose to do it this way — you want to start strong and give audiences a reason to invest in your story from the beginning, so why save the most intriguing part for last? It’s a very “TV” way of thinking.

But it also runs the risk of making the character nothing BUT her relationship with Kilgrave. In the comics, for two years, Jessica Jones’s deeds were what made her interesting, not what was done TO her. It’s way too early for me to assume this Jessica’s deeds won’t also be noteworthy, but I mourn the loss of that slow-burn revelation.

Anyway.

As the Daredevil series did with the Kingpin, we are only given glimpses and echoes of Jess’s big bad at first. Like Wilson Fisk, Kilgrave’s reputation precedes his first appearance. Kilgrave also continues the trend of Marvel’s street level villains thematically representing political or social injustices we face in the real world. If Wilson Fisk stood in for the callous 1% and the evils of gentrification, then Kilgrave, with his abusive and domineering nature, urging the captive Jessica to “smile!” for him, represents the condescending misogynist — the privileged white male — whose exploits in the real world have become more visible and pervasive in recent years. If Fisk is the greedy landlord, and Daredevil the middle-class crusader, then Kilgrave is rape-culture personified, and Jessica Jones the feminist survivor.

The show’s social undercurrents don’t end there. In Jessica, Krysten Ritter gets to play the flawed, self-possessed, all-too-human, and more-than-a-little-angry protagonist women are so rarely allowed to be in stories like this. Her supporting cast is an exercise in representation and diversity. Carrie-Anne Moss plays a ruthless corporate lawyer who is cheating on her wife with the secretary. Rachael Taylor plays an uptown news personality who is also one of Jessica’s closest friends. Eka Darville’s Malcolm may run the risk of being branded the cliche “black male junkie with a heart of gold” but Mike Colter balances out the racial equation as a charismatic business owner who is also the main love interest for the protagonist. It’s a show populated by an assortment of unique characters of diverse genders, orientations, and ethnicities — an assortment typically underserved by mainstream entertainment. In point of fact, the only white male in the show so far is the villain! There’s definitely a socially conscious perspective at work here, and it is appreciated.

One Down…
 

Jess Flirts Jessica Jones

In the end, “AKA Ladies Night” is a decent, slow-burn character piece with a killer ending. I’d call this a strong start. Not as strong as Daredevil‘s, but perhaps I’m biased in that regard. Daredevil episode 1 took me to church. Jessica Jones episode 1 draws me into a world of intrigue, mystery, and just enough psychological horror to whet the appetite.

There are still echoes of the network show that almost was AKA Jessica Jones. The pacing, the writing style, the tone (for the most part) wouldn’t feel out of place on ABC. I won’t lie: some of the lengths it goes to to distance itself from that aspect do feel forced — of course, those are the parts that will no doubt have people talking the most. In particular, the show’s sex scenes feel amped up to an absurd degree purely for the sake of saying, “LOOK! WE’RE NOT MARVEL MAX, BUT WE CAN STILL SHOW PEOPLE DOING THE DEED!” It smacks of overcompensation, which isn’t uncommon for a pilot episode, but I’m hoping it will find a better equilibrium as it goes on.

Still, I can happily report I was at least partially wrong with my initial doubts. Jessica Jones the series wastes no time in proving to us it’s willing to get as racy as it needs to, and by the end of the first episode, there’s no question that it can and will go to dark places. Though it has a much more frenetic “TV” pace than the comics had, it still takes its moments to show Jess in the mundane situations the comic excelled at. Jessica Jones is not a “save the world” character, she’s a “forgot to change out the toilet paper roll” character.

Her layers are every bit as complex as her comic counterpart, with the show not afraid to show her afraid — one of the most powerful moments of the episode comes when she suffers a panic attack at the revelation that Kilgrave has returned. Something so frightening that it causes her to run somewhere, anywhere, just to get away. And yet, somewhere in the midst of her flight response, she finds the will to fight. This is the character I wanted to see translated to the screen, and this is who Melissa Rosenberg has given us.

I have the feeling easter eggs in this series are going to be few and far between, since, again, there are only two years of Jessica comics to draw from as opposed to Daredevil’s 50. That said, I did spot a few!

Easter Egg Hunt
 

Hallway  Jessica Jones

– As mentioned earlier, the scene where we pan down the hall, just before Jessica’s angry client gets thrown through the window, followed by her quip, “And then there’s the matter of your bill.” Straight out of the comic.

– Carrie-Anne Moss’s character — Jeri Hogarth — is a gender-swapped version of Jeryn Hogarth from the comics. Jeryn is also a lawyer (think a middle-aged Foggy Nelson), someone who happens to be the family lawyer for the man who will one day be known as the Immortal Iron Fist. That’s TWO major Iron Fist supporting characters who have been dropped into the earlier Netflix series (remember Madame Gao from Daredevil?). Marvel is teasing the fans out, big time.

– “His name was Melvin.” It’s probably nothing, but how cool would it be if the drunk who once ate buffalo wings and passed out at Luke’s bar was Daredevil’s costume maker, Melvin Potter?

So there you have it.

THIS WAS REALLY LONG.

I can’t promise they’ll all be this long.

I hope you enjoyed it.

Until next time, when we learn just what the heck “Crush Syndrome” is. (I think I had that in high school…)