By Alyssa Rosenberg | Women and Hollywood November 15, 2013 at 2:00PM
It was terrific to get the news last week that Marvel, which has devoted its big-screen franchises to the adventures of white dudes in Spandex and body armor, would not just be producing four new television series with Netflix, but dedicating those series to its first African-American hero, Luke Cage, and its first superheroine, Jessica Jones. Jones, a former high school classmate of Peter Parker (who went on to become Spider-Man), acquired her superpowers in a traffic accident that killed her parents. After serving as a superheroine, only to acquire a case of post-traumatic stress disorder and discover the callousness of her fellow super-people, Jones became a private eye, and eventually the wife of Luke Cage, one of Marvel's first black superheroes. In other words, she's a groundbreaking character who offers new insights into superheroism. And it's even better to hear that Melissa Rosenberg, the screenwriter behind the Twilight franchise who's devoted to promoting and producing work by women -- and who had tried to develop a Jessica Jones series previously for ABC -- will get her shot with Netflix.
Given the popular perception, fed by disastrously bad big-screen adaptations of characters like Elektra and Catwoman, that superheroines don't sell unless they're part of an ensemble or acting as a superhero's love interest, it's a big deal for Jessica Jones to finally get top billing (and for her show to be coming out before the one devoted to her partner, Luke Cage). And Jones is much beloved, particularly for the story arc Brian Michael Bendis wrote for her in the Alias comics.
The pairing between Jones as a character and Netflix as an outlet presents real opportunities for Rosenberg to expand the questions superhero shows and movies ask, as well as the emotions and issues they're willing and able to explore.
Here are five things I hope she'll do with Jessica Jones.
1. Take advantage of the fact that she's on Netflix. Of course it's frustrating that ABC turned Rosenberg's Jessica Jones pitch down when she was shopping it shortly after Disney, ABC's corporate parent company, purchased Marvel. A superhero show centered on a smart, complicated woman seems like it should have been a perfect fit for ABC's brand. But after several months of watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that was supposed to take us to the ground level of superheroism which has evolved into a tiresome artifact-of-the-week show with some truly dreadful acting, I'm relieved they passed. It's hard to imagine that ABC could have put Jessica Jones on air while preserving her complexity.
Netflix, fortunately, is an entirely different animal. Its license to show much more daring content means that we've had to put up with Kevin Spacey going down on Kate Mara while she was on the phone with her father in House of Cards. But it's also given us Orange Is The New Black, Jenji Kohan's adaptation of Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name, which gives us a world full of women of many colors, ages, origins, sexualities and faiths, and uses it to ask rich, often scabrously funny questions about identity, loyalty, and class. A Jessica Jones show that takes full advantage of Netflix's ability to portray sexuality and be honest about the dark side of institutions and the people within them would be a real change from Marvel's current offerings. The question is whether Marvel, which has carefully controlled each entry in its unfolding franchises, will give Rosenberg license to go as far as Netflix would allow her to travel. In other words, is partnering with Netflix a sign that Marvel's ready to produce stories that aren't just for kids? Or is the relationship simply a way to get Marvel content onto a new distribution platform?
2. Explore the culture of superheroism. One of the biggest disappointments of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been the ways in which it's largely ignored how the emergence of superheroism would change the laws and culture that affect the rest of us. In Jessica Jones' origin story, though, she grew up in a world where superheroes existed, so much so that she had crushes on them, and lost out on a relationship with Peter Parker when he was sidetracked by his fateful spider bite. Other than scattered references to the attack on New York and the Rising Tide, the transparency group that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Skye was a part of, Marvel products haven't spent much time meditating on the world left in the wake of superheroes' titanic battles.
Given Jessica Jones' personal history, a show devoted to her is the perfect time to change that. Netflix's superhero shows are all supposed to be even more focused on the impact of the emergence of superheroism on ordinary people than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. These shows will be set in New York's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, rather than on the souped-up jet the ABC characters travel on. That plane was meant to be a step down from the cloaked helicarrier in The Avengers, which ferries around superhero wrangler Nick Fury and Marvel's most high-profile heroes. But Netflix's shows will focus on superheroes who don't get government funding and who don't get turned into cultural icons, both because of who they are, and because they're trying to solve the problems of poor people rather than stopping alien invasions. Hopefully, the Netflix shows will be willing to consider the roles that privilege and sexism play in making some superheroes famous, while leaving others working out of small private offices.
3. And also the unreliability of superpowers. In the standard superhero narrative, an ordinary person acquires powers, goes on a spree, and then settles down to use their powers responsibly, in contrast to supervillains who use their abilities for evil. With minor exceptions when their powers go on the fritz, these heroes have complete mastery of their exceptional capabilities. For Jessica Jones, her superpowers, in particular her ability to fly, have historically been less reliable. That's a fascinating and underexplored idea in the current superhero canon -- the idea that you can't entirely settle into something extraordinary that's been conferred on you, and as a result, that you can't get too comfortable in your status as a superhero.
It's especially interesting that Jessica Jones walks away from being a superhero. Given that most superheroes struggle briefly with their powers before settling into long lives as crime-fighters, it's the rare story that dares suggest that someone might be better off not exercising their abilities, even when they could be used to help others. It's easy to suggest that the right thing is always to do good, and that rewards will inevitably follow. But that's not always true -- fighting for justice can sometimes exact a terrible cost. Jessica Jones is a terrific illustration of that idea. Hopefully Netflix and Rosenberg won't be afraid to go there.
4. Don't be afraid of sexual politics. It can be all too common for powerful women to face rape and sexual violence as pop cultural stakes, and equally common to see their struggles reduced to work-life balance issues. But in the comics, Jessica Jones has been given sophisticated stories about both sexual violence and parenthood. Under the influence of a supervillain, Zebediah Killgrave, Jones was forced to watch him rape other women and brainwashed into being sexually attracted to him. The storyline's an uncomfortable reflection on the ways women are retroactively made to feel complicit in their own assaults, and on the impact of being subject to media images of sexual violence. It would be terrific to see Rosenberg try to replicate some of that storyline for the screen at some point.
And similarly, Jessica is a superhero, but she also is a partner to Luke Cage and a parent to his daughter. It's a status that affects her decision-making during Marvel's Civil War storyline, when Jones and Cage make decisions about whether they'll register as superheroes and where to live in part by considering the wellbeing of their daughter, Danielle. During the Secret Invasion storyline, Danielle becomes a Skrull target. While Marvel's offered up a slate of single superheroes, burdening them at most with serious girlfriends, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage's stories and relationship are an enormous opportunity to consider what it means to make decisions and take enormous physical risks as a superhero with a very different set of constraints and priorities. Given how limited the superhero experience Marvel's put on screen so far has been, this change would be a relief for both male and female characters.
5. Or the dark side of superheroism. Acquiring superpowers is generally presented in a jaunty, liberating light in most superhero media. Stories like the Killgrave arc are a great reminder that sometimes, it's not a question of how you use your superstrength or ability to fly -- it just might not be such a good idea for anyone, no matter their intentions, to have the ability to take over someone else's brain. Similarly, Jessica Jones' experience as a parent is a reminder that being a superhero doesn't automatically make everything easier, and in fact, it can make your family more vulnerable and expose them to more difficult decisions. Superhero movies have every reason to be triumphant right now given their success at the international box office. Jessica Jones and company could serve as a reminder that the world is more complicated than it seems from Stark Tower or S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. And if we want ambitious, varied superhero storytelling, that can only be a good thing.