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Best of 2015 - "Daredevil" and "Jessica Jones"

Comic book movies, by their very nature, are a fucking terrible idea. There. I said it. The format doesn't lend itself to a 90-120 minute movie, as it undercuts dramatic tension, negates character development, and ensures that the exuberant, unique nature of comics get watered down to satiate mass appeal. Why do you think DC movies are so gritty? Why do you think Marvel movies follow the same basic formula? It's because that's what sells. And as long as they sell, nobody gives a shit about whether or not it's true to the original comics.

But what if a comic adaptation was given room to breathe? What if that adaptation was spearheaded by one of the most prolific comic writers of all time? And what if, instead of just one major adaptation, we got two high-quality, faithful, interesting takes on two of comic book's most interesting heroes? Enter Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which, to date, I think are the best comic book adaptations.

That's a pretty large claim, I realize, in a world where we have The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2 and 2004's The Punisher. But let's make one thing totally clear. I'm not saying that, definitively, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are better pieces of media than any of the things I listed. Well, I think they are, personally, but that's aside from the point. The point is, as mentioned above, those adaptations fail on the basic premise that they're movies. Comic book movies historically almost always sucked up until Spider-Man because they were movies, plain and simple. Outside of rare exceptions like Batman, Batman Returns and... uh... well, that's about it, but outside of those, comic movies sucked because comics make terrible movies. And in a way?

They still fucking do.

Put aside your fanboyism/fangirlism for a few seconds and hear me out. Think about how comic books are written, paced, structured and delivered. Outside of those that are mini-series/graphic novels, most are serialized, cheap little pieces of paper filled with cliffhangers and steeped in years' worth of lore. Trying to distill that into a movie is not only a difficult task, but one that probably shouldn't even be attempted in the first place. Because, aside from the cliffhangers and the lore, there's the inescapable reality that comics are sort of better than Hollywood movies. There are huge casts of interesting characters, a huge amount of racial and gender diversity, and subject matter that couldn't get touched in a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster. Look at the protagonists of all the Marvel movies we get. Sarcastic white guy, stoic white guy, sarcastic stoic white guy, stoic sarcastic white guy... they all start blending together, because they're designed in the most cynical, focus-tested way possible by people who obviously don't give a shit about retaining anything anybody likes from the source material.

Thank God, then, for Jeph Loeb.

Jeph Loeb is a name that means a lot if you're a comic fan, and perhaps even if you're not. For starters, he's the writer behind two of the only Batman stories I like: The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, on top of the excellent companion piece, Catwoman: When In Rome. He also did the amazing trilogy of noir-esque, color-themed Marvel revamps (Spider-Man: Blue, Hulk: Grey and Daredevil: Yellow,) not to mention working on dozens of other series for both Marvel and DC. He also wrote Commando, which is, objectively, the best film ever made. The guy's pedigreed, is what I'm trying to say. Comics, movies... he does it all, and does it quite well. And right now? He's the Executive Vice President, Head of Television, which is a position they literally created for him.

All of this is my roundabout way of saying that Jeph Loeb, phenomenal comic and screenplay writer, oversees pretty much every aspect of Marvel's TV department, from what I understand. That talent and apparently ability to draft in people who would fit an adaptation, coupled with the creative freedom allowed through Netflix, collided in 2015. The result was a duo of series that, to date, are the best Marvel adaptations out there; Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

I've already reviewed Daredevil, but just to recap, hiring the guys behind Cabin in the Woods and Spartacus to adapt a sarcastic, cynical and violent series of comics is one of the best decisions Marvel's made yet. At no point during the first season did I think, "hm, yeah, they sure sanitized one of my favorite Marvel characters." Rather, they went the polar opposite route and decided to make it almost more violent, more sadistic, more psychologically horrifying than the comics ever were. It's part psychological thriller, part martial arts flick, and all-parts excellent. They basically took Frank Miller's work on Daredevil, often considered the best, and adapted that without any of the ugly misogyny that's a hallmark of anything Miller even breathes on. Earlier this year, I wrote, "not only does it capture the essence of the source material, it expounds upon it in new, novel ways and somehow manages to improve upon what was already there." That about sums it up. In early 2015, it was the best comic adaptation I'd ever seen.

That was until Jessica Jones came out of left field and blindsided me.

Now, I was already looking forward to the show since it was announced. This is, since 2008, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe project with a female superhero as its lead. Actually, this is really the only major female superhero from Marvel we've had on the silver screen outside of Scarlet Witch, which is really fucking sad, if you think about it too hard. Especially because the movie Scarlet Witch showed up in was a garbage can of half-baked ideas. Regardless: I was excited, despite only knowing a few things about Jessica, and only encountering her tangentially in comics. Only a few episodes into the series, however, and I shortly thereafter went and bought the entire run of her debut in Brian Michael Bendis' Alias.

Yeah, it's that good.

What's good about Jessica Jones? How about fucking everything? For starters, Jessica is female characterization done perfectly. She's a badass but also flawed, a heroine but also sort of a bad person, vulnerable but not in that traditionally weak-kneed damsel-in-distress sort of way. Krysten Ritter plays her pitch-perfectly, and is completely in line with how the character behaves in the source material. And then there's the supporting cast. Luke Cage is totally there, and with him being one of my favorite Marvel characters, I couldn't be more pleased with how they pulled him off. He has his iconic outfit. Mike Colter looks like the character and embodies his personality perfectly. It's a perfectly written and perfectly depicted take on the character. And then there's Trish. Amazing, perfect, badass, take-no-shit Patricia "Trish" Walker, one of Marvel's most criminally under-used characters, who gets a total revamp here in the best way possible, and is arguably the most lovable and endearing character in the entire series.

But aside from the amazing cast, Jessica Jones also gives us a taste of why I've always loved Marvel: diverse, interesting stories that are only tangentially related to superhero antics. There's some action here, sure, but it's really a brooding horror story crashed into a neo-noir thriller. It's also a drama about recovering from PTSD brought about by physical and emotional abuse. It's also a metaphor for how "nice guys" are really manipulative, evil assholes in sheep's clothing. Or, in this case, purple clothing. Point is, on top of an excellent lead and a stellar supporting cast, Melissa Rosenberg and her staff of writers deserve nothing but the highest praise for what could be considered a stellar, multi-faceted work of cinematic art. Jessica Jones weaves a tight yarn that's unlike anything else in a Marvel adaptation.

Oh, and there are villains actually worth a shit in both series, too. Which is a first for Marvel's cinematic stuff, because outside of Loki (who still kind of sucks,) compelling villains are always sort of an afterthought. Here, they're both dynamic characters and compellingly evil forces. If David Tennant and Vincent D'Onofrio don't get Emmy nods for their terrifying, ominous turns as The Purple Man and Kingpin, respectively, there's really no fucking justice in this world. Both actors are phenomenal, and I couldn't think of two better performances to ring in the MCU actually having villains that live up to the comics.

And perhaps that's precisely what make both Daredevil and Jessica Jones the most successful MCU outings yet: they very much live up to their source material. For the first time, it truly feels like all involved parties understand what it takes to make a comic book adaptation and do it right. There's a perfect balance of faithfulness to the source material and liberties taken that make it feel like both a true adaptation and something entirely fresh. The overall flow is aided by being television series, allowing for darker stories and more deliberate pacing. And that's to say nothing of the writing, which is less cheesy Hollywood bullshit and more punchy, biting and sarcastic. Just like, you know... comic books. 

Point is, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are not only the two best television shows I watched this year (with Mr. Robot devolving into a generic thriller halfway through and Orange is the New Black deciding that it just really wanted to be an incoherent heap this season,) but the very best adaptations of comic books to the screen that I've ever encountered. I'm beyond excited for Luke Cage and Iron Fist, and thrilled at the prospect of the planned Defenders team-up in a few years. 

This year, Jeph Loeb, Melissa Rosenberg, Drew Goddard and Steven DeKnight all proved that, as far as comic book adaptations are concerned, the revolution, indeed, be televised. 


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