Superheroes are back… in a big way. And, much like bomber jackets or athleisure, they’re revamped, reimagined, and very cool. The new home of the modern day superhero is Netflix, with Marvel series such as Jessica Jones paving a new path for our favourite heroes. These series are gritty, the heroes wear jeans and hoodies, they’re ex-cons or addicts, they’re the corrupt police officers we love to hate in superhero flicks, and more importantly, the series are political, committed to making statements about our culture and the world we live in. They’re about learning to be oneself in a world where everyone is out to get you, use you, or destroy you.
- Jessica Jones
Jessica Jones is a private investigator with super-strength and a love for the bottle. The series begins as she discovers that her ex-stalker, the aptly named Kilgrave, who has the ability to control minds, isn’t quite as dead as she thought he was. Jessica is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the series explores how she copes with what Kilgrave did to her whilst she was under his control.
The series manages to highlight multiple feminist issues, with stalking being the main one. Kilgrave treats Jessica like a coveted possession, forcing her to have a superficial relationship with him, threatening the people she loves if she doesn’t comply. Jessica is a feminist heroine who is sexual, but not sexualised by the show: she wears muted, practical clothing, nothing floaty or fancy, she does not seduce the guys she sleeps with, she does not wear spandex or barely-there superhero costumes. Instead, we see her sitting on the toilet, dealing with crazy neighbours in a trashy apartment, swigging from a bottle and using her strength to its full extent. Importantly, Jessica isn’t a feminist character because of her qualities, which most traditionally are considered ‘male’, but because these qualities are a few of many, and this mix presents her as not just a female heroine, but a real life person who happens to be a woman.
- Luke Cage
Set in Harlem, New York, the series weaves expertly the superhero theme of saving the neighbourhood from the bad guys with issues of race and police corruption. Luke Cage is set after Jessica Jones has finished (it’s definitely not essential, but probably best to watch Jessica Jones first). Luke is working in a hairdressers, stubbornly denying the existence of his powers – in this case, his unpierceable skin and super strength. However, when gangs start causing disruption in Harlem, Luke finds himself in the centre of it. Harlem is a mostly black neighbourhood which appears to be on the rise in terms of culture and politics, but once suspicions around Luke’s character arise, the issue of race and police brutality is explored with care and expertise. The series depicts a neighbourhood that faces serious problems, but which is defined by hope for the future.
Daredevil is the superhero name of the show’s core protagonist, Matt Murdock, a lawyer by day and crime fighter by night. He was involved in a tragic accident as a child, which left him blinded; however, as we find out throughout the show, his other senses are now dramatically heightened. The show tackles his blindness by showing only what he can see. He has extraordinary abilities and is able to sense a person’s presence and proximity better than the average human, and if close enough, he can tell if someone is lying by the sound of their heartbeat. Blindness in Daredevil is not a disability but a different kind of ability. Daredevil also portrays life in Hell’s Kitchen, in particular gang life, the intricacies of how these gangs work and the violence faced by many who are surrounded by gangs or become members of gangs in contemporary society.
Although not a Netflix original series, Gotham is DC’s first big show to stream on Netflix. It’s typical DC style, although stranger, darker and more gory than its Marvel counterparts (emphasis on the stranger,since most of the characters are weird). Gotham is set in the Batman universe before Batman, and depicts the rise and fall of interesting heroes and villains within the universe. It’s jampacked with recognizable names and faces such as Cat, Bruce Wayne and Ed Nygma, but focuses on future police commissioner James Gordon. Gordon is a new police officer to the GCPD (Gotham City Police Department), who is determined to overcome corruption within his new department, and save Gotham from criminals who are often gifted with superpowers, which of course Gordon does not possess. The series isn’t as explicitly political as Luke Cage for example, but covers issues such as child poverty, homelessness, and criminality, while it takes a much more philosophical look at good and evil, and what makes good people do bad things. Gotham, like the other series mentioned, also updates its heroes and villains, putting them in normal clothes, not costumes, and working on making the universe seem more gritty and believable.
The new superhero netflix series draw us in, show us people with unbelievable powers and help us to imagine a world where super-strength and strange scientists exist among us. However, they also bring us back to the real world: the characters are flawed, they have emotional and physical obstacles to overcome that no gadget can help them with. The neighbourhoods they live in and the people they fight are tarred with the same social problems we’re surrounded by day after day. Racism, sexism, and gang culture are not just fantasy problems of various alternate universes, they are experiences most of us encounter. The new heroes are gritty, real and relatable, they’re navigating being themselves in hostile climates and show us the importance of being true to oneself. They’re cool. They’re showing us that superheroes aren’t just for ‘comic geeks’ and are teaching us that there’s no such thing as a perfect person with a perfect life.
Text and picture research by Katt Skippon.