Journal: Theme vs. Plot

(Or, Jessica Jones v. Daredevil: Which Is Better?)

So, last week, I was sitting with a friend in a coffee shop (as if oft my wont) and we ended up discussing both Jessica Jones and the upcoming Daredevil Season 2.

One of the things my friend said was that she thought Daredevil was actually better than Jessica Jones, and this, in many way, is what is leading to this post.

I think a lot of people confuse ‘enjoyability’ with ‘good’. Daredevil certainly is more enjoyable than Jessica Jones: it’s an easier watch, an easier story, an easier hero. The ending is almost unambiguously good, as the adventure continues. Yet I feel, in a lot of ways, Jessica Jones is the better story; the more important story, the more hard-hitting story, the one that grinds your bones and mashes your flesh and takes you to darker, more truthful places.

There’s an observation to be had here: that in these days of test audiences and Hollywood marketing, what is enjoyable is often what wins, rather than necessarily what is good. I am reminded of the story behind the ending for the I Am Legend film, which was supposed to have an ending closer to the book ending – the revelation that the monsters had evolved to become their own community, and asking the question of who, then, is the real monster of the story. However, test audiences responded ‘negatively’ to it.

This is one of those cases where studios had a choice between what was enjoyable and what was good, or, perhaps a better phrase would be artistically valuable.  Art is ever in the eye of the beholder, but you’d have a hard time making the case that the film of I Am Legend was anywhere close to the book in terms of it’s artistic integrity, since clearly, the studios chose enjoyable over artistic value.

Because that is the thing: sometimes we choose a story to tell not because it’s funny or romantic or exciting: sometimes the story we choose to tell is because it is important, and important stories are rarely enjoyable. Of course test audiences responded negatively to the original ending of the I Am Legend film – no film that tells the audience that they are the true monsters and ends on a depressing note will have the audience leaving the film feeling upbeat and cheerful. But it might have them thinking.

I’m not sure Daredevil really made anyone think about important issues, except maybe ‘dear god Charlie Cox is a fantastic actor’. Jessica Jones was all about rape culture, recovery from trauma, patriarchal values and how they hurt men and destroy women. It was, in short, a television series based around the ideals of theme far more than it was around story.

This means that a lot of people give Jessica Jones for occasionally not making sense, and I’ll cop – they’re right. Why does Kilgrave telling Jessica to ‘take care of her’ totally remove his ability to control her? Answer: it’s thematically appropriate to the story of a woman overcoming her trauma. Why does Kilgrave tell Jessica ‘take care of her’ rather than ‘kill her’? Answer: it’s thematically appropriate to his role as an abuser to use ambiguous language where possible. Why do people keep helping Jessica even when she acts awful? Answer: it’s thematically appropriate to how we, as the friends of an abuse victim, will just keep helping.

These answers, from a thematic standpoint (and, as noted previously, the show is built purely on theme) make perfect sense, but outside of that standpoint, they don’t work at all. Daredevil doesn’t try to make too much a big deal out of theme, except for the ongoing foil/comparison deal between Daredevil and Wilson Fisk, a fascinating one which works so well it’s almost heartwrenchingly beautiful.

So the answer of ‘Which is better, Jessica Jones or Daredevil’ is again, one of taste: the message of Jessica Jones is an important one, but you have to deal with all the issues inherent in a story that is built mostly on theme and carries little plot-relevant weight; whereas Daredevil is an enjoyable, fun ride that made the character and his plot ideas cool again, and whose only major theme was the Not Too Different facet between Daredevil and Kingpin, played so stunningly beautifully it’s gorgeous…but Daredevil has nothing really important to say aside from ‘maybe don’t be a tool’. Or possibly ‘hey wouldn’t this plot have been over three episodes earlier if everyone just fucking talked to each other and treated each other like fucking adults’.

…but I suspect that’s a rant for another journal post.

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