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Jessica Jones

The Marvel TV series is a smart take on rape culture.



As Marvel continues to infect our lives with stridently competent comic book adaptations, it's nice to see what they produce actually be about something. Previous incarnations dealt with joy (Guardians of the Galaxy) and the security state (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Jessica Jones deals with rape.

Kilgrave (David Tennant) is a walking nightmare. His power is mind control. He's constantly using and throwing away people to serve his immediate needs, sexual and otherwise, which results in support groups, self-medication, discussions of the cycle of abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is unique for a mainstream narrative. Like Preacher's Jesse Custer, he can compel someone to his will just by speaking to them. At any point in the story, he will walk into the room with a purple suit and a sneer and demand strangers do his bidding. His attitude is one of entitlement to other people's bodies, and dismissive sarcasm to empathy. His most frequent dictum is a short, curt "Leave." His one passion is stalking Krysten Ritter's title character, a superpowered private eye who deals with having been in his mental grasp by descending into alcoholism.

Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones
  • Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones

Jones is a Hulk-Buffy variant wrapped in friendly Marvel packaging. She can't kill her nemesis because she needs to prove he compelled a victim to murder; he won't kill her because he professes love. This makes for a wonderful fluidity between hero and villain. He shows up to talk, and it's terrifying. We could have gotten a version of this character that delves into the mind control aspect as wish fulfillment, and his British accent as suave. (He is often seen with women and money, or having people take his insults literally.) Instead the emphasis is on what it feels like to have your mind scrambled.

In the support group Jones starts, victims talk about a loss of identity and being overcome by shame for things as simple as Kilgrave asking for their jacket. Ritter is great at both snappy dialogue and weightier PTSD moments. She enlists a large number of allies, including fellow comic book heroes Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). Kilgrave's horror is the show's star, unusually scary for a Marvel villain. His dialogue is often textbook chauvinistic defenses of sexual assault, and his psychology based on abuse as a child: the medical experiments which gave him his powers, done by his parents.

Like other Marvel entertainment, there are tonally off supporting characters, once and future comic-book plots awkwardly grafted on, and wastes of good actors. The ending is anticlimactic, the action repetitive kick-punching.

Overall, it says something. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg has said she was trying to make a blatant corrective to the use of sexual assault as a plot device on shows like Game of Thrones, where no time or realism is given to the psychology of victims or perpetrators. The result is a corporate product that has the ring of something honest and direct.

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