Screen Test

Superhero way of dealing with serious issues

Krysten Ritter as private eye Jessica Jones who is leery of the world.
Krysten Ritter as private eye Jessica Jones who is leery of the world.PHOTO: NETFLIX

Credit to Marvel for using new show Jessica Jones to call out abuse and prejudice against women

For much of the pilot episode of Marvel's Jessica Jones, there is no indication you are watching a superhero show - which is rather nice if you have grown weary of Hollywood's comic-book fixation.

At first glance, it is simply a bleak neo-noir drama about a private investigator, albeit one that has flipped the gender script by putting a woman - the titular Jones - in the role of the hard-boiled, hard- drinking private eye.

Played to prickly perfection by Krysten Ritter, Jones seems leery of the world, so jittery that she beats up handymen who turn up unannounced at her door and needs to recite a series of street names to calm herself down.

She is clearly dealing with some serious issues.

When a couple ask her to find their missing daughter, she realises the girl has fallen under the spell of Kilgrave (David Tennant), a controlling man from her own past.



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Here is where the comic-book bit kicks in: It is revealed he has the power of mind control and is able to get people to do things against their will.

Jones has special powers, too - superhuman strength and the ability to fly - but these could not stop Kilgrave from forcing her and other women to effectively become his sex slaves.

It is a chilling metaphor for the mental manipulation that often underpins domestic violence and sexual abuse.

And Kilgrave's insistence that Jessica smiles for him even when she does not want to - or his belief that she will come to love him eventually just because he desires her - echoes the sexism and aggression women face every day.

Given that superhero stories typically trade on fears about technology, terrorism, emasculation and alienation, all credit to Marvel for using this new show to call out abuse and prejudice, not to mention finally doing something about the dearth of female protagonists.

Yet for all its progressiveness, Jessica Jones ultimately highlights the creative straitjacket of the superhero genre.

Without the burden of explaining the mechanics of the characters' powers or setting up a big showdown between the heroine and villain, the show would be a lot less predictable and Kilgrave not quite so cartoonish.

Sherlock: The Abominable Bridealso reverts to the superhero formula - the superpowers here being Holmes' savant-level powers of deduction.

The BBC's version of the Sherlock Holmes tales - starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson - did not change the essence of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective, it merely reinvented the wheel by putting the characters in a modern-day setting, with contemporary humour, technology and an edgy visual style.

Throwing a bone to fans of the series, who have been clamouring for new episodes since the third season aired in 2014, the writers created a one-off special for New Year's Day this year.

It puts Holmes and Watson back in the characters' original era, Victorian England, with Scotland Yard enlisting their help to solve a series of murders with a super- natural twist - they appear to have been committed by the corpse of a woman who blew her brains out while wearing her bridal gown.

It is almost possible to assess this show without giving some of the plot away, but if a few cryptic spoilers may be permitted, the social media outcry over the scene where Holmes solves the mystery seems totally justified.

He effectively delivers a lecture about women's rights to a secret society of women seeking vengeance against men and, yes, it is as bizarre as it sounds - although not nearly as weird as the decision to have the women wear what appears to be Ku Klux Klan outfits.

This "mansplaining" fatally undermines a delicious meta joke earlier in the special, where Holmes and Watson's housekeeper complains about being given no dialogue in the stories Watson writes about their adventures.

On top of all that, it is sort of obvious who the culprit or culprits might be - and after enduring all the twists and turns in Holmes' excessively convoluted deductive process, it is not much of a payoff.

The final nail in the coffin?

The eventual explanation for why they are in Victorian England, which is the oldest trick in the book since Bobby Ewing died in Dallas. Abominable indeed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Superhero way of dealing with serious issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe