Marvel’s Jessica Jones (US 2015)

By Kenna, Brian | Science Fiction Film and Television, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Marvel’s Jessica Jones (US 2015)


Kenna, Brian, Science Fiction Film and Television


Marvel's Jessica Jones (US 2015). Marvel Studios. Distributed by Netflix.

The first scene of Marvel's Jessica Jones contains none of the grandiosity we've come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The camera floats through a dirty, dimly lit parking garage, peering down between pipes and wires, seeming to spy on a couple stumbling to their car. A high-pitched trumpet wails, punctuated by occasional guitar strings. The title character's voice breaks in, with the droll, dripping cynicism of the hard-boiled private dick: 'New York may be the city that never sleeps, but it sure does sleep around. Not that I'm complaining - cheaters are good for business.' As the couple commences a sexual encounter against a pillar, the shutter on the camera begins to flash: 'A big part of the job is looking for the worst in people ... I excel at that.' The viewer's first impression of Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is not a hero trying to right wrongs, not an underdog standing up to bullies, not even an ego-driven iconoclast set up to learn some humility. Rather, she comes across almost as a voyeur. Jessica is more ambiguous than the figures we have come to expect at the centre of even Marvel's traditionally character-driven superheroic narratives. Rather, she seems to have stepped out of a neo-noir film, finding herself in a Marvel property almost by accident.

The same can be said of her world. Not the high-flying, high-concept futurism of the Avengers family of movies, nor even the stylised, gothic cityscape of Marvel's Daredevil (US 2015), Jessica's New York city is cluttered, claustrophobic, dingy and underlit. One scene in the first episode almost seems to have been lifted directly from Taxi Driver (Scorsese US 1976). Jessica, unsure of what to do next, ride through the streets of Manhattan. The city passes by in a blur; streetlights, headlights, neon signs are blinding in contrast to the rest of the episode's dark alleys and shadowed hallways. The spatial and narrative logics of Jessica's world, as well as Jessica herself, owe at least as much to the neo-noir movement as to the universe Marvel spent the last ten years constructing. Jessica is, she insists, far more interested in collecting her next paycheque and her next drink than living up to any ideal or emulating the Avengers. What's more, we believe her when she says it. Jessica Jones does what it does and succeeds (in part) by rejecting the conventions of the superhero comic-book genre and drawing instead on film noir to make its world tick. But at the same time it displays the challenges and pitfalls of cross-pollinating genres under the growing weight of a Marvel audience's expectations.

This sort of genre mashup is not, it should be noted, a novel tactic for Marvel. In fact I would argue that both the studio's success and (relative) longevity stem from a strategy of consistently cross-pollinating its superheroes with other genres. Very few Marvel films operate purely as superhero narratives. Rather, most of them draw on other genres in order to distinguish themselves within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These include, for example, pulp adventure (Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston US 2011)), political thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Joe and Anthony Russo US 2014)), heist movie (Ant-Man (Reed US 2015)), space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn US/UK 2014)), high fantasy (Thor: The Dark World (Taylor US 2013) and so on. Similarly, Marvel's Daredevil walks the line between gritty crime drama and ninja epic. The success of each individual entry varies, but by tonally distinguishing each entry in its cinematic universe this strategy has allowed Marvel to avoid the superhero fatigue that has been prophesied by critics for nearly ten years. Each film is permitted an identity of its own, and each character brings something of its unique generic identity to the ensembles that coalesce in Marvel's Avengers films.

Jessica Jones is perhaps the most ambitious example of Marvel's genre cross-pollination strategy (with the possible exception of The First Avenger). …

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