Keeping Up With Jessica Jones, the Postmodern Anti-Hero Next Door

Jessica Jones breaks the Marvel superhero mold in a distinctly postmodern way.

You can almost hear it — Jeri Hogarth’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) defense of Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter). She’s standing tall against a box of speculating jurors. They all have witnessed the alien attack on New York years prior, but they still have a hard time believing what they saw and heard. Moreover, if they do believe, what does that mean for the law? Jessica Jones sits stoic and hard-faced as she listens and tries not to care, as she always does. Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) sits quietly, incognito in the back row of the courtroom making sure one of his own doesn’t get the book thrown at them for something they had very little control over. Jessica Jones isn’t your average superhero, or even your average Marvel superhero.

Jessica Jones is a series about a woman who’s looking forward to a career as a private investigator. Secretly, she has super strength, speed, and the ability to jump so high she appears to be flying. But don’t ask her to be your hero. She’s not like her Marvel movie playmates: she only saves people when she can, not because she can. Further, her stalker and ex-boyfriend makes things all the more complicated. Kilgrave’s (David Tennant) a mind-controlling psychopath looking to control and destroy Jessica in order to get her back into his life. She learned that lesson already and she flips the script; she’s working to destroy him so he can’t hurt anyone else.

Jessica Jones, now streaming indefinitely on Netflix, is a part of the new wave of television shows featuring attributes of what academics call “postmodernism”. Postmodern television can be broken down into various categories of content. lists these categories as pastiche, spectacle, faux TV, mystery, and the use of an anti-hero; further, “postmodern realities blur the lines between good and evil, black and white, for both characters and viewers”, which leads us to particular questions: Do we like Jessica Jones? Do we think she’s good? Does she think she’s good? Does it matter?

Thus far, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has tried to make it clear that the Avengers are the “good guys”. Yet even Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) himself, along with the help from Dr. “Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), created Ultron (James Spader). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows how S.H.I.E.L.D. cleans up the mess and deals with what comes next, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) spends some time on his home planet. Throughout its three seasons, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has asked of its own agents and commanders, what makes a hero good? Does a hero have to be good? Jessica Jones is asking similar questions within its narrower narrative space.

Jessica Jones blurs the lines between good and evil because she feels she has to. We’re not watching a Star Wars reboot with an oh-so-good Luke fighting his dressed-in-evil-black father. Jessica’s committed several crimes, both by standards of law and of morality. Despite that, she still knows when and when not to step over the moral boundaries that have become as faded to her like as lines in an old parking lot. She wonders if it does matter anymore. Can she tip the scales, as she suggests to Kilgrave? Is it possible for her to redeem herself for actions she committed under Kilgrave’s control? Does saving someone balance the moral compass for someone else’s death? Does it change who she is to come to terms with this battle of ideals? Ultimately, that’s for Jessica to decide in future seasons, but for now we can say that at least she’s going to try.

In fact, she started a long time before, trying to rectify the death of her parents by helping Trish (Rachael Taylor). Within the first season, Trish’s abusive and controlling mother, and Jeri’s divorce seem like rather unnecessary conflicts to add to a series about a deranged killer, but they’re included to keep Kilgrave in perspective, both for the viewer and for Jessica. Trish’s mom is harsh and cruel, yes, but she’s no Kilgrave. Jeri’s a lying, cheating, and manipulative lawyer, but she’s no Kilgrave. The series keeps the most surreal and extreme versions of evil for Kilgrave — leaving Jessica somewhere in the middle. She’s sitting between the difficulties of the lives of those around her and Kilgrave’s threat of death to the masses. She can’t ignore both; neither can she deal with both at the same time.

Should she running errands for Jeri, scaring Wendy (Robin Weigert) into a divorce on a subway platform when Kilgrave is anywhere at any time? Probably not. Yet, scenes like this show us what kind of person Jessica is without Kilgrave: how far she’ll go and how much she’ll hurt someone. Jessica ends up saving Wendy from the oncoming train, but she did force her to fall onto the tracks to begin with. Despite that, Jessica can’t kill anyone. It takes her 13 episodes to kill Kilgrave, building up a tolerance to his powers, and the strength to commit the lethal final blow on her own will.

Maybe Cap won’t come to see Jessica, but Steve Rogers’s the only beacon of light shining back from the blatantly good vs. evil days of the past. Perhaps even he’ll see, maybe with Jessica as an example, that this clarity doesn’t exist anymore in the world he lives in. Trying Jessica Jones on charges of first-degree murder for the death of Kilgrave may not be where season two starts, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. If her case gets thrown out, or if Jeri continues her winning streak, it’ll be up to Jessica to decide how guilty she’ll choose to feel. It’ll be up to Jessica how much she wants to justify his destruction of so many lives. Season one ends with Jessica sitting still at her desk as voicemail after voicemail of people asking for helping pour out of her phone. Her neighbor and friend, Malcolm (Eka Darville), decides he, at least, wants to help. Will Jessica? The postmodern anti-hero is not someone who’s evil, but someone who’s conflicted about how to do good, be good, and the point of being good at all. So, Jessica Jones, what kind of hero do you want to be next?

Alyssa Rasmus is the founder of Pink Camera Media, a multimedia production company based in Seattle, WA. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Oregon. Her work has appeared on GeekWire, Serious Insights, and PopMatters.