Ok, to start off: I know Daredevil and Jessica Jones are completely different types of shows. So for those saying a comparison is unfair and blah blah, I’m simply combining the two because I never got around to actually writing a review for Daredevil.
Plus, I’m gonna compare them against each other. Sorry.
What we have are two very well written, acted, directed, and produced shows that both feature Marvel characters, but couldn’t be more different from one another. To me Daredevil was a gritty look at heroism. Jessica Jones was a harrowing study on abuse and survival with a heavy dose of PTSD. This review is written with the assumption the reader has seen both shows. So, spoilers and all that.
I’ll talk about Daredevil first, and I’ll start off by saying I consider it the finest show produced about a superhero, and one that easily bests most of the Marvel films as well. It’s not difficult to understand how. After all, superheroes were created in graphic novels, where the characters were developed issue by issue. Story arcs were completed month by month, year by year, taking all the time necessary to establish who the characters were. What their motivations were to do what they do. The villains had their story arcs as well in some of the better written comics. We came to understand them as people, not just sneering maniacs created to foil our heroes.
The Daredevil series follows a similar route, presenting a street level, down and dirty look at what it takes to be a superhero in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. And it’s not a pretty picture. Matt Murdock is basically a poor man’s Batman, stripped to the bare essentials of pummeling the crap out of criminals in his city to help balance the scales of justice that are overloaded with vice and murder. Aided by enhanced senses he gained when he was blinded by ‘toxic waste’ (accidents always lead to powers in the Marvel Universe. One slip and you’re able to shoot lasers out of your nostrils), he’s gifted but certainly not invulnerable, and his encounters often leave him nearly as damaged as the criminals he stalks.
Some things I loved: The developmental storytelling. The writers clearly cared about and understood the characters. The dynamics between Matt, Foggy and Karen were just as intense and interesting as the brawls between Daredevil and the criminal underworld. And speaking of brawls, the fight scenes in the series were simply exceptional, the highlight being the hallway scene when Daredevil rescues the kidnapped child.
But intense fight choreography is only part of a complete whole of awesomeness that is Daredevil. There is the gritty realism of the mortal dangers of vigilantism, the inner turmoil of the religious main character about the morality of his actions, the fully fleshed-out supporting cast, and the in-depth storytelling that puts the viewer in the heads of the characters, even the villains.
Speaking of which, the story arc of the Kingpin was an extraordinary breakdown of a ‘villain’s’ psyche, one I’ve never seen on screen in such a manner before. Wilson Fisk was written and portrayed as more than a brooding, mentally unstable crime boss. He had a history, a sympathetic backstory that enables the viewer to relate to why he turned out the way he was. Which was a psycho, of course. Fisk wasn’t just ruthless and raging, he was also insecure and emotionally hesitant. He wants nearly the same thing as Murdock, but goes after it in the most ruthless ways possible, creating an inevitable showdown between the two.
Overall, great stuff all around. The show was so richly structured with both storytelling and acting that it was almost a shock when Murdock finally dons his crimson superhero outfit. Only then are we reminded that this outstanding show is based on a Marvel comic book about a blind guy in red spandex.
It’s just that good.
Time to switch gears and get dirty. Daredevil was a gritty show, but Jessica Jones isn’t satisfied with back alley brawls and chess games with kingpins. Forget chess. In Jessica Jones, we wallow in the muck of depravity and hope one day we can see daylight again.
Jessica Jones deals with subjects like addiction, post-traumatic stress, and rape with its accompanying mental, emotional, and physical abuse along with the psychological and emotional fallout incurred by it. Not what you’d expect from a show based on a superhero character, much less anything with the normally jolly ‘Marvel’ stamp on it. But like the aforementioned Daredevil, we veer off the beaten path with another daring television series.
Jessica Jones isn’t what you’d expect from a main character in a show like this. She’s rude, surly, and carries a truckload of attitude on her tiny shoulders. What you quickly realize is there’s valid reason for her attitude, mainly being a survivor of a complete mental takeover by someone with the uncanny ability to control anyone within range. It’s basically the equivalent of kidnapping and slavery all in one package, except without the ability to ever escape or even fight back for that manner. It’s rape of the mind and body together in one sick package.
And it should be. There’s masses of documentation on the horrifying reality of domination through seduction, fear and abuse that confines many to being imprisoned in their own lives and homes while those around them remain ignorant of what they’re dealing with. Take that and throw in complete mental control, and you’re dealing with the stuff of nightmares.
But that’s what the show brings to the table. It’s not pretty, and it’s not all that heroic. However it is intense, uncomfortable, in your face, and harrowing. The writing, direction, and acting is so good that I was immersed in Jessica’s troubled, terrifying world. It’s both repelling and hypnotic, much like Jessica’s nemesis, Killgrave.
Speak of the devil, does Kilgrave go down as the most terrifying villain in superhero cinema? He gets my vote. Kilgrave makes the Joker’s chaotic concerts look like child’s play as he wriggles through the show with his snakelike charm and emotionally dead persona. He is a nihilistic, narcissistic psychopath with powers unlike any villain revealed on screen so far. I loved how his character has no ambitions to take over the world or amass great power for himself. He’s perfectly content manipulating everyone around him like a cruel child does his toys, except with far more horrifying results. And that small bubble of torment is far more terrifying than the plans of an Ultron or a Magneto. In common superhero fare we don’t get to contemplate the collateral damage one villain can incur. In Jessica Jones, collateral damage comes crashing down in regular intervals. Kilgrave is a villain for the ages, because he doesn’t want to rule the world.
Just everyone around him.
And that makes for truly great cinema. After all, heroes are only as good as their villains, and the dynamics between Jessica and Kilgrave made for some truly nail-biting television. Toss in a great supporting cast and top-notch storytelling, and you got yourself a show. My only complaints would be that the action scenes were pretty pedestrian, and some of the subplots with Jessica’s neighbors seemed a bit forced and unnecessary. Otherwise, a stellar job all around.
So to wrap things up, let’s compare two shows that aren’t all that comparable. But just for fun…
Best hero: DD
Best villain: JJ
Best supporting cast: DD
Best action: DD
Best story: JJ
Best acting: Tie
So Daredevil barely scrapes out a win, according to my biased opinion. Look, in the end I enjoy heavy action over depressing trauma, no matter how fantastic the story is. But the more important show of the two is definitely Jessica Jones, simply because of the sad ratio of abuse that people suffer on a daily basis around the world. JJ isn’t afraid to ‘go there’, proving once more that Marvel’s Netflix experiment is in fact superior to its blockbuster movies when it comes to leveling things in a way that reaches beyond mind-bludgeoning entertainment. One can only hope the Netflix shows will continue on this mixture of high drama on par with any shows out there.
I’ll definitely be watching.
When Bard Constantine isn’t consumed by pop culture, he writes gritty futures and far-flung fantasy. See more at bardwritesbooks.com