It's been over a decade since Hollywood figured out that superhero comic adaptions were the secret to a multibillion-dollar revenue stream that doesn't look like it'll run dry anytime soon. But here's a confession: I haven't seen any of them. Oops!
Well, no, OK, I saw half of "Batman Begins" in someone's dorm room in college. But that's it. Never watched "The Avengers." Never seen "Thor," although that one Hemsworth brother is something to look at. Never cared enough about Superman's double life to catch "Man of Steel," or to step into any of the other male-dominated DC or Marvel universes. They are immensely popular, with women as well as men, sure. And thousands of words have been spent ruminating over the space that hero figures occupy in our cultural consciousness -- why people want to hold onto them and never let go. I simply find most superhero comics deeply uninteresting. Another story where a quasi-tragic male hero prevails in his quest to save [fill-in-the-blank]? Seen it. Heard it. Hard pass.
But this week, I started watching "Jessica Jones." Whereas other DC and Marvel flicks recycle old tales that might be more palatable had it not been for the fact that their heroes' human attributes seem to vary only in their taste in nylon, "Jessica Jones" feels -- finally -- new. It's fantastic.
Our hero is a messy, hard-drinking, bluntly spoken private eye working out of a shitty apartment in a dark Hell's Kitchen landscape. A glass pane typed with "Alias Investigations" completes the neue noir picture -- one we've seen before, with the one game-changing exception being that this show stars a woman (!) called Jessica Jones. Our hero was adapted from Marvel Comics for the screen by the woman who wrote all of the "Twilight" movies, Melissa Rosenberg, and played by Krysten Ritter. She's not apologetic or wrapped in skin-tight fabric, but she's also no "other"-ized Amazonian warrior princess or alien species. Instead, Jones is a complex, relatable human woman who does excellent work despite her many flaws. Like any male star, she casts aside questions of likability. She has sexual agency. She gets action scenes. It's awesome -- especially for mass media.
Television and movies are culturally demonstrative. At their best, they inform us how it is OK and not OK to behave in our world, reflecting our morals and values. But they also have the power to shape them -- whether that's by perpetuating imagery often associated with subjects, or by allowing those subjects to be characterized in new ways.
What Jessica Jones gives us is a superhero that reflects a reality not often seen on screen: A woman crime-drama lead with the same depth and agency as a man. It's rewarding to see someone relatable, who looks like you, fighting for good against evil onscreen. Everyone wants to play the hero. It's fun. What's more, the show's "evil" is completely grounded in what is, for many women, a real danger: harmful manipulation and emotional control by a male partner, disturbingly fictionalized via mind control. Of course, big-budget productions have included other female superheroes -- Black Widow, some of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. -- but none of these are allowed to shine so brightly as our perma-grumpy sleuth. (Although it looks like there's a little hope for Wonder Woman in the upcoming "Batman v Superman.")
For some reason, studios operate under an assumption that "white male" is a kind of default representative of human experience, and other characters won't sell tickets to or win high ratings from mass audiences. Yes, Hollywood is a risk-averse creature. Once it finds something that works -- like male superheroes (or female superheroes working hand-in-hand with an even or greater number of male associates) -- the big studios will follow that formula until it's no longer useful. Fine. But stories told from an alternate perspective are thriving, if only just on the small screen. CBS's woman-led "Supergirl" just got picked up for a full season, not to mention the popularity of racially diverse shows like ABC's "How to Get Away with Murder," Netflix's "Master of None," or anything Shonda Rhimes touches.
Perhaps these can help show the industry another formula that works: One where different types of people get to see a hero's tale told by someone they can identify with. I'm not the only one who can't wait to see what Jessica Jones gets up to next season.
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