The Hollywood gender wage gap has been getting a lot of press lately, with Jennifer Lawrence throwing the weight of her considerable stardom behind the recent movement. Add to that the well-documented bias in Hollywood towards telling stories about men, as well as the fact that women’s roles generally are defined by their relationships with men, and the gender-related tension is reaching an all-time high. Marvel Studios hasn’t remained immune; people have been frustrated for some time with their failure to produce a Black Widow movie, especially after heroes with lesser current intellectual property, like Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy, found their own blockbuster budgets greenlit.
This isn’t simply a matter of doing what’s right, though that’s part of it. Providing actresses with roles equally as complex and nuanced as their male counterparts is unquestionably the right thing to do. Paying women the same amount for equal roles is undoubtedly the right thing to do. And producing movies that tell stories about women and not only about their relationships with men is undeniably the right thing to do. But more than that, it’s good business sense. There’s been a faulty assumption in Hollywood for some time that movies about women won’t make big box office, and it’s being proved wrong over and over again. The good news is that Hollywood is beginning to listen, even if they’re admittedly unfashionably late to the diversity party.
This includes Marvel. They’ve planned a Captain Marvel movie, as well as a Black Panther movie, which will be steps to telling stories about more than just white, male superheroes. But beyond increasing questions about the whiteness and maleness of their movie lineups, there have been questions about the continued bankability of their superheroes in general. Avengers: Age of Ultron (which I thought was better than the first, but I seem to be in the minority) was less of a box-office success than its predecessor, and their only other bigscreen offering this year was Ant-Man, which was their least successful movie, both critically and financially, since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. You could argue some attrition was always in the cards for Marvel Studios, but there does appear to be growing sentiment that we’re nearing the moment when the superhero bubble pops.
So Marvel’s Jessica Jones couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The first season dropped on Netflix last November, and they just announced that the second season has been picked up. Jessica Jones is exactly the kind of show Marvel needed to release, both for the kind of show it is and for its quality.
Let’s start with what kind of show Marvel has made. Jessica Jones stars Krysten Ritter as the titular private detective who acquired super-strength after a freak car accident. Her best friend is Trish (Rachael Taylor), the daughter of the woman who took Jessica in after the car crash killed her family. Trish hosts a popular radio talk show, but she also helps Jessica with her cases when she can, and the case Jessica is tackling over the entire season is the disappearance of a girl named Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty), which Jessica learns is linked to a man from her own past, Kilgrave (David Tennant). Kilgrave is like Jessica- “gifted”, though his ability is that he can control the actions of those within earshot of his voice.
This is still a superhero show; Jessica’s and Kilgrave’s powers come into play in the plot of every episode, and Luke Cage (Mike Colter), a man with impenetrable skin and super-strength, has a recurring role. But Marvel has allowed Jessica Jones’s showrunner, Melissa Rosenberg, to commit the show more forcefully to the detective show genre. Marvel’s Daredevil, released earlier in 2015 and about a small-time lawyer who moonlights as a superpowered vigilante, had some of the same grittiness and noir-ish sensibilities, but Daredevil was less willing to divorce itself from superhero origin story tropes. I mean, the series ends with Daredevil in a legit superhero costume. I won’t spoil Jessica Jones’s ending, but I will say that the last line doubles down on the idea that this is first and foremost a crime show.
Jessica Jones shows an awareness on Marvel’s part that they can’t continue to produce only superhero content. They have to adapt to the inevitably changing demands in the entertainment market, and part of that is committing to telling genre stories that transcend the superhero genre, which is going to go out of style at some point. If you don’t believe me that an uber-successful genre could eventually fall on hard times, kindly explain to me why romantic comedies or Westerns or musicals no longer get greenlit by big studios. Also, it should not be lost on anyone that Marvel went all in on a series that stars mainly women, with storylines nearly totally about women, and run by women. That’s Marvel admitting that they don’t have all the answers.
However, none of that would matter if Jessica Jones wasn’t good television. And make no mistake, Jessica Jones is great television. Marvel has made the wise choice of having its Netflix series generally separated from its cinematic universe, the opposite of which has handicapped Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over the course of its three seasons. This has allowed Daredevil and Jessica Jones to tell their own stories, so the story in season 1 of Jessica Jones feels insular and whole. You’re fully invested in the here and now, rather than anticipating what the plot means for Marvel’s other properties. While this would give Jessica Jones free reign to fit itself entirely into the crime show format, Jessica Jones instead upturns your expectations. Most crime shows follow a formula that allows you to predict what’s coming next; in Jessica Jones, you never know where the show is going to go next. This makes the show feel fresh and new.
The show also features fresh and new faces- well, not quite. We’ve seen Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Mike Colter, and Carrie-Anne Moss (as a corrupt lawyer who often employs Jessica) in plenty of guest-starring or recurring roles in past shows or in bit roles in movies over the past decade. But Jessica Jones gives each of these actors a chance to shine. Moss is slimy in a way women rarely get to be; Colter is sexy as the kind of main romantic interest that black men don’t often get to play opposite white women; Taylor is strong in a way that’s antithetical to our expectations for the hero’s best friend, as well as to her blonde, sexpot looks; and Ritter is by turns vulnerable, sarcastic, noble, alcoholic, terrified, stony-faced, and reckless in all the ways that mass entertainment rarely allows women to be- even in television, which has been quicker on the uptake than movies.
Netflix doesn’t release their ratings, so we don’t know how popular Jessica Jones actually is, but estimates place it as one of their more popular shows. Surely releasing it at the end of November, when most network TV shows were ending their fall run of episodes, allowed it to dominate the cultural conversation a little more. Timely themes such as rape and post-traumatic stress disorder allowed it to gain traction, along with its status as one of Marvel’s superhero shows, and its overall quality is helping it to last beyond the initial week-of binges. This doesn’t “fix” Marvel; Marvel continues to rake in the cash and is just over a year removed from their best movie yet, Guardians of the Galaxy. But the studio needed a promising direction, and Jessica Jones gives them just that.