When the first "Iron Man"came out seven years ago, I shoveled popcorn in my mouth, loving Robert Downey Jr.'s top-shelf snark as much as anyone. But last summer, I sat in a theater watching "Avengers: Age of Ultron," and I was bored. Since Iron Man's triumphant debut, almost every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the notable exception of "Guardians of the Galaxy," has begun to feel like a giant, two-hour set-piece. Even the Netflix Original "Daredevil" disappointed, aiming for realism but falling back into bad comic-book writing.
Then "Jessica Jones" came out, and I was distinctly not bored. When the final credits rolled (only 48 hours after I clicked "play" on the first episode), I thought, "That wasn't a good super-hero flick. That was a damn good show!"
Here's how "Jessica Jones" is saving Marvel from itself:
It explores a new story. A superstrong woman faces off versus a mind-controlling baddie (who's creepy as hell, to boot). Don't be misled by the plot description: "Jessica Jones" tells a very real story of abuse, rape and survivor's guilt, all under the guise of a straight super-hero story. The action's great, but it never eclipses the story.
It plays off a new (to the MCU) genre. Before we ever see super powers on display, we follow Jessica Jones, slinking through the streets of New York City and snapping photos of cheaters for suspicious spouses -- all the while accompanied by a soundtrack of lone warbling horns and tap-tapping cymbals. This is textbook neo-noir. But show runner S.J. Clarkson replaces the always-male detective of noir with the female title character. The femme fatale archetype is divided between characters who each cleverly fulfill and invert the role -- the blonde is not a lover but a best friend, and the aloof love interest is a buff black guy.
It uses new characters. No Oscar-winning women are relegated to sidekick status (I'm looking at you, "Iron Man" and "Thor"). There's no Scarlett Johansson amidst a sea of mostly white men. For the first time in the MCU, we get multiple compelling female characters, give them the spotlight, and let them develop -- all reflective of a more diverse group of creative production leaders.
Marvel still has a long way to go, and I'm disappointed that Marvel Studios has stated no plans for any leading women of color in the MCU (although, as a reader pointed out, shows like "Marvel's Agents of Shield" and "Daredevil" have both included non-white female characters). But "Jessica Jones" takes big steps forward in terms of theme, craft and diversity. It's a good story first, and a superhero show second. And for the first time, the MCU seems like it matters. Our culture needs stories like this. Here's hoping Marvel keeps them coming.