(Spoiler-free beyond what’s in the preview materials.)
Netflix’s second Marvel show has taken a darker turn than any comic-book show or film in recent memory. Not even Gotham comes close to hitting the emotional nerves punched by Jessica Jones; Gotham delights in its zany criminals and serial killers and holds them up as the true stars of the show and the source of its fun and its humor. But there is nothing funny about the evil in Jessica Jones‘ world. It is an evil that gnaws at the memories, or the stomachs, of some who watch the show. Gotham’s villains are too ridiculous to take seriously, but Jones’ villain is straight out of the real-world past for some. Or for others, out of the present.
There are plenty of reviews out in all the usual spots celebrating the show’s noir sensibilities, Ritter’s take on the hardboiled detective, and how this is the perfect superhero show for people tired of superheroes. New York is full of long, dark shadows; a jazzy underscore follows the hero around every episode; she has a drinking habit that would put Scott Disick in a coma; we keep expecting Humphrey Bogart to show up. There is a passing reference to “the big green guy and his crew” and occasional mentions of the alien invasion from Avengers 1, but other than that, this show could be completely divorced from the MCU. Fellow Netflix denizen Daredevil works the exact same neighborhood as Jones, but at least through episode 3 where I’m at now, he hasn’t even been mentioned. The NYC skyline notably lacks a certain tower built by a certain Mr. Stark. Jones and her lover (not a spoiler; they hook up in the pilot) Luke Cage have equivalent super strength with each other, but they clearly aren’t on the level of Thor or Hulk. Jones has super jumping but can’t fly; Cage has nigh-invulnerability, but it is implied it too has its limits below what an Avenger can endure.
But how this show rates on the geek-o-meter is not the point of this post. Jones is perhaps the most damaged protagonist of any Marvel property other than Frank Castle, and we don’t have to wait long to see why.
The season’s supervillain is a psychopath named Kilgrave with mind-control powers that he exploits to the fullest, and it’s clear that he once had Jones completely dominated in the past. The guilt and the PTSD still wrack her and she still can’t forgive herself, even though she was the victim of a supernatural psychic power. “But what if the devil did make you do it?” she monologues in episode 3. “Even if you could prove it, would people ever forgive what you did?” And in case it wasn’t obvious enough, by “people,” she means herself.
“The whole time he had me,” she later says, “there was some part of me that fought. There was some tiny corner of my brain that tried to get out. And I’m still fighting.”
It is difficult to quantify just how much lasting damage an abusive relationship inflicts on the victim, even after they are able to escape it as Jones escaped hers. The self-loathing never stops: how could she have been so weak? How could she have let that happen? You’d think the victim would spend all their energy hating their abuser, and they certainly do hate them, but they often hate themselves so much more. For letting it happen. For hurting friends and family at the behest of the abuser. For being damaged goods. Perhaps most of all, for realizing they have that vulnerability that never goes away. Perhaps most of all, for knowing they cannot guarantee to themselves that they won’t accept the abuser if he (or she) returns, and fall under the destructive spiral once again.
This is Jones’ greatest fear as the show moves forward. She could easily destroy the villain with one arm tied behind her back if he didn’t have his paranormal gift for domination, but that doesn’t matter. You can’t punch your way out of mind control. She fears Kilgrave not only for what he can do to her, but what he can force her to do to others. And unlike Hawkeye, who spent most of Avengers 1 mind-controlled, she considers herself a failure as a hero as a result of her vulnerability.
Speculative fiction, including its superhero subgenre, excels at taking a real-world problem and highlighting it by dialing it up to 11 via sci-fi technology, magic, or superhuman powers. So the paradox of the “righteous war” gets a new perspective in Ender’s Game where instead of human adversaries, we get seemingly monstrous aliens who have tried not once but twice to wipe out humanity. The evils of ideological totalitarianism are brought out in starker relief by pushing them to the future dystopian setting of 1984. And the psychological scars of surviving an abusive relationship are perhaps made more understandable by turning the abuser into a superpowered, mind-controlling, evil version of Professor X.
Some facile takes compared this show to Supergirl merely because of the gender of the protagonists, but Supergirl is actually Jones’ polar opposite. Supergirl is quite literally invulnerable, always hopeful and optimistic, and if her show has any theme at all, it is the oft-tread “bright girl, bright future, big city.” We have no doubt that Supergirl is gonna make it after all. Supergirl is our childlike dream of what adulthood should be like. Jones is the world-weary recognition of what adulthood actually becomes.
At one point, perhaps, Jones thought of herself as the next Avenger. But a cruel world and a cruel person chewed her up and tossed her to the curb for no apparent reason, and even though she survived that physically intact, her dreams of how her life were going to go were forever annihilated. She learned that happiness and achieving goals are for other people. It does not matter that what happened to her was not her fault — she still cannot forgive herself for how her life turned out. She resigns herself to her grubby, broken-down office/apartment, so often contrasted to the sparkling and expensive offices and homes of her friends, because she believes that’s all she’s worth.
Abuse is not something you just “get over.” It is not something you shake off. Your mind and your emotions perhaps never heal those scars, and that is a fact this show explores. On some level, Jones cannot accept her past trauma or what it means for her dreams and her life, and she cannot accept that she did not deserve it. Her struggle may not be as easy for your typical teenaged boy to understand as, say, aliens invading New York… and perhaps it is because superpowers are useless in Jones’ personal struggle. It’s not clear what, if anything, isn’t useless in that.
Even if Jones winds up defeating the villain (and, if past shows are any indication, his defeat won’t be permanent), her struggles will never really go away. They will be part of her permanently. And that is what they don’t tell you about abuse: Your abuser grafts part of themselves on you for the rest of your life. Jones doesn’t know how to fix that and neither do I, but if you do, please drop a line.