There’s always a detective, there’s always a dangerous man in an impeccable suit, there’s always untrustworthy clients and lucky left hooks, and there’s always a dame, right at the centre of it all. Cherchez la femme fatale, as fancy waiters say.
(Not that you’d call her that. Not unless you want to eat your meals from a sippy cup.)
Marvel’s Jessica Jones begins as a love letter to film noir that verges on pastiche. The private eye swigs bourbon in her grubby office, talks wise, cases joints. Saxophones wail, people die and the city shrugs its shoulders to shake off the rain. You expect Humphrey Bogart to wander in, except Bogey never looked so swell in jeans.
This is the least superheroic (Marvellous?) of Marvel’s output – despite its grim grittiness, Daredevil spent a lot of time zooming into Matt Murdock’s supernostrils and fighting ninjas.
Jones has perfunctory superpowers, but they’re treated in a matter of fact way, a tool of the trade, like the long zoom lens she uses to snap pictures of cheating husbands. Jessica is decidedly not a superhero. Unlike the Hulk, the damage at the heart of the character isn’t her powers, but her past.
(Lock the door twice, say a dozen Hail Marys and sleep with a gun under your pillow, it doesn’t matter. Your past is always waiting.)
Krysten Ritter is superb as an indestructible woman who’s broken inside, hiding from her history. (None of which we’ll spoil here.) Funny, foulmouthed, brittle and ballsy, Jones feels like the role the Breaking Bad actress has been waiting for. The superstrength is almost a distraction; she’s at her best simply playing a shopworn gumshoe in the big city.
Jessica Jones comes close to exposing the limits of Marvels ‘every genre… and superheroes’ method by being too good at the genre part. Often you’ll wish there were no superpowers at all.
But then there’s Kilgrave.
David Tennant plays one of the most loathsome villains of recent years. Like Vincent D’Onofrio in Daredevil, Kilgrave gets a long build-up, but from his first rumblings he is all you can think about. Appropriate, given his ability is to control people’s minds.
Tennant allows himself to be utterly vile. Adopting that familiar posh English accent, he takes glee in stamping all over memories of Doctor Who. You don’t love to hate him, you simply hate him. He is every abusive spouse and controlling boyfriend you’ve ever had, the ones who made you not yourself, the ones you can’t escape.
It’s for this reason that Jessica Jones is ultimately a more successful merging of genres than most of the Marvel films. Daredevil’s adult tone sat uneasily with its four colour origins – brutal violence followed by lighthearted banter in the office. Jessica Jones has fun smashing the clichés of comic books and film noir into each other, but more than that it finds their shared heart. These are superpowers as metaphor, and noir is a form of modern legend.
Noir is dark – hell, it’s in the name – but for all the unhappy endings, the genre is compassionate at heart. No, wait, that’s going too far; it understands why we can’t help being bad.
The scummy people who live in its midnight bars and alleyways are trapped by their needs; whether that’s the greed of money or lust, or the cynical detective who knows better than to get involved, but can’t help doing the right thing. Just like superhero comics, the best noir runs on hope, the drive to be better – it’s just that hope can be a cruel **** sometimes, and we’re not always good enough.
That’s why this harrowing series is both more accessible for non-superhero fans and can exist in the same world as Thor and that purple android. For some people, being a hero means flying through the clouds. For others, it’s pulling yourself out of the gutter, spitting the blood down the drain, and taking the next punch.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones is released on Netflix UK and worldwide on 20th November