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Exploring Trauma with Jessica Jones

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It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Marvel comics, and their cinematic universe that continues to impress as one of the most well-oiled and well thought out phenomena in popular cinema I’ve ever heard of. And this year marked a new kind of addition to the MCU, the Netflix series’ that will eventually lead up to the crossover featuring the Defenders (which I still kind of object to them using, because I really love how crazy that team is in the comics, and it’s weird that they’re calling all the street-level heroes the Defenders, when that’s totally not what they were in the comics). I’ve already talked about Daredevil on this website earlier. And I loved that show. I love Daredevil the character, and that show really nailed him, and led to one of the best pieces of superhero fiction I’ve ever seen. And one of the things that really blew me away about the Daredevil show was the fact that it made me re-think how heroes work in fiction. So there was a pretty high bar for me with the next Defender to come on the scene. And that Defender was Jessica Jones, an extremely interesting character that I really don’t know all that much about. I’ve read Alias, and the Pulse, and Bendis’ run on New Avengers, which is actually most of the appearances she ever had, but I still feel like I don’t know that much of the character. She was definitely the biggest gamble of the Defenders series, the one people in generally would know the least about. So, just like I did with Daredevil when it first came out, I dove right into the series last weekend when it first was launched, and watched the entire 13 episode run in one weekend. And if Daredevil made me re-think heroes in fiction, Jessica Jones made me re-think how the genre of superheros can be used.

Superhero movies have become a genre of media, like Westerns, one with it’s own tropes and standard that give the stories cohesion. For the most part, superhero movies followed set plot beats, and really only changed smaller things to fit the characters. The standard superhero movie trilogy usually works pretty much like this: the first movie would be an origin story that would introduce the character and their abilities, while fighting their most recognizable and marketable villain. Then there would be a second movie that would usually be the best, since it got to skip all the boring origin stuff and get right to a fun superhero story, that would usually feature the hero doubting their abilities or desire to still be  a hero, before finally getting it together and coming back for a heroic climax. Then the trilogies usually end out with overwrought messes that try to do too much, adding multiple villains or love interests, which muddle the plot while doing everything it can to make a bigger story than any of the previous, instead of just making another good story. It’s a tried and true formula, which really has dictated the genre for years. But the last couple years at the Marvel universe have been showing something a little new. Instead of relying on the standard superhero structure, the most recent movies have been more looking at how superheroes would function in different genres. I’ve talked about this before, but its like how Cap 2 was basically a political thriller with Captain America, Ant-Man was a heist movie with Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy was a crazy space-opera with superheroes. And Jessica Jones has given us our first real superhero/noir story, which is pretty great. But it’s not the noir thing that really has me loving this series, which I completely do, I don’t think I actually said that yet. No, the thing that really got me excited from Jessica Jones was that this was the first truly successful attempt at making a superhero story that served as an allegory for a serious social issue.

Jessica Jones Jessica

Now, I will say that the X-Men movies have always tried to have the mutants serve as allegories for pretty much any minority, but so far I don’t think any of the movie have ever really nailed that. They’ve come close, but I think there’s just an inherent problem with that idea, because like I said, they’re usually allegories for minorities, not any specific one, so the message always just comes across kind of muddled. But Jessica Jones went with a very straight forward metaphor, that is pretty much explicitly explained in the later episodes, but it really works. And that allegory? Rape. Yikes. Not something that should be handled lightly, obviously, and this show knocks it out of the park with style and finesse. Now, the plot of this show is pretty similar to the one that was used as Jessica’s backstory in the Alias comic, but it certainly enhances on an already solid idea. It follows Jessica Jones (played by the truly fantastic Krysten Ritter), a bitter alcoholic Private Eye (are there any other kind?) who is trying to keep steady employment in New York, while not exactly flaunting the fact that she has abilities. She has super strength, heals faster than normal people, and can make incredible leaps. Are those all her powers? We don’t know, because she doesn’t know. It kind of makes sense, it’s not like you would just know that you had different powers, and as she and Luke Cage discuss later in the series, it’s not like you want to see if you’re bulletproof by shooting yourself. Jessica’s life is pretty rough. Her parents  and brother died when she was young, in the same accident that gave her her powers, and she went to live with the woman who would become her best friend, Patsy Walker (Hellcat in the comics) whose abusive mother has made her some sort of Hannah Montana child star. Which would be enough to give a woman some emotional problems when she got older, but that only scratches the surface of what makes Jessica so damaged.

At some point in the past of the show, Patsy encouraged Jessica to go be a superhero, so she actually went out and started using her abilities to help New York. Unfortunately, seemingly right away, she encounters a man who calls himself Kilgrave (and not Purple Man, which is kind of a bummer), played by the wonderful David Tennant, who has the ability to make people do whatever he says. He picks Jessica up, and essentially makes her his slave for months. He controls her every hour of ever day, forcing her to do what he wants while using his ability to make her think that it’s what she wants to do. It’s a naturally invasive, violating ability that really easily can be seen as a rape. Because it literally is! Kilgrave rapes people. Constantly! And the thing that makes him so terrifying as a character, even more than he does in the comics, is the fact that he doesn’t even realize he’s doing something wrong. They give Kilgrave a different backstory in the show than his traditional one (the old Stan Lee standard of random dude gets chemicals on him, gets powers and gets evil) and they made him so much creepier. He was experimented on as a child, got these powers before he ever learned the different between right and wrong, and then never had to learn that lesson. He can make anyone in the world do whatever he wants, with no consequences, which obviously turns him into a monster. He casually asks people to commit suicide, not even out of malice, more out of a sense that he just doesn’t know what else to do with people after he’s tormented them. He’s like a little kid killing ants. And here he is, the douchey date-rapist supervillain that is going around ruining peoples lives by molesting their minds and bodies, not even realizing that he’s doing something wrong. I’ve always thought that Purple Man was a terrifying villain, who usually didn’t get used to his full potential, but one that could be incredibly frighting in the right hands. And man did this show find the right hands, because he was easily the most terrifying villain in the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe so far.

Jessica Jones Kilgrave

And while it was incredible to see a television show tackle such a horrible and real thing like rape, and handle it wonderfully, it was even more so to see it handled by a superhero show. And it was done wonderfully. And one of he most shocking things about the show is that it’s also incredibly enjoyable. It’s tense, extremely well made, funny, action-packed, and just all around great. It somehow still feels like a Marvel story, while being about rape instead of mean robots. They somehow made a season of television that featured a woman with super-strength, a man with unbreakable skin, a guy who can control minds and wears purple suits, and a guy who gets super-adrenaline powers by popping pills, made it about rape, and didn’t make it offensive. It was handled wonderfully. But rape isn’t the only theme that this show featured. Yeah, rape was a pretty big through-line for the show, but I think at it’s heart Jessica Jones is about trauma, and how people deal with trauma. Which, just like rape, is a pretty heavy topic to handle with superheroes.

Every major character has had a horrible trauma, either in the show or before it, and we get to see all the different ways that they respond to it. Jessica is the most visible character, and her trauma is her whole back story. And how does she deal with her trauma? Lots and lots of drinking, cutting ties with all her friends, and desperately trying to prove that her life is still worth something, if not to her to the people around her. She starts off not dealing with her trauma, and living as a horrible drunken wreck, before realizing that the best way to get through her trauma is to save people from Kilgrave, to become the hero that she was always too scared to actually be. It’s a pretty great arc for a really great character, but she’s not the only character to deal with some terrible problem in their past. Kilgrave’s powers came from terrible abuse from his scientist parents, and instead of ever getting over his trauma, he just became a monster. He never takes any responsibility for his actions, and lives his entire life doing whatever he pleases, not fearing any consequences. And that’s certainly one way to live after a problem, not the right way, but a way. We then have Luke Cage (played by Mike Colter in a way that makes me so extremely excited for his own series next year) who lost his wife (when Jessica killed her because of Kilgrave’s orders) a while back, and is dealing with that by basically removing himself from society. Luke escapes to his bar, ignoring the world beyond him, while occasionally trying to better the neighborhood with his abilities. By the end Luke realizes that he can be a better man, and that he needs to actually live his life. Then we have Patsy Walker, a woman who was extremely abused by her psychotic mother throughout her childhood, and she basically becomes paranoid to a crazy degree. She has built a fortress of an apartment with security rooms and reinforced doors, while spending all her spare time learning self defense. She’s been abused, and hasn’t learned how to handle herself, and deal with her life. She retreats into a scare mindframe while becoming suspicious of everyone around her, while being incredibly jealous of Jessica for her abilities to keep herself safe. By the end of the show she’s shown herself and Jessica that she has not only the physical ability, but the emotional ability to take care of herself and Jessica. It’s another great arc. And while there’s a lot of other minor characters who also deal with trauma, like Jessica’s junkie neighbor Malcolm, the last one I want to talk about is Officer Will Simpson. I didn’t realize going in that Simpson was going to be a real character on the show, and that he was a stealth cameo from a ridiculous Frank Miller character  Nuke. He’s an ex-Special Forces soldier who had been involved in a crazy experiment to create super soldiers with pills, and who is now a cop. Kilgrave takes control of his mind and uses him as a weapon to kill Patsy early in the series. Now, I would have imagined that this character would have been gone shortly after that, but he ends up sticking around after that, completely ashamed of himself for being taken advantage of, and desperately wishing that he could save Patsy. And as the show goes on, Simpson gets so obsessed with keeping Patsy safe and punishing Kilgrave that he goes back to the program and turns himself into a monster in order to feel safe again. It’s incredibly tragic. This show portrayed a bunch of different types of trauma, and showed that there’s lots of different ways to deal with your problems, both positive and negative. And to me, that’s an incredible things. I love superheroes, but by and large, they don’t often get used to tackle such an important topic. People love superheroes, and it’s great to see that people are now using them to teach people about serious social issues. It’s a way to get a dialogue going about something that can be very awkward to talk about, and I love that it worked out so well. Superheroes are a wonderful medium, and it’s so exciting to see the potential of using these movies and shows to create engaging stories about serious issues. The superhero genre is growing up guys.

Jessica Jones table

Jessica Jones was created by Melissa Rosenberg and was released by Marvel Television, 2015

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