They say it is best to arrive to a party fashionably late. How late that is can vary from person to person, but I’ve often heard 15-20 minutes is a reasonable time. If that’s the case, then I arrived UNfashionably late to the Marvel Cinematic Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Over the last 5 days, I’ve binge-watched all 26 episodes of each series (in-between catching up on Season 1 of Flash, a few episodes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the first three episodes of Young Justice Season 2, and a couple of episodes from Season 1 of Arrow), and I’ve got to say those 26 hours were some of the best television I’ve ever seen and definitely in the ranks of “best cinematic adaptations of comic book properties”. From the characters, to the stories, to the atmosphere, Daredevil and Jessica Jones hit near-perfect notes. If you haven’t seen either (and plan to at some point), I’ll be discussing plot points of both shows ahead. So read on only if you don’t mind spoilers:
First and foremost, I have to say I loved the performances of so many of the actors. I was impressed by range of skills demonstrated by Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, and Elden Henson on Daredevil and Mike Colter, Rachael Taylor, and Wil Traval on Jessica Jones. Each of them were able to convincingly portray these characters and displayed a range of emotion that made me really feel for each of them. But for Daredevil and Jessica Jones, there are three characters who IMO, shone brightly: Vincent D’Onofrio as the Kingpin, Kristen Ritter as Jessica Jones, and David Tennant as Kilgrave. Tennant’s performance as Kilgrave was so spot on, it was scary. And part of what made him so scary is that-aside from his superpowers-he was so real. I lost count of the Facebook friends who commented about how triggering Jessica Jones was, and I suspect for many of them Kilgrave’s actions were triggering. He was a manipulative man who placed his needs, wants, and desires over literally everyone else and who cared nothing for the rights and boundaries of others. He mentally violated people with no consideration for their autonomy. He raped several women (for those who might be confused-mentally controlling a woman and making her have sex with you is about as non-consensual as you can get) and made people kill themselves or others. He was an abuser who engaged in many of the same horrible behaviors as real-life domestic abusers. And he was all of those things-convincingly-because of the skills of David Tennant (whom I had no prior exposure to). As for D’Onofrio, there was a moment in the middle of an episode of Daredevil-the introduction of Vanessa-when I realized how good the latter was. He went from portraying a nervous, inexperienced man with a crush on a woman to a vicious murderer in the span of an hour and I was convinced that he effectively played a range of emotions within the same character. It was during that episode that I also recognized how much I appreciated Ritter’s performance as Jessica Jones–bc she did much the same thing. One moment Ritter would play Jessica as an emotionally and psychologically traumatized woman unable to cope with the thought (let alone the return) of Kilgrave, and the next, she’s a badass, and occasionally insensitive detective who spoke her mind and didn’t take shit from others. All three of them-Tennant, D’Onofrio, and Ritter-reeled me in with their performances and made me either care about (in the case of the latter two who really impressed me with their ability to play characters that were at once emotionally vulnerable but also extremely strong willed, confident, and powerful) or absolutely despise them (in the case of Tennant).
I questioned whether I should list the next really great thing about both shows as part of the above or separately, bc really the atmosphere and environment of Daredevil and Jessica Jones was almost a character unto itself. Hell’s Kitchen. Felt. Real. It felt like a neighborhood you could walk down in New York City. From the people and the way they dressed to Luke Cage’s bar, to the restaurants, to abandoned tenements-the environment was every bit as essential in making both shows work. The creative team of both series clearly took the time to consider how to make them look visually exciting and engrossing. And they succeeded.
The other thing that really, really sets both shows apart from so many other series-especially superhero shows and movies-is that many plot elements were unpredictable, yet still wholly logical. I’ve been watching tv shows and movies, especially superhero ones, long enough to have a rough idea of the cliched plot points writers often employ. These cliches are hackneyed short cuts and I really wish writers would move away from them and employ more creativity. And that’s what we got in Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In Daredevil, I was pleasantly surprised that Matt Murdock didn’t get a true love interest. For a little while, I thought he and Claire Temple might make a go of it, but…nope. Didn’t happen. I also thought that he and Karen Page would date or have sex (as they were in a relationship in the comics), but that too did not happen. I also thought at one point that Karen and Foggy might hook up, and that didn’t happen. By the end of the show, I was left thinking “wow, the writers allowed Karen Page to be a close and platonic friend to Matt and Foggy, and neither of them tried to hit on her or whined about being “friendzoned”, or tried to sleep with her”. I was shocked bc I expected that to happen. I’m glad it didn’t. I was also quite glad to see some development of the relationship between Vanessa and Wilson Fisk. That was the romance on Daredevil. Sure, it wasn’t the lead character, but it was still romance. And it actually humanized and grounded Fisk. It allowed him to be vulnerable and that in turn showed that he wasn’t just some mustache twirling villain bent on defeating the hero, but a multi-faceted character. I also really appreciated Ben Urich being a tutor for Karen Page. This is not something (to the best of my knowledge) that occurred in the comics and I found it refreshing bc it gave both characters something else to do on the show (and something that was important to the overall story). Over in Jessica Jones, I was really happy to see how Malcolm was treated. At first, I thought he was a throwaway character who was just there to play in the background and be an extra (more or less) with some speaking roles. Several episodes in and I was all like “whoa! He actually has an important part to play in this show” and by the end of the series, I realized that they did something unexpected with his character. I also liked that the creators treated Malcolm and Luke Cage as characters, rather than a collection of African-American stereotypes. And then there’s Trish. And Jeri. And Will. Especially Will. I had no idea that not only would the seemingly random cop controlled by Kilgrave to kill Trish would go on to become a main cast member, but that he’d turn out to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of the Marvel Comics character Nuke! And he perfectly fit in with the theme of toxic relationships that the writers of Jessica Jones clearly had as a theme. Will started off trying to kill Trish, only for them to become lovers, only for her to slowly begin to realized how awful he was. Oh, and lest I forget, I was truly shocked that Trish took a red pill and helped Jessica fight Will. Didn’t see that one coming. Some of the other plot points that really surprised me from Jessica Jones: Jessica and Kilgrave going on their superhero adventure together, the Kilgrave support group, the resolution to Jeri’s increasingly messy divorce proceedings, the resolution to Hope’s character arc, seeing Claire Temple at the hospital, and Jessica killing Kilgrave.
That last one has me wondering how Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock will interact in Defenders. Both shows had as one of their main focuses the theme of “what makes a hero”. Is it simply someone who puts on a costume and goes out and helps others? Sure, some people thought that of the Man in Black, but clearly it takes more than wearing a costume and helping people to be a hero, bc that didn’t work out for Jessica. And no matter how much good you do, if the public perception of you is manipulated the wrong way, you can easily be viewed as a villain (as Matt Murdock found out). Also, even when part of you wants to be a hero-as some part of Jessica Jones did-if your actions don’t measure up to how heroes should act, can you call yourself a hero? Before you can ask that though, it’s important to try and figure out what are the characteristics of a hero? Who determines them? What happens if you only possess some of the qualities of a hero, but not others? Are some more important than others?
There’s also the question of “what are the boundaries of acceptable behavior for heroes?” Should heroes enjoy physical violence? How far should they go in the use of physical force? What lines should they or shouldn’t they cross? Matt Murdock came dangerously close to killing. In fact, I’m almost surprised he didn’t, given some of the beatdowns he delivered. Ultimately though, I think characters like Claire and Foggy helped pull him back from the precipice. Each of them were (in the end) willing to accept the necessity of Matt’s actions, but both served as a reminder to Matt that some lines shouldn’t be crossed. Similarly, Jessica Jones didn’t kill any of the people she fought and she wrestled with what it means to be a hero. She wanted to help Hope–she really wanted to. And she wanted to do it the right way, by documenting Kilgrave using his powers, and presenting that to the police. Along the way, sure, she bent some rules (and some a chair and some doors), but she wasn’t out to use extreme force. Not until Hope died. Once that happened, it was a turning point for her. It was the point where she realized that Kilgrave’s existence is a threat to too many people and that his death-in her eyes-was justifiable. At one point during the series, Trish has a conversation with Will and explains that she doesn’t want Kilgrave dead. She wants him exposed and to sit for the rest of his days in prison. By the end of the series, it seems clear to me that she’s accepted the necessity of killing Kilgrave. For all that she has strong moral principles against killing, this was a situation where she suspended those principles. That left Jessica with no one to talk her out of killing Kilgrave (Luke didn’t voice a problem with her killing Kilgrave, nor did Trish)-an act that pushed her over what is usually considered the line that heroes don’t cross. A line that Matt Murdock did not cross. Did he not cross that line because he had friends to help remind him the line exists? Would he have killed Wilson Fisk if his friends (and the priest, lest I forget) hadn’t helped him keep his actions and his motives in perspective? Would Jessica have benefited from having friends like Matt had-friends who tried to steer her away from killing Kilgrave? How would Kilgrave be handled in prison, even if she could get him arrested? Ultimately, I think Jessica Jones was justified in killing Kilgrave. Ironically, where killing is so often treated as crossing a line and one heroes should not cross, the end of Jessica Jones sees the titular character being called a hero! I suspect questioning the nature of heroism and how far these characters are willing to go to protect others is going to continue through the Netflix series (certainly we’ll be seeing it play out in Season 2 of Daredevil, with the introduction of Frank-Kill All the Bad Guys and Fuck Feeling Guilty About Murder-Castle).
All in all, I was thoroughly impressed with both shows. Great acting. Nuanced characters. Realistic portrayal of the effects of violence (in DD). Accurate representation of PTSD (in JJ). Unique atmosphere. Non-cliched plot points. Rich thematic material. And of course a shared universe that connects these characters together. Oh, and before I forget, let me just say I’m thrilled that the creators chose to reimagine some of the characters. There is no reason that Ben Urich had to be white in the Netflix show. Sure he’s white in the comics, but aside from reasons of “that’s just the way the character has been traditionally” (which isn’t a significant reason on its own, IMO), there is no reason he couldn’t be another race. Urich’s ethnicity was never tied to his character, so he could be racebent. I don’t know if the creators were consciously aiming to craft a more diverse cast, but making Ben Urich a black guy was a good move. So too was the fact that Urich was presented as a journalist who was black. IOW, his race wasn’t played up, he wasn’t a token, nor was he a collection of stereotypes. As with so many white characters in countless movies and television shows, Ben Urich was presented as a character first, and his race was incidental.
Likewise, changing Jeryn Hogarth from a heterosexual male to the lesbian Jeri Hogarth was also a good move. There is nothing about Hogarth’s comic book incarnation that meant the character had to remain male or heterosexual. In genderbending the character and altering their sexuality, another story avenue was opened up-one that allowed the creators to add to the diverse array of strong female characters on the show. Altering Hogarth’s sexuality from hetero to lesbian and racebending Ben Urich must surely have been met with praise on the part of progressives who long to see more representation of LGBT people and People of Color in diverse roles on television.
If you can’t tell by now that I have nothing but gushing praise to offer both shows and that I’m thoroughly excited for Season 2 of Daredevil (which begins 4/21) and look forward to S2 of Jessica Jones. I also think the bar has been set incredibly high for Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Hopefully they can come close to that bar (if not meet it). And then there’s Defenders. Which promises to be something very different and I for one, cannot wait.