[WARNING – This articles contains SPOILERS for Jessica Jones.]
Jessica Jones is only the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the series is easily the most unlike anything Marvel has produced before. Starring Krysten Ritter as a private investigator with “gifts”, Jessica Jones sends its protagonist through a grueling and emotionally complex arc. The Netflix series earns its mature rating not only through onscreen violence, but from strong sexual content and intense subject matters. This definitely isn’t a Marvel show for the whole family, and it pairs superpowers with real world problems in ways the Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D. simply couldn’t.
What also sets Jessica Jones apart from its fellow MCU properties is the villain: Kilgrave as portrayed by David Tennant. It’s no secret that outside of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, the MCU has been lacking for truly compelling villains. Often, Marvel’s greatest foes are either poorly developed, lazy inverses of the heroes, killed off too quickly or any combination of the three. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk was a strong contender and certainly raised the bar, but his ‘quiet one moment, raging the next’ mob boss wasn’t entirely new either.
Tennant’s Kilgrave, however, is a whole new breed of Marvel villain. His abilities are unique, with frightening consequences. His goal is personal, attainable, and the manner in which he goes about achieving it is captivating. Tennant imbues Kilgrave with qualities both charming and repulsive, creating a character that is by far Marvel’s best villain since Loki – if not ever.
Mind control is by no means new. Loki used the mind gem for just that purpose in The Avengers, enslaving Hawkeye, Dr. Selvig and more to do his bidding. On The CW’s The Flash, Gorilla Grodd is capable of controlling people’s words and actions through thought. Yet in each of these cases the people being controlled act like zombies, they lose any spark of individuality within them. It’s usually pretty easy to pick out who Loki or Grodd are controlling – they’re the ones not acting like themselves.
But when someone is under Kilgrave’s control that distinction isn’t as blatant. Most of his victims don’t alter their behavior much beyond whatever specific command they’ve been given. It becomes all the more terrifying when we consider what those specific commands are. Mind control is often shown making bystanders fetch and carry or forcing heroes to fight one another. In Jessica Jones, Kilgrave commands a man to stand in front of a fence forever and a woman to slice another woman with a knife 1,000 times. These commands are extreme in their specificity and they must be carried out to the letter – giving Kilgrave unimaginable control.
Kilgrave’s powers of persuasion are unique. With them, Kilgrave is frighteningly unpredictable, basically doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants. All it takes is a phrase and anyone within earshot can become an ally, a diversion, or even a weapon. This makes for utterly captivating stand-offs, like when he orders police officers to point their guns at each other or tells people with nooses around their necks to teeter on the edge of a bar. These are tense moments made all the more tense because everything is being controlled on Kilgrave’s whim. His powers of persuasion, his mind control via airborne pathogen effectively removes choice. It’s an invasion of mind and body. When Kilgrave controls another person, whether only for a moment or years at a time, it’s rape on every conceivable level.
A Charming Devil
Kilgrave’s abilities are frighteningly powerful, but what’s even more upsetting is how much he enjoys using them. Kilgrave relishes in his control of other people, and Tennant’s performance taps into our own desire for everything to go our way, making the whole scenario alarmingly alluring. What’s worse, Kilgrave proves himself dangerous even without his powers, manipulating others with promises and pleas.
At first, Kilgrave comes across as exceptionally charismatic, but the more we learn about him, the more pathetic he becomes. He’s remorseless, using his powers to act on his every whim like a spoiled brat. We don’t just despise Kilgrave, we pity him. He gloats, he pouts, he throws veritable temper tantrums when things don’t go his way. Kilgrave is a lot of things, but most importantly he is a multi-faceted character the series takes its time developing.
Most MCU villains aren’t given this level of depth. Many are one-off, one-note bad guys. Tennant’s performance, however, is captivating. The character he creates is at first charming, seductive, but upon further examination is a grotesque, selfish sociopath with little to no concern for anyone but himself. Tennant is given the chance to play not only with our perceptions of Kilgrave, but of the actor himself. Best known as the lovable Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who, Tennant is clearly playing against type in Jessica Jones. So much of his intonation is eerily familiar – due in part to Tennant using the same inflections he perfected on Who – and the results are unnerving.
Clear, Personal Motivations
The final key to why Kilgrave is such a compelling villain are his motivations. Unlike many of the MCU’s villains who have needlessly complicated plans for revenge or domination, Kilgrave’s goal is simpler, it’s uncomplicated and personal. All he wants is for Jessica to fall in love with him, as he has come to love her. Failing that, Kilgrave seeks to destroy her – if he can’t have Jessica, no one can. (Again, what a petulant child.) It’s twisted, to be sure, given that Kilgrave also held Jessica in his thrall for some time, but it’s also (sickeningly) relatable. It’s why his powers are somewhat enviable. Given the same abilities, how many of us would make different choices?
Kilgrave’s obsession with Jessica is every bad breakup with an abusive, possessive partner cranked up to 11. She’s trying to move past the trauma their relationship inflicted, while his only concern is winning her back – which he tries to accomplish by destroying all she loves, leaving her little choice between returning to him or watching her friends suffer.
The final encounter between Kilgrave and Jessica is harrowing. When he takes control of Trish, attacking the only person Jessica has ever loved, it’s the final straw. In a confrontation reminiscent of Batman facing The Joker, Jessica makes the tough call and snaps Kilgrave’s neck. She realizes that some men are too dangerous to be left alive. His motivation was so clear, his goal so singular, that Jessica is left with no other option. And the very fact that Jessica has to kill him only cements how dangerous of a villain he is.
It’s a bit of a shame, actually, that Kilgrave is finished off within the 13-episode series because he’s easily the most captivating villain Marvel has had in years. But where other villains feel like missed opportunities, either killed off too quickly or with little fanfare, Kilgrave’s death feels earned. Jessica Jones gives a full and thorough exploration of his powers, his personality and his motivations. Kilgrave is memorable and loathsome – and isn’t that all we ask of a good villain?
Jessica Jones and Daredevil Season 1 are now available on Netflix. Luke Cage Season 1 and Daredevil Season 2 will arrive in 2016. Iron Fist and The Defenders will arrive sometime thereafter.
Header image via ‘BossLogic’