Super-Noir: Jessica Jones

Netflix’s Jessica Jones is Marvel’s next step into a little genre I like to call Super-Noir. The best known – and most obvious – example of the quasi-genre is probably Sin City, but Sin City’s aim is less super and more noir. It technically belongs to a category called “neo-noir,” but the comics and the films based on them paved the way for a strangely appealing blend of the incredible and the ordinary within one of the most popular genres of all time: superhero flicks.

Superhero stories have their own merits and downfalls (more or less of each depending on who you ask), however the sensation I call Super-Noir differs from traditional blockbusters in several key ways. They are, for one thing, less shiny.

Traditional superhero shows are almost always origin stories. Or, at least, the first installments are. The audience grows with the characters, and there is a happy familiarity when audiences return for sequels because the audience has essentially known these characters since “birth.” Super-Noir can be about reinvention, transition, or falls from grace, but there is always established history. Characters are introduced like slice-of-life vignettes from the shady end of the street rather than montage-d super stars.

Although flashbacks often reveal the formative days of heroes and villains, they only reflect or enhance present action. Characters have immediate concerns. Jessica Jones includes various flashbacks, including Jessica’s PTSD, old film reels, and even comparative memories of one event from two different points of view. Flashback scenes introduce past events with bearing on the immediate situation, but so far both Jessica Jones and Daredevil have emphasized current dilemmas over back-story. The audience has enough to empathize and understand, and that is all.

Super-Noir heroes are relatable rather than enviable, particularly for adult audiences. Jessica, for example, is a pessimistic drinker with trust issues. Her friends are drug addicts, morally-compromised lawyers, and survivors of all stripes. Plots weave through support groups, stalking, and physiological/physical abuse. As I said, Super-Noir isn’t shiny. No character is without major flaws. There is no sweet and collected Pepper Potts, and there is most certainly no Superman or Captain America.

While heroes may occasionally worry over the state of the world, their own battles are relatively small. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones keep the action locked inside New York, primarily in Hell’s Kitchen. Due to the scale of the battles, every facet of the story is personal for the heroes, and even if they are motivated to protect the common good, it isn’t anything like saving the world. Although both series’ villains could aspire to world domination under the right circumstances, they are not Ultron, or Loki, or Lex Luther. They fight toe-to-toe multiple times, constantly caught up in one another’s space. The final confrontation is not a grand revelation of the villain or his schemes; it is simply the conclusion of an ongoing struggle.

Super-Noir is flourishing through mediums like Netflix, but making a movie with such stories would be nearly impossible simply because of pace. Super-Noir has the action and discovery of a superhero story (and, of course, the super powers), but it escalates slowly, building tension like a Hitchcock tale rather than a Whedon-esque adventure. Humor appears rarely. Careful cinematography upstages levity and explores characters without, at times, the aid of dialogue.

Lastly, Super-Noir doesn’t end with “happily ever after.” The villains may fall, or they may escape. Heroes may win, or find themselves compromised. Goals are left unachieved. Expectations are broken, shifted, or dropped altogether. Everyone leaves the battlefield limping, because complex situations invalidate simple conclusions. The bright side for fans is that such nebulous endings leave room for sequels/later seasons – which is usually intended, and – again – makes such series perfect matches for platforms like Netflix.

Next year, Daredevil will get a second season, further establishing the Super-Noir branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe currently flourishing on Netflix. Jessica Jones will hopefully win a second round as well. The question is: who will come to Netflix next and will Netflix choose to continue the trend of Super-Noir?


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