Strangely, in the almost three years since “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” debuted, the number of leading Marvel frontwomen has shrunk, not grown. ABC’s “Agent Carter,” which was airing when “Jessica Jones” debuted in 2015, was canceled in 2016 after two seasons; the rumored Black Widow movie, which was overdue even back then, has only now been assigned a writer. The Captain Marvel movie, which was ostensibly the reason that the show doesn’t feature Carol Danvers from the comic books, is slated to debut almost exactly a year from now, and Evangeline Lilly’s the Wasp, the first female Marvel hero to get her name in the title of a Marvel film, comes secondary to Paul Rudd’s hero in this summer’s forthcoming “The Ant-Man and the Wasp.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that leather-jacket-clad Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is still angry, with a smoldering rage that expresses itself both through her fists — capable of punching a hole through a car hood — and her look, which marries a sultry, smoky eye and berry-stained pout with ripped jeans, a wifebeater, and combat boots. That her anger is part of her aesthetic is not an observation I make to trivialize Jessica, but rather to underscore how fully it is a part of her persona; her superhero costume is like some combination of heartbreakingly vulnerable, fiercely defiant, half-asleep and pissed-off. She’s like a punk valkyrie with a drinking problem.
Jessica Jones is not just Marvel’s only female frontwoman, but the franchise’s personification of female rage — a force that has become so potent, in the years since her first appearance, that half a million people marched on Washington, Oprah flirted with running for president, and rapists, abusers, and harassers have been dragged out of the highest halls of power and privilege, practically kicking and screaming as they go. Creator Melissa Rosenberg’s interpretation of Brian Michael Bendis’ comic-book heroine could not have been more prescient, given that the first season laid out one stubborn, damaged woman’s journey to confronting and finally neutralizing a man whom she both loved and was victimized by, Kilgrave (David Tennant). Jessica’s arc required a reflexive reckoning with her own self-loathing, including an attempt to grapple with consent that went far beyond what was outlined in the graphic novels. Part of the series’ timeliness is in locating how Jessica — who, like many women today, is powerful, independent, and doesn’t take any s–t — could still be violated.
Season 2 of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” does all it needs to — which is to say, it brings Ritter’s fantastic interpretation of Jessica Jones back to TV, with every ounce of shadowed malice and explosive desire on display. Ritter’s Jessica is a gender-bending mishmash of noir character traits — femme fatale and hardboiled detective rolled into one, with the dank P.I. office and effortless smudged eyeliner to prove it. Reinterpreting these roles — and making them undeniably romantic, as befits the jazzy theme music that wafts into each episode — is not particularly easy; with each scene, Ritter has to sell a character that is an inherent ball of contradictions as a recognizable, appealing whole. She makes it a breeze, playing Jessica with a contained, slouching energy that belies her readiness to snap.
In the second season, Jessica is not quite as close to the breaking point as she was in the first; instead, she’s exhausted, in a way that draws down every feature of her face. On the whole, things are fine: Destabilizing ex Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is out of her life, neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville) is an assistant she can rely on, and the worst, arguably, is behind her. But on the other side of Kilgrave’s hold on her, Jessica finds herself struggling. She’s still drinking, still afraid of what intimacy might bring into her life, still traumatized. In the first scene, back to hustling for private clients, she learns a woman’s boyfriend is cheating on her. The woman sobs. Jessica waits, embarrassed and impassive, as if the notion of crying over the untrustworthiness of a man has never entered her mind. She looks utterly worn out by the world, nearly crushed by its petty grievances. So when the woman asks her to kill the cheater, Jessica’s response is quick but confused, as if she has no idea who she’s convincing: “I don’t kill people. Because I’m not a murderer.”
With alacrity, Season 2 drops Jessica into her next plot arc: figuring out what happened to her after the accident, when she was in a coma and the shadowy group named IGH had a grip on her. She’s egged on by her best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), a media personality with a growing fanbase, who is more interesting as a stand-in for feminist media narratives than as a character in her own right. In Season 1, Trish often felt superfluous; here, as a radio journalist striving for a big scoop, she’s both more central and more uniquely frustrating to the infinitely secretive Jessica. The friendship between the two is real, even if the gulf between their personalities sometimes challenges reality.
And though Season 2 starts off most of its storytelling rather ungracefully — a spate of murders, Trish’s ambitions, and Jessica’s court-ordered anger management class set the plot spinning before the audience has time to reacquaint itself with the characters — its thematics are on point. Jessica is still a case study in trauma, and as the story widens beyond the first season’s offering of how she experienced that trauma, it touches on many different women and the way they carry their fury in their own lives. Viewers learn more about Trish’s backstory, discover another side to Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), and find more people affected by IGH’s experimentation, including a new character played by the great Janet McTeer. Without quite ever saying “Me too,” the series mouths it. “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” also expands to explore addiction and dysfunction as side effects of superpowers. Quips one character not long for this world, “With great power comes great mental illness.”
“Marvel’s Jessica Jones” is never not a Marvel TV show, with all of what that implies — mushy plotting, convenient characterization, a slew of side characters with bizarrely complex biographies, and a preponderance of mysteriously vast and endlessly complex science-y conspiracies. Often, Jessica’s sardonic voiceover is a bit too pat — just as her style is a little too chic, and her skin a little too flawless (especially for a brown-liquor alcoholic plagued by nightmares); for all of its purported grit, the series has the gloss of TV. And yet within this otherwise standard construction are so many hidden gems of scenes that offer a superhero’s meditation — on vulnerability and power, on frailty and mortality, on the relationship of the powerful to the powerless, and yes, of course, on the inherited trauma of women — simply because the subject matter is so, so much more than the rest of the Marvel universe cares to be.