Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Jessica Jones isn't a hero, and that's what makes her great

One of the best shows in recent memory, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, has the title character (by the way, major spoilers here) kill the bad guy, and save her friends and civilians, all while just kicking ass in general. Despite all of this, at the conclusion of its first season the show poses the following question; "Is Jessica a hero?" The simple answer is; "No." At least not yet. The Marvel Universe is overflowing with heroes, what it really needs was a main character who is conflicted that, while good, isn’t a hero in the traditional sense. And that’s exactly what Jessica Jones gave us.

Nowhere is this more clear than after Jessica has just saved the day by beating the big bad, Kilgrave,  now with her abilities revealed to the world. Jessica’s voicemail overflows with messages from people asking for her help, one seems to be woman in an abusive relationship, but Jessica deletes the calls one by one. She isn’t callous or dismissive, and is unhappy to ignore their pleas for help, but she ignores them nevertheless.

Jessica’s motivations skirt the line between justice, vengeance, and the greater good. These all come into play when dealing with Kilgrave, a sociopath with mind control powers, a very bad combination. After a brief stint of trying to be a superhero, Jessica is mind controlled by Kilgrave, and used to his evil bidding. Kilgrave took advantage of Jessica’s superhuman strength, using her for his selfish ends. He also forced Jessica into a relationship, mind controlling her to be with him, essentially raping her. Like many real people, Kilgrave denied that what he did was actually rape. The show’s first season chronicles Jessica’s fight against Kilgrave when he returns after having done the same thing to a young woman.

Jessica’s first instinct is to run, but is convinced by her old friend Trish Walker to take him down to assure that he can never hurt anyone else. Reluctantly, Jessica agrees and saves this woman, named Hope (real subtle there Marvel) but things go south quickly as Hope is mind controlled to kill her own parents, and is sent to jail. Much of the first half of the season revolves around Jessica’s attempts to capture Killgrave and prove that he has mind controlling abilities, thus proving Hope’s innocence.

This becomes an important conflict, and driving force throughout the season, as the question becomes whether to kill Killgrave, saving lives and stopping his evil ways, or capture him and right what he has wronged. It essentially boils down to a choice between heroic idealism or the greater good. This struggle is represented in two people, Trish, and a man originally brainwashed to kill her, an ex-military police officer named Simpson, who becomes Jess and Trish’s ally. Trish, the same person who originally convinced Jessica to try to be a hero, believes that they can capture Kilgrave and find a way to prove that he has these powers, therefore exonerating Hope and that it’s the right thing to do and will bring justice. Simpson on the other hand believes he needs to be taken out, stopping the bleeding, and that justice cannot be achieved, abandoning those he has already hurt but preventing future victims. Interestingly these two characters form a relationship. Jessica falls in the middle, part of her wanting Kilgrave dead, but not willing to kill him, not for a sense of justice, but because it’s the only way to save Hope.

The more the protagonists come up with convoluted plans to capture and secure proof of Kilgrave’s abilities, more and more people die. Deaths that could have been prevented if they had murdured Kilgrave. Simpson even points out to Jessica that she could have killed him a dozen times over. After four innocent people are nearly killed again because of Jessica’s plans Hope, realizing she is the only thing stopping Jessica from ending Kilgrave once and for all takes her own life to free Jessica. Now, without any heroic notions or people to exonerate Jessica decides to murder Kilgrave.

In the meantime Simpson, after his old friends are killed, decides that something needs to be done to finally stop Kilgrave and makes a dangerous decision, but one he sees as the only option. Since he believes that Jessica will never do what needs to be done to finish Killgrave he takes drugs that make him powerful, but also turn him into a utilitarian killing machine. He kills innocent people in his quest to take out Kilgrave, and hurts Trish.

This seems to paint Simpson as a villain, but this isn’t completely accurate either, as he is still trying to accomplish something for the greater good, unfortunately the pills he takes make him do terrible things to accomplish that end, and frankly turn into a real dick. However, he only took these pills and became a monster when he believed there was no other choice, something Trish also does later on in order to combat Simpson, and we see a brief glimpse of the darkness and need for power inside her. The blur between heroics, selfishness and villainy is one of the driving forces in the show.

However a third, and truly heroic option eventually and unexpectedly falls into Jessica’s lap. When Jessica convinces Kilgrave to save someone’s life she realizes she can truly make a difference for good. Kilgrave even seems to like being good, wondering how long it would take to save the amount of people to equal the death’s he’s cause, “Getting back to zero” as he puts it. But he needs Jessica to differentiate right from wrong and guide him, a nightmare for her, but a incredibly noble cause that could also save Hope and maybe even help rehabilitate the demented Kilgrave. Jessica becomes conflicted and talks with Trish, wondering what she would do, knowing Trish is heroic and self-sacrificing in a way none of the other characters are. Jessica knows she could never do what Trish would do without question and turns away from this noble but terrifying path. That is why Trish is the only real hero of the show.

Jessica Jones’ sister series, Daredevil has Daredevil asked similar questions about if he should kill his nemesis, Wilson Fisk, but for very different reasons. Daredevil wonders if he is running around at night fighting bad guys because he just wants to hurt people, but Jessica isn’t playing hero like Daredevil, she is trying to stop someone who hurt her from hurting others. Of course Jessica ultimately murders Killgrave, while Daredevil puts Fisk behind bars. In fact Jessica doesn’t want to be a superhero like Daredevil at all, her brief stint was only at the insistence of Trish, who sees Jess’ potential. Ultimately Trish wants to be the hero, out there saving people and protecting the city and if she had Jessica's strength she would be. It will be interesting to see if she gets a chance in season 2, and if she, a recovered addict, can find some more of Simpson’s pills, and where that takes her.

The show asks many important questions about morality, the greater good, and of course shows victims in new and truly thought-provoking ways. It gives us a strong female hero, even if it’s a side character, although I’d love to see Trish show up elsewhere, after all she was an Avenger in the comics at one point. Best of all it finally gives a Marvel character that isn’t a true hero, but is still brave and admirable, and one that will grow and develop, perhaps becoming a new kind of superhero altogether.

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