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Television Jessica Jones: Marvel’s first woman-led superhero project seems half-hearted

In comic books, there is a trope called "women in refrigerators." Coined by writer Gail Simone, it refers to how superheroes are often spurred to action after the women in their lives are injured, raped or murdered (it specifically references a 1994 issue of Green Lantern in which the title hero finds the corpse of his girlfriend stuffed into a fridge). It is an extreme example, but an apt one, of how comics once treated women: as second-class characters and plot devices, worthy of exploitation and degradation.

Matters have improved considerably over the past two decades, yet the industry's once-regressive attitude strangely latched itself to the current comics-movie boom, which kicked off with 2008's Iron Man. We have films starring brooding men in capes fighting evildoers who harmed their lady loves, yet there has been exactly zero films starring a female superhero (although at least one starring a talking tree).

To rectify the imbalance, Marvel is launching Jessica Jones, the studio's first woman-led superhero project (albeit as a series on Netflix, rather than a full-scale film, which happens to be the same trick DC Comics is pulling off with its Supergirl series on CBS). The title character here is not waiting to be saved, but the one doing the saving, all the while fighting everyone from low-level Hell's Kitchen thugs to one of Marvel's most disturbing supervillains.

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"Joining the show meant being part of a much bigger conversation, because we've never seen this kind of badass in a female form before," says Krysten Ritter, the former Breaking Bad regular who plays Jessica with a wry mix of sarcasm and scorn. "This is thrilling and exciting and genre-busting for Marvel, but it's also something different, too – this isn't the big, colourful explosions of the Avengers films."

Indeed, and here is where Jessica Jones unevenly tries to be both a groundbreaking piece of pop culture and a concession to the way things are. Unlike Marvel's big-screen efforts, and even Jones's sister Netflix series Daredevil, the new series is both a comic-book property and something else entirely. It has no costumes or capes, and not much in the way of superheroics. Jones herself is a former supe, who uses her powers only sparingly as a private eye. She ends up saving people, sometimes reluctantly, but anyone expecting the female equivalent of Iron Man's pyrotechnics should adjust their expectations.

In terms of pure entertainment, this is not necessarily a bad thing. As Ritter says, the show is more an "intimate, grounded psychological thriller" than a flashy Avengers-style romp, and it's not as if the world is short on the latter. Its 13-episode debut season delivers a solid punch of dark and atmospheric character-building, using the Marvel world as a sandbox to explore one woman's unique place in it. "I've always been drawn to character-driven projects, and this is the kind of part that you'd only find in a dark, weird indie film that no one would see," Ritter says. "To have Marvel and Netflix as a force behind it, that's a huge platform to explore these sorts of issues, one that we've never seen before."

Still, for Jessica Jones to be Marvel's opening salvo in its bid for gender equality is half-hearted. In addition to its lack of spandex and superheroics (would you abide an Iron Man series in which Tony Stark refused to wear his suit?), the series spends a healthy amount of time building the narrative of Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Jessica's sometimes love who also possesses a unique set of super-skills. This can all be justified in a corporate sense – as Luke, Jessica, Daredevil and Iron Fist eventually team up to form The Defenders, which will be a standalone Netflix series in the near future – but to shoehorn a male hero's journey into Jessica's is its own kind of dastardly villainy.

Then again, not a single moment in Jessica Jones's first season features a fridge. Progress, of a sort.

Jessica Jones starts streaming on Netflix on Nov. 20.

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