Our onscreen superheroes are, for the most part, neutered. Sure, there’s romantic tension and the occasional kiss, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before we see Henry Cavill and Amy Adams do a boudoir scene as Superman and Lois Lane. And, yes, we hear a lot about Tony Stark’s bedroom conquests, but no Iron Man or Avengers director would ever get away with depicting his preferred sexual positions.
Not so with Marvel’s Jessica Jones. As anyone who binge-watched Netflix’s new superhero-noir series can tell you, it’s remarkably frank about sexuality: There are a half-dozen sex scenes, and they’re as vivid as they are realistic. Jessica Jones’s creators and performers told us that those scenes grew out of the show’s takes on gender, power, and superhero-genre tropes — and that they were much more enjoyable to watch than to film.
Read no further if you don’t want Jessica Jones spoilers.
“People go, ‘Wow, this must be fun.’ Well, they don’t realize you do it all day. It takes, like, half a day to film it,” said Mike Colter, who plays Jessica’s love interest, a fellow superstrong loner named Luke Cage. Most of the show’s sex scenes are between him and Krysten Ritter’s Jessica, and they’re pronouncedly athletic. The first one begins with the two of them in missionary position and ends with Jessica playing power bottom by getting Luke to take her from behind. Even for the eye-poppingly muscular Colter, the scene was physically draining.
“My chest and my arms were burning, there were points in my back — I was like, ‘Another take?’ Literally, I was trembling,” Colter recalled. He took solace in the leadership of episode director S.J. Clarkson, known for her work on Dexter and Heroes. “She’s the sex-scene director to have if you want to do sex scenes, because she knows exactly where to put the hands and what to do with the hands and what to do with the head. She’s just technically sound on it.”
Technical precision was also the preferred approach for David Petrarca, who directed the episode in which we see Luke and Jessica go at it three times. “The problem is, people bring their own kind of shame about sex to the table” when you shoot sex scenes, he said. “If you project that into the environment, you charge the atmosphere. So the best way is to make it as pedestrian as humanly possible.”
That said, one of the moments he directed wasn’t pedestrian by non-superhuman standards: Jessica is on top of Luke, riding him so hard that they shatter the bed’s bottom legs. The bed was a custom-built rig with breakable legs, which were held together with a pin. On command, a trigger would pull the pin and drop the bed. But even while filming that scene of sexual frenzy, the on-set atmosphere was one of artistic distance.
“That’s a technical shot! That’s me trying to get an Edward Hopper–esque image of the lonely woman in the window!” Petrarca recalled. “You work through the mechanics: Sheet’s gonna go here, your arm’s here, maybe he rolls this way to the left.”
That professionalism and honesty was crucial for Ritter. “Typically, sex scenes are probably my least-favorite thing to do,” she said. “Especially because they always rely so heavily on women making it look sexy. But these sex scenes are raw and normal! And I think they’re handled the same way the superpowers are: straightforward, and from a place of character truth.”
Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg had a similar perspective on why we see Jessica having sex so often. “One of the things I love most about her is she’s very unapologetic about who she is,” Rosenberg said. “Her sexuality, her powers — they’re simply a matter of fact.”
Jessica’s also a survivor of serial rape, but those working on the show wanted to make sure her sexual appetite wasn’t seen as being rooted in trauma. “Jessica Jones is messy,” said Rachael Taylor, who plays Jessica’s best friend, Trish. “She’s not perfect, she’s damaged, she’s traumatized, she has PTSD, and she still has — like every human being on the planet — these carnal desires that are also not perfect. And I welcome that.”
Jessica’s not the only female character who asserts herself sexually. Indeed, the majority of the people who have sex on the show are women: Type-A lawyer Jeri (Carrie-Anne Moss) shares a steamy scene with her younger lover, Pam (Susie Abromeit); and Jessica’s best friend Trish gets her kicks twice with tortured cop Will (Wil Traval), including one memorable encounter in which he goes down on her.
Taylor felt the cunnilingus fit in with the show’s depiction of gender, which grew out of Rosenberg being, as Taylor put it, “truly a feminist with a capital F.” “It feels like that should just be a part of the palette, of a broad palette of how we see the spectrum of female sexual experiences,” Taylor said of the oral sex. “But to that point, I don’t think I would feel comfortable simulating the opposite onscreen.”
One sentiment was true across the board: Even though the sex scenes are unprecedented in Marvel’s film and TV history, none of our interviewees went into them thinking they were revolutionary. “‘Groundbreaking’? I mean, okay, literally groundbreaking, because it was so physically strong and we could break ground while we were doing it, yeah,” Colter said. “But the Marvel Universe, it’s been known as a family-friendly kind of universe, so we’re just giving you a slice of something else. If you wanted to put the kids to bed, this is the version for Mom and Dad, y’know?”