Monday, December 7, 2015

AKA We're Scared of Admitting We're A Superhero Television Show


            I love comic books. I’ve made that very clear in my many, many posts where I’ve stated something along the lines of “I love comic books.” I think the recent glut of comic book movies to be a good thing (although it’s not as much of a glut as people seem to think… more on that in another post. Maybe. In another day.) But you know the one thing that really got me excited about comic book movies and T.V. Shows?

            The Avengers.

            I mean the movie the Avengers. The bringing together of the biggest superhero names that starred in their recent adventures, having them all meeting up and fight in a movie, then go off on their own ways. Man, for all of Phase One, of what has become to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I loved this idea. I even talked about it in my review of Ant-Man, how Phase One embraced this, then managed to throw in little references, like Iron Man holding up a prototype Captain America Shield, Thor’s Hammer showing up to distract Agent Coulson, Tony Stark taking the time to recruit Thunderbolt Ross into the Avengers...

            Then Phase 2 got scared. James Gunn talking about how Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t going to work with the Avengers, going so far as to scrap planned Iron Man and Hulk Cameos. Someone saying “When are we going to talk about the Avengers” and getting waved off.  (One rumor was that they were afraid audiences would get confused as to why Thor wasn’t helping Iron Man out of his latest jam, as if they should all be hanging out in a clubhouse all the time.)
            Which brings me to the extension of the MCU, the Defenders.

            For those of you who don’t know, Netflix has decided to get into the Superhero game, taking on four of the lesser known (but still high ish profile) superheroes with the intent of bringing them into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. The idea being that these “street level” superheroes would eventually team up, taking on street crime in an Avenger-Like Fashion in a team called the Defenders. In the comics, the team was never really an official “team” like the X-Men or Justice League, but rather a random assembling of heroes who sprang into action.

            Netflix has already debuted Daredevil to some wonderful reviews, and I just finished up watching Jessica Jones, which also had some wonderful reviews. I have to agree, as a realistic television show that deals with superhumans, it’s probably one of the best television shows I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

            Unfortunately for a show set in the MCU, it’s terrible. It’s scary, even, as it’s one of the first signs that Marvel is starting to slowly abandoned their shared universe, the very thing that made them unique.

            The show is about a private investigator, named Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), with superpowers. The story as to why she received them isn’t really important, but one night while using her powers to save people, she’s discovered by a villain named Kilgrave (Played by former 10th Doctor David Tennant) who has the ability to control people into doing his will. He uses her powers as part of his criminal empire, and controls her into a relationship with him. What follows (and what the show is about) that is a strong allegory about survival, rape, and PTSD. Like I said, a heavy show, but a fantastic one. I highly recommend it for anyone that would like to watch a standalone television show that loosely follows the comic.

            The problem is the part where I say, “Loosely.”

The powers that be established JJ was going to take part in this larger MCU. That’s a lot how it was sold.  You know what they had the option to do? Not have her take part in this larger world. They could have easily made a stand alone TV show... DC comics is famous for separating out its Television and movie properties.  And had they kept her separate from the MCU, it would have been a lot stronger show. Marvel could have easily said. "Hey, we have our strong rape allegory… let’s go for it and blow some minds!” but instead, they sold this as part of the Street Level Defenders show.

I get Tony Stark, Captain America, or the Hulk not showing up - that was the POINT of Daredevil, the world that this show was supposed to share. There are bad guys that can rip apart mountains with their bare hands, and there are super powered heroes who are going to stop them, but there's always going to be that guy who steals a purse, or tries to rob a bank. Daredevil was a show that said, "hey.. I have superpowers... I'll help the little guy." This could have been an entry to further that idea, rather than Jessica Jones vs. A well known Daredevil villain, it could have shown how a severely damaged woman, one getting over her own demons having been raped, gained her footing to help the people that needed it. (it should be noted that in the comics, The Purple Man aka Kilgrave an't influence Jessica or Daredevil. In fact, it's his hatred for Daredevil that got him so riled up as to send Jessica off into the world to go kill him. Unfortunately he doesn't phrase things properly, and, let's just say Jessica can't defeat all of the Avengers at once.) Instead we got not just a cynical world, but one that openly rejected the idea that it was part of this larger world, or one that was even a superhero show.

              The show's desire to neglect the fact that it is a superhero show, much less one in a shared universe, is the most constantly frustrating thing about it. "Hey, I know a guy who can help wink wink"  says a nurse who appears in Daredevil says in one scene. But it's quickly waved away when they don't want to admit that the show dare stand alongside Daredevil.  Yes, this is supposed to be a show about Jessica Jones, one that needs to establish her. But they didn't allow a chance to draw a connection between the characters, to establish that Daredevil has powers (a major plot point in Luke and Jessica meeting) or that he was the vigilante that everyone was concerned about until the television show, Jessica Jones. It provides an odd disconnect that is jarring, having watched both shows.

            The problem is that this show actively hates the fact that it's a superhero show, and that's a problem.

             The show was a slew of missed opportunities to connect it to a larger world. Hey, how about Jessica getting a call about a vigilante roaming the streets. Hey, how about the words "Wilson Fisk" … you know that huge crime lord who's name was being whispered everywhere and then was suddenly exposed… being brought up. Daredevil didn't have to pop up every episode, but Jessica and Luke were so excited to find someone else like them that maybe - just maybe - the guy wearing the red suit running around the same 10 block radius deserved a mention. He didn't even have to show up in any episode, but the end of Daredevil made it appear as if he was watching over Hell's Kitchen… so why don't the people trying to stop the murdering rapist think to mention him? Even if it's to say, "We can't get him close to Kilgrave because we don't know what will happen?" What about the fact that several of the characters actually work in a law firm? Or that one of them was going to look for a defense attorney to protect her from the super-powered attack she suffered? "Hey look up Nelson and Murdock, they specialize in cases like this" one human being could have said. But they didn't. It was as if they went out of their way to keep from mention the "D" word. Even the Avengers get reduced to nicknames that display sheer disgust at the idea that they may actually exist. The problem is that the show's need to avoid mentioning or establishing that this character is out there hurts it.

To put it in perspective: Did you ever watch Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and it’s spinoff Angel? These were separate shows. They didn't spend a lot of time saying "Wow, Buffy would…" or "Wow, where's Angel." They death with heavy issues… growing up, rape, PTSD. But they acknowledged that they shared a world. There's an episode where Buffy dies in season 5. (Well… "dies" as much as anyone does on that show not named "Tara") during that time Angel was in another dimension. When he got back, he's talking with his buddies, opens a door, and Willow is sitting there. Fade to black before she says anything. Watch Buffy? Great you know why she was there. Don't watch Buffy? You don't know, but it took up literally one minute of the episode. Affects nothing for the casual viewer, adds something cool to remind everyone that it's a shared world. Particularly for a show that was concerned with justice, maybe two lawyers, one of whom with superpowers, could have walked behind someone in a scene. Or a reference to the law firm.

The reason Jessica Jones scares me as a continuation of Marvel's grand vision is it's blatant rejection of superheroes. What happened to her was tragic but the show took someone who was damaged then made her more damaged. The comic took someone who was happy, someone who was a hero. She wore that costume, fought crime, and could fly… and showed what that damage could do. She was raped by Kilgrave for MONTHS in the comic. Her will as a person was broken and her will as a hero was broken. A large section of her recovery was a realization that she didn’t know what was Kilgrave’s will and what was her will, and this scared it. It was a deep look into not just PTSD, but the deconstruction of a superhero. The show skips over that. She's already too cool for tights the second the show gives her superpowers. They openly mock the idea of Jessica becoming a superhero. Not just a superhero, that specific superhero that she was in the comic. The smiling, pink-haired woman who could fly. And this happened before Kilgrave set foot on the screen. The two friends are sitting around, drinking wine, and discussing superheroics. All this as the costume she would wear lays on the couch, being mocked, destroyed, disrespected.  It's not a problem that she doesn't want to fight crime in a suit. It is a problem that her character is rejected for the sake of creating one that is disgusted by the idea of being a hero. Part of the point of Jessica Jones is the shocking change in character after spending 8 months being raped. Not just 8 months of being raped, but by having her will broken down. It's supposed to send a more powerful message. But here's a character that was already pretty much the way she is when we first see her, even in flashback. It takes away from the core of the character. 

The fact is, deep allegories or not, this takes place in a world of superheroes. At the time that she was rejecting all of these things in the show, their was already a very public battle that involved costumed heroes – she could have joined them. But she didn’t have to. They didn’t have to establish a superheroic past, the show works without it. But the inclusion of this into the show is almost hateful to the source material. It’s saying “we’re better than this.” It’s mocking the very reason these shows exist. And as a fan of comic books, it kind of scares me. I’m not saying that superhero shows/comics can’t be dark. Quite the opposite. I’m saying that the removal of what made the character unique in the first place, you’re weakening the case for the character. They didn’t take a happy character and break her, then tell a story of redemption. They told a story where a deep, dark character was hurt, and then… what? Got darker? You remove the superhero aspect of the show. And this gets to a larger problem at the heart of every time a superhero tries to cover anything important: you can either have the colorful costumes, or you can have the serious discussion. If you have the serious discussion, it seems you have to mock the idea of being a superhero.

Maybe we’ll see more. There are still three more series to see before we get to the next show: Luke Cage (we probably won’t hear the phrase “Powerman” unless it’s ironic, I’m guessing). There’s Iron Fist, which is held up as it deals with more fantastical elements. And another season of Daredevil, which had it’s own issues of being afraid to acknowledge it’s legacy as a Superhero Show. and is currently filming with the addition of two other characters deeply entrenched in comic book lore.  But we’ll have to see. I certainly hope they aren't treated with the same disgust as Jessica Jones treats her comic book connections.

            Like I said, I don’t want to rain on how great Jessica Jones is as a standalone television series. It is fantastic. You should watch it. You should stop reading this and watch it now in fact. But it’s embarrassed to be one based on a superhero comic, and that oozes from the screen. And that part… that’s a little scary for the future of the MCU.

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