U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Jessica Jones and the Film Noir P.I.

Netflix’s Jessica Jones, whose thirteen episodes dropped on November 20, has quickly and deservedly become a hit with both audiences and critics.  The second of five planned Netflix shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jessica Jones is as grounded in the world of film noir as it is in Marvel’s superhero milieu.[1] Jessica Jones is a private investigator. But she also happens to be a superhero, or rather an ex-superhero. Despite possessing superpowers – great strength and an ability to leap tall buildings (or at least several floors of tall buildings) in a single bound – Jones has given up the life of the suited superhero for that of the P.I.

Much has already been written about the tv series, especially its interesting and effective exploration of its central themes, which include rape, addiction, victimhood, and survival.   Lili Loofbourow, in the single best piece I’ve read on the show (warning: it’s full of spoilers), appropriately describes Jessica Jones as “one of the most complex treatments of agency in the wake of victimhood that the small screen has seen yet seen.”  But though everyone mentions the show’s debt to noir, few have explored the very subtle ways in which it plays with the conventions of noir and neo-noir for its own purposes.

(Warning: some spoilers after the jump)

The P.I. is a central figure in film noir. He – and in classic noir it is almost always he – was borrowed from the hardboiled detective novels that were one of the main tributaries that formed film noir.  The noir P.I., as he developed in the 1940s and beyond, was a variation of a kind of fictional hero who appeared in pulps, comics, films and other media during the 1930s, which the historian Warren Susman called “an age of heroes.” Here’s Susman’s terrific description of the general type in his essay “Culture and Commitment” from Culture as History (1985):

[These heroes] tended to be men without attachments to any family (although often closely associated with a small group of trusted fellow workers or followers). They seldom obeyed any rules, whether those were laws of nature or requirements proscribed by any existing institutions. Their commitment was always to themselves (with a firm and strong belief in themselves, without fear, shame, or doubt about their role or identity). Such commitment, however, almost always involved a strong personal moral code that led them to “do good” and to devote themselves to overcoming the forces of evil. They triumphed precisely when and where traditional men and institutions could not. They worked for traditional American values and ends, but often — in a period that witnessed failures in the natural as well as the moral order to act “properly” – imposed their own order by themselves on a disordered world. (204)

The classic noir P.I. differed in some ways from this type.  He was more likely to be without the trusted fellow workers or followers that other heroes had, often having to find allies on the fly.  The dark world of film noir sometimes prevented the P.I. from fully imposing order on it. Philip Marlowe – in Raymond Chandler’s novels and, to a certain extent, in his appearances in classic noirs based on them – serves his clients, solves his cases, and maintains his sense of moral duty and right, but he cannot really end the essential corruption of Los Angeles, nor does he try to do so.  And later noir P.I.’s often stretched the limits of morality in their efforts to reorder their corner of the chaotic world.  Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) in The Big Heat (1953) leaves a wake of death and destruction in his ultimately successful effort to avenge his wife and clean up corruption in his city.  Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is willing to torture and threaten witnesses to get what he wants.

But classic noir P.I.s, like Susman’s heroes, were entirely self-assured. As P.I.s, they operated outside of traditional law-enforcement institutions. Indeed, many noir P.I.s once worked for these institutions. Philip Marlowe once worked for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office. Dave Bannion starts – and ends – The Big Heat as a homicide detective, but spends most of the movie suspended from the force and operating entirely outside its bounds.  Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) in Out of the Past (1947) is, in a sense, a step further removed from traditional institutions: he starts the film as an auto mechanic hiding from his former career as a P.I., in which he had double-crossed a client and then run off with the woman he was supposed to find, only to be betrayed by her.

When Hollywood began to make neo-noir movies in the 1970s, the figure of the P.I. was often reimagined in ways that rendered him much less potent.  Still clinging to his independence and individual moral code, the P.I.s of many neo-noirs often found the world too corrupt for them to change or even understand.  The worlds of many of these films had no real place for the heroic P.I.

Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) before the action of the movie Chinatown (1974) was a police detective who, while serving in Chinatown, found himself unable to help a woman in trouble because the world was not what it seemed. Having left the force, Gittes is a successful P.I. at the start of the film, though he has the admittedly tawdry specialty of investigating the extramarital affairs of his clients’ spouses.  But by the end of the film, Jake’s independence proves illusory, as he is once again drawn into Chinatown, once again fails to understand the corruption of the world around him, and ultimately fails to save another woman.

In The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman’s moves the setting of Raymond Chandler’s final novel from 1950s Los Angeles to 1970s Los Angeles, and presents Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) as a man out of place in that later decade.  Gould’s mumbling Marlowe maintains his cool and independence, but is largely confused by the world he finds himself in.  He spends the entire film realizing that he has been betrayed by a friend. And he responds to discovering that betrayal by violating his own personal moral code at the film’s end.

Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) in Night Moves (1975) is similarly entirely led astray by the people whom he’s been hired to investigate.

Which brings us to Jessica Jones.  Like her P.I. predecessors, Jones has become a private investigator after having left another career, in her case, that of a superhero. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superheroes are very important. Indeed, they repeatedly save the world.  But in Jessica Jones, they are seen in very ambivalent ways by those they serve.  The climax of The Avengers (2012), in which the title superhero team rescues New York from an alien invasion orchestrated by Thor’s evil brother Loki, is mentioned in passing several times in Jessica Jones, but most often in a critical tone. New Yorkers are angry at the destruction that took place that day. And many seem to hold The Avengers – and, by extension, superheroes in general – responsible for it.  Three major characters in Jessica Jones have superpowers.  None of them embraces the role of a superhero. Like Jessica, Luke Cage (Mike Colter), whose power is indestructibility, has chosen to pursue a more mundane career, in his case as a bartender. Jessica Jones’s villain, Kilgrave (David Tennant), has the ability to order people to do anything he asks them to. He simply cannot understand why anyone would want to use such powers to help others.

While the classic noir P.I. abandons traditional law enforcement – which has become ineffectual or corrupt – in order to be true to himself and be as much of a hero as his world will allow, Jessica Jones has, quite literally, abandoned the role of hero, and has become a P.I. who is, in some sense, avoiding being her true self.  Like many of the neo-noir P.I.s of the 1970s, Jones is a broken figure. Like Jake Gittes, her professional bread-and-butter seems to be filming her client’s spouse’s affairs. And, like Jake, she is haunted by her past, in this case her encounter with Kilgrave.  But unlike so many neo-noir P.I.s, Jessica Jones is ultimately triumphant, in part because, over the course of the series, she essentially re-embraces her role as a superhero, though she never puts on a costume.

Jessica Jones is thus an anti-heroic, neo-noir P.I. in a world that, unlike that of ‘70s neo-noir, allows for the real possibility of (super)heroism.  While neo-noirs like Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, and Night Moves take place in settings in which individual self-assertion for the good always proves ineffective, that is anything but the case in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The challenge for characters in Jessica Jones, however, is acting effectually while their very free will is constantly threatened by Kilgrave. What’s under threat is not the efficacy of self-assertion, but the very possibility of self-assertion itself.

Gender also matters in Jessica Jones. While noirs (and neo-noirs) usually use their P.I. protagonists to explore masculinity, the central plot of Jessica Jones is very much a feminist exploration of the challenges of female self-assertion in a patriarchal world.

Jessica Jones’s embodiment of the figure of the P.I. pays off precisely because the issues traditionally raised by P.I.s in noir and neo-noir – most notably the possibility of heroic self-assertion in a fallen world – are also the concerns of Jessica Jones.

[1] The character Jessica Jones starred in a pair of Marvel comics that appeared in the 2000s: Alias (2001-2004) and The Pulse (2004-2006).  The former was the first series published by MAX, Marvel’s R-rated imprint that was started when the company finally broke away from the Comics Code Authority. Jessica Jones is apparently quite true to the comics in look, tone, and plot, including its links to noir. But as I have read neither Alias nor The Pulse the above post is based entirely on the tv series.