Stan Lee, the former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics and the creator of far too many iconic superheroes to name, defined a superhero as “a person who does heroic deeds and has the ability to do them in a way that a normal person couldn’t.” Most pop culture superheroes adhere to Lee’s definition seamlessly. They gracefully accept the famous Spider-Man adage of great power coming with great responsibility, and set out to save the world over and over.
Jessica Jones of Marvel’s Jessica Jones is different. If Jessica Jones had any say in the course of her life, she wouldn’t have ever become a superhero. Her power of super strength is inextricably wrapped up in tragedy and violation. After being in a car crash that killed her father, mother, and brother, Jessica was sent, against her will, to a mysterious medical facility that performed genetic experimentation on humans. She emerged from the facility orphaned, and capable of lifting cars above her head.
Jessica’s powers are a twofold burden. They are something that was done to her in a lab, against her will. And now that she has powers, they pressure her towards action. Jessica Jones, the second season of which premieres today on Netflix, explores Jessica’s moral and ethical responsibility to use her powers to help others.
Once upon a time, Jessica chose to use her superpowers willingly and happily. In the comic books, a teenage Jessica is inspired to fight crime after witnessing Spider-Man in action. She had the powers — why not use ‘em? But in the show, Jessica’s official career as a superhero is long behind her. Before the show’s action began, Jessica had been involved in warding off an alien attack in New York. She hung up her costume and her superhero persona, Jewel, after surviving an abusive relationship (if one could call it that) with Kilgrave (David Tennant).
So instead of running around New York beating up villains, Jessica works as a private investigator. As she explains to her new assistant in season 2, all she wants is to use her powers to solve easy cases and rack up cash — not to help people in need. In the first episode of season 2, she and her assistant, Malcolm (Eka Darville), interview a series of potential clients. One woman wants Jessica to help track down her missing son. Malcolm urges Jessica to take the woman’s case, but Jessica swiftly dismisses his suggestion. “Let it get personal and the whole thing goes to shit. A good PI needs objectivity. Take the case. Take the clues. Take the cash,” she says.
Clearly, Jessica doesn’t aspire to be a selfless superhero. She’s happy to be a self-sufficient PI. Instead of looking out for others, she looks out for herself – something that most of the people in her life, from the genetic experimenters who “gifted” her super strength, to her foster mother, failed to do.
Yet her powers, just by virtue of existing, force Jessica to get involved in other people’s lives. The rest of us sit back and hope someone else will deal with big, bad, dangerous problems. Because of her powers, Jessica is that someone else. Consequently, she will always be weighing whether to use her powers, or not use them.
This internal struggle is what makes Jessica's ultimate choice to help people – which she does throughout the show — all the more powerful. In Season 1, Jessica risks her own safety to protect another victim of Kilgrave's. This is an example of the many kind, selfless actions Jessica does, despite her impulse towards retreating into her dingy apartment.
We need a new term to describe Jessica Jones — one that’s not "superhero." Jessica's not quite like other Marvel superheroes, like Thor and Iron Man, who easily (and egoistically) throw themselves into danger. We need a word that emphasizes the power of Jessica’s choice to be good, and surmount the person in her head that would rather just take the easy jobs and live an anonymous life.
Jessica is a super-human, not a superhero. A person burdened with superpowers who must choose, each time, to be good. Heroism is not her natural mode. Jessica has to conquer herself before she can vanquish evil — and that, my friends, is a superhuman task indeed.