[Warning: SPOILERS for Jessica Jones ahead.]
If there’s one area where Marvel Studios’ TV series can be said to have outshone the blockbuster movies, it’s undoubtedly the villains. While the Marvel movie villains largely suffer from not having enough depth or getting killed off before they have a chance to do anything interesting, the Marvel TV landscape includes great characters like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s backstabbing sleeper agent Grant Ward and Daredevil‘s sensitive and volcanically violent Wilson Fisk.
So, where does Jessica Jones‘ villain, the mind-controlling murder and rapist Kilgrave (David Tennant), fit into the tapestry of Marvel villains? He certainly doesn’t seem interested in taking over the world, or using his powers to make his city a better place – both of which he could do very easily. In fact, the scope of things that Kilgrave wants is very limited, because for most of his life anything he wants has been immediately handed to him. His interest in Jessica is largely tied up with the fact that she walked away from him when he told her to “come here,” making her unique in all the world. In short, Kilgrave is the worst kind of monster: a spoiled brat.
Speaking to MTV in a recent interview, Tennant indicated that Kilgrave’s personality could have been born of anyone gifted with the same powers as him. “What I’d worry about is what it would do to your moral compass,” he said. “I think it would be very difficult to find anyone who could maintain the moral fibre required to not abuse that power.” Just as spoiled children can grow up into adults who expect everyone to acquiesce to their every request, lacking personal accountability and throwing temper tantrums if they don’t get their own way, it’s hard to imagine a character whose power means that no one ever says ‘no’ to him growing up without a severely malnourished personality.
What’s interesting is that this insight into Kilgrave’s character isn’t revealed until a good way into the series. For the first handful of episodes Kilgrave appears rarely and his face is kept hidden; his presence is largely felt in the depth of Jessica’s trauma. After being held captive by Kilgrave and forced to do everything from sleep with him to kill for him, Jessica suffers from crippling PTSD that drives her to drink heavily and have panic attacks that can only be eased by reciting the names of streets in the neighborhood she grew up in. Kilgrave is built up as an almost mythical creature, capable of devastation and ruin – but when we finally meet him, that illusion is broken.
Kilgrave is more or less intelligent enough to keep up with Jessica, but other than that he has no life skills, no attractive qualities and a terrible personality. He doesn’t have Grant Ward’s fighting skills and inexorable patience. He doesn’t have Wilson Fisk’s emotional intelligence or love of art. He’s just an unpleasant, selfish, oblivious, short-tempered sociopath who is so unconcerned about anyone else’s life experience that at one point he actually has to correct himself after calling Jessica a “thing” instead of a “person.” Without his powers he would be so weak and worthless that killing him would be a waste of energy.
None of this, of course, means that Kilgrave is a badly written character. In fact, he’s actually quite brilliant, as is Tennant’s performance. Jessica Jones is largely spent dealing with the experience of trauma and trying to move past it, and rape is a prominent theme. Not only was Jessica herself raped, but she finds herself face-to-face with another of Kilgrave’s long-term victims, Hope Shlottman, who was also tormented by Kilgrave while he used her as bait to attract Jessica’s attention.
Kilgrave becomes a parallel for the real-life boogeyman of the rapist – a mysterious figure lurking in dark alleyways and waiting to inflict his terrible power on unsuspecting victims. When Jessica finally confronts Kilgrave, the glamor of villainy falls away to reveal the true horror of him: he’s just a nasty person who never spares a thought for the terrible damage he’s inflicted, and who can be confronted about committing rape – by the woman he raped – and try to turn the conversation into his own personal pity party. His obtuseness is even more revolting than if he had gloated.
Kilgrave may well be simultaneously the most loathsome and the most well-written villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Any cookie-cutter bad guy can announce grand plans to destroy galaxies or rule over planets, but there’s nothing that gets under the skin quite like a spoiled brat. Even Kilgrave’s real name, Kevin, sounds like the name of a kid who would chuck stones at passing cars and then throw a tantrum if he got told off (with no offense meant to all the Kevins out there – most of you are no doubt very nice people). His adopted pseudonym is much like his reputation: something grand and ominous that disguises something very banal.
It could be argued – and it is, by Kilgrave himself – that his childhood was far from happy. He certainly isn’t spoiled in the most traditional sense of the word, and there’s undoubtedly a certain amount of trauma associated with being subjected to painful medical experiments. But, if his parents are to be believed, he got his revenge by enslaving them and has spent the last 30 years getting his every passing wish immediately granted for him. His backstory makes him a little more pitiable at best, and there are so many other characters more worthy of pity.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of Kilgrave is how human he is. Speaking to Vanity Fair, Tennant said that there is an aspect of “wish fulfillment” to Kilgrave’s abilities that makes him “horribly appealing.” Hogarth is certainly intrigued by them, with disastrous results. Even Jessica admits that there’s something satisfying in having him use his abilities for her benefit, and makes an effort to use his powers to help people. “Maybe that’s why he’s particularly terrifying to people,” Tennant mused. “[Mind control is] something that we all slightly, perhaps at times, start to fantasize about.”
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.