Jessica Jones’s Kilgrave, as played by David Tennant, is by far the most terrifying and well-crafted villain Marvel has put onscreen to date. This is great for the series, but it also highlights a major problem with Marvel’s growing cinematic universe — no matter how much fun this franchise is, it’s also disappointingly mediocre. And this is in large part due to a mishandling of the most important cornerstone for a good superhero story: the villain.
There have been lackluster villains in other comic properties, but never as consistently as in Marvel films. Before Kilgrave, Marvel came close to creating a memorable villain twice: Loki from Thor and Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk. Both characters are played with overzealous panache to various degrees of success, but they get less interesting the more you see of them. They’re also surrounded by, at best, lopsided properties. Then there’s the rest of Marvel’s villains: Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy has zero personality, and his actions serve whatever the story needs him to be to get to the next plot point. Do you even remember the name of Christopher Eccleston’s villain from Thor: The Dark World? The comically villainous Ultron repeats the same story we’ve seen before — daddy issues, half-cooked revenge plots, the destruction of an entire city. Captain America: The First Avenger’s cartoonish Red Skull strikes an odd tone considering he’s basically a Nazi. While these actors bring charisma to their roles, the problem is not of performance but of construction. And how good can a superhero property be, period, without a well-crafted villain? What makes Jessica Jones stand up against the rest of the many superhero properties rolling out is the terrifying villain at its center — ahead, seven reasons why Kilgrave is Marvel’s best onscreen baddie yet.
His endgame is intensely personal.
When Marvel villains are given personal reasons for their actions, they tend to be wan daddy issues or machismo politics. At best, they’re fun but thinly characterized; and at worst, they're forgettable. But Kilgrave’s endgame is simple: He wants Jessica Jones to be under his control and to love him. He can bend anyone to his will with just his voice, except for her. He’s a man used to getting everything he’s ever wanted, and the story shapes that into something monstrous yet familiar.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Tennant says of his character, “If you've never met any resistance in life, then your perception of reality is going to be quite skewed. You're never going to know if someone is doing something because they wish to or because you're telling them to. [...] That's going to do things to the way you perceive reality and it's going to do things to your moral compass.”
Kilgrave’s effectiveness stems from something surprisingly simple: his humanity. He’s the first Marvel villain I can think of who actually feels like a real person. This extends to how the show changes key parts of his backstory and forgoes the purple skin from his comic-book counterpart for a more real-world take. Look at episodes eight and nine, where Jessica Jones complicates Kilgrave by giving us flashes of his backstory. We learn of his abusive-scientist parents and the experiments they did that gave him his abilities. When Jessica convinces Kilgrave to use his powers to save a family, I thought the show was going to set up a startling trajectory for him — redemption — only to snap his cold, sinister self back into focus and reveal the backstory he peddles to be more complicated than he portrays it. But there are a few pivotal moments where I was so close to sympathizing with him.
Kilgrave’s power taps into a primal human fear.
On a scale from superstrength to the ability to fly, mind control isn’t all that dynamic of a superpower. It’s not showy or outright cinematic. The horror of Kilgrave’s powers is that the destruction is intimate. We all like to believe we have agency over our own choices and destiny, and Kilgrave shows how easy it is for people to lose control of the illusions they hold dear. His long con with Luke, culminating in the season’s best fight scene, in episode 12, “AKA Take a Bloody Number,” shows how ugly he’s willing to get to meet his goals, souring what is likely one of the only somewhat-healthy relationships Jessica has ever had.
A trenchant take on modern gender politics.
Beyond his abilities and sharp sartorial taste, what’s most frightening about Kilgrave is just how ordinary he is. Jessica Jones is intensely interested in delving into the ways women are silenced and cut off from any chance at autonomy — from not believing their stories to turning a blind eye to the physical aftermath of their abuse. While Kilgrave doesn’t discriminate when it comes to who he’s willing to manipulate, it’s the way he uses women that provides the show’s most sickening material. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg doesn’t shy away from revealing what Kilgrave is: a rapist.
Superhero stories trade in masculinity fantasies, whether that be the throwback, nostalgia-tinted sense of justice Captain America represents or the charming rogue Star-Lord who can mess up repeatedly but always narrowly escape in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s pretty monumental for Marvel to finally interrogate how superpowers and an unchecked ego can warp masculinity. In this way, Jessica Jones becomes sharply insightful about what it means to be a woman in a culture trying to render you powerless.
An effective use of noir tropes.
Jessica Jones is at times feels myopically focused on Kilgrave to the detriment of what could be building a larger, more lived-in world through her cases of the week, but the show still puts the tropes of my favorite genre to good use. From episode one, Jessica Jones acknowledges its debt to film noir. Hard drinking, sarcastic PI whose gruff exterior hides vulnerability? Check. Witty voice-over? Check. Obsession with how life is shaped by the urban landscape? Check. Characters running from their past and afraid of their future? Check. Honest take on modern gender politics? Double check.
At first glance, Kilgrave may not seem like a noir villain. But noir has always excelled at showing the tragedies of everyday life. Its villains are frightening not for being larger-than-life caricatures, but for being all too human. And what’s Kilgrave but a twisted version of your psycho ex-boyfriend? He’s constructed similarly to the villainous men in noir staples like Out of the Past, Sweet Smell of Success,and The Third Man: a complex man with simple desires and dangerous means.
The problem with Marvel is that even though it’s willing to play a bit loosely with canon, there’s a bit of excitement lost simply because we know which films are coming out. We know most of these characters won’t die, and even if they do, death won’t stick. And if you have any working knowledge of their comics history, you can see the twists coming a mile away. Jessica Jones could only end in Kilgrave’s death, but the way it plays out is full of surprises. And Kilgrave remains unpredictable until the bitter end, especially since his onscreen story strays pretty far from what we see in the comics, from the lack of purple skin to his own backstory and how he gained his powers. I could never figure out what choice he would make, or who was under his control, or how far he was willing to go in order to have Jessica as his property again.
The devil’s in the details.
The ongoing battles of superheroes and villains often play with simple ideas writ large. The problem with this is, life’s little details can get lost in the process. Jessica Jones takes a different approach — its laser focus narrows in on a few people dealing with the intimate horror that comes with the loss of control at the hands of a villain whose appetite seems unending. It doesn’t surprise me that Marvel has found its most effective villain not in the large-scale desires of aliens or sentient robots, but by intimately detailing how power corrupts.