Near the outset of Jessica Jones’ eighth episode, our heroine rustles from her sleep and wanders from her girlhood bedroom down to the patio out front. There, at the table where she ate with her family as a child, a man has arranged a lovely breakfast for the two of them — fresh fruit salad, a bowl of whipped cream, a plateful of blueberry pancakes, orange juice. She takes a seat and helps herself to a few cubes of watermelon, a hefty dollop of cream, and a pancake. A friendly neighbor catches sight of them and ambles into this cracked-mirror vision of domesticity. The man warmly greets her, introduces himself, and asks her if she won’t join them for a spot of breakfast. She accepts with the sort of smile women reserve specifically for reedy, charming Brits.
This man is the most fearsome villain that Marvel has ever brought to the screen.
Until recently, the biggest force in American entertainment has contended with one major problem during their methodical takeover of Hollywood: In spite of their comic-book branch’s sprawling rogues’ gallery, Marvel has had a lot of trouble sketching a worthy villain for its cash-cow franchise films. Forgettable at best and movie-ruining at worst, the baddies of Marvel entertainment have been heretofore unable to match the charisma and screen presence of the heroes against which they’ve been pitted. But with Netflix’s new rough-edged noir series Jessica Jones, Marvel has finally contrived a villain with purpose, one who actively contributes to the larger ambitions of the show and makes them richer instead of simply filling a proscribed role. And in another, less-than-coincidental first for Marvel’s antagonists, the villain is actually scary. In fact, he’s downright terrifying.
To be frank, it’s surprising that Marvel was able to get away with such a lackluster lineup of baddies this long without someone doing something about it. The central allure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe lays in the star appeal emanating from Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Chrises Evans and Hemsworth, and Mark Ruffalo — how they could allow such a vacuum of personality on the other end confounds understanding. To their credit, Marvel put together a respectable iteration of Wilson Fisk (a.k.a. the Kingpin) for Daredevil, also on Netflix. The crime boss had a vulnerable side, and Vincent D’Onofrio evinced enough variety in his performance to make the mountain of man seem lifelike. Tom Hiddleston drew on his own charm to make the trickster god Loki into an unlikely fan favorite, as well, though more of that is owed to Hiddleston’s fervent fanbase rather than strong scripts. And in both cases, longevity has been a boon unto the writers pulling the strings — more time to tell a story means more space to flesh out the character, more beats of development, more moments of insight. For all but the most skilled film artists, brevity is the enemy of characterization.
For the one-off villains, Marvel has frittered away their precious screen-time propping up some serious clunkers. In the most basic cases, the villain will be designed as an evil-version foil of the hero, mirroring his powers, but illustrating the havoc that’d be wreaked without the governing principles of a moral code. Iron Man squandered Jeff Bridges on the vaguely nefarious Iron Monger (remember him?), Ant-Man made some minor adjustments to the hero’s basic schematic and turned Corey Stoll into Yellowjacket (remember him?) and the Ed Norton-led Hulk tapped Tim Roth to play the identity-free Abomination (good lord, remember him?!). In the most tolerable cases, the villains have relied on quirks to prevent a total suck of energy onscreen — Mickey Rourke, still riding high on the praise he earned for The Wrestler, set his Iron Man 2 villain apart from the pack with his sympathetic streak for a pet cockatoo. Even then, however, the character was perilously thin. The characters exist solely to provide the hero with a target at which he can aim attacks, popping up when it’s time for a decisive victory and then vanishing once they’ve outlived their usefulness. They have no lives of their own, no mental interior, no sense of direction. In many cases, it’s not even clear why they do such villainous things. Fish must swim, birds must fly, and in a superhero movie, someone’s got to commit some acts of evil. Such is the way of nature.
As Jessica Jones‘ chief nemesis Kilgrave, David Tennant doesn’t present himself as a megalomaniac intent on complete global control. It’s not as if that’d be beyond his reach, with his unsettlingly effective powers of suggestion enabling him to make his every wish a command with the slightest whisper. His criminal aims are a bit more modest, though twice as frightening. All he really wants is Jessica, and not even to kill her. He wants Jessica’s love, nursing an obsession with the superpowered private eye that starts with stalking and kidnapping, progresses to purchasing her childhood home in a deranged gesture of romance, and only gets more disturbing from there. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg deliberately designed the comic-book enmity between Jessica and Kilgrave to resemble an abusive relationship, where much of the warfare takes place on the psychological plane, not the physical. Kilgrave has no remorse about creating immediate horrors — a man sticking a severed arm down a sink-disposal, another breaking his own hand in order to slip out of a pair of cuffs — but he’s never the one dirtying his hands. He warps the mind until it’s a matter of instructing those under his sway that they commit such atrocities of what feels like their own volition. He could never best Jessica Jones in combat, but there was a time that he could get under her skin and influence her to do what he wanted her to.
On a level that just barely qualifies as subtext, Kilgrave’s brand of villainy parallels the toxic male entitlement that’s created an atmosphere of fear for women nationwide. He’s a petulant, self-inflated little worm, powerless without others doing his bidding. And yet his abilities empower him to claim who or whatever he please as his property with minimal consequences; his only authority comes from his total willingness to take, take, take and believe he deserves it. Once he realizes that (call this the point of SPOILERS) he can’t directly seize Jessica’s brain using his powers, he pulls out every trick in the abuser’s playbook to warp her mind. He insists that she wanted to be controlled by him during the time he spent as her brainwasher, he reminds her that she could’ve left if she wanted to, he declares that it was her fault. He notes all of the money he’s spent on her and all the gifts he’s given her, explaining that clearly nobody who loves someone that much could mean her any harm. These are classic tactics of abusive personalities, always geared to shift culpability for the abuser’s actions onto the survivor. The scariest aspect of all is that Kilgrave probably doesn’t even realize what he’s doing. In his own estimation, he’s a gallant gentleman perplexed as to why this ungrateful little bitch can’t accept the kindness and generosity he wants to heap on her.
While Jessica Jones delights as a classically minded private-eye noir, the most affecting reading frames the show as a slow-burn exploration of trauma, the mental scars it leaves, and the emotionally exhausting process of recovery. Not unlike her Netflix countrywoman Kimmy Schmidt, Jessica Jones takes radical self-empowerment as the only path to salvation following a harrowing experience at the hands of a man desperate to mold her thoughts like putty. Jessica recites the street names near her childhood home in moments of extreme anxiety (I defy you to find someone capable of watching this program and continuing to dismiss triggers as a figment of oversensitive millennial imaginations), but she steels herself against the looming terrors of Kilgrave by honing her skills as a fighter and detective. Jessica Jones and Rosenberg rightly identify female agency as the key to conquering post-traumatic stress, and so Kilgrave must accordingly symbolize the complete eradication of that agency.
Kilgrave advances the ideas that the show has developed over its 13 episodes, rather than just standing in as Jessica’s punching bag. His presence in the show makes sense, it has meaning. His brand of evil is insidious, at one point almost tricking the audience into excusing it via the traditional tragic-backstory channel. Rosenberg knows that though Kilgrave might be a comic-book creation, he behaves like a real person might. Learning that he went through a childhood chockablock with invasive and painful procedures from his scientist parents doesn’t explain away Kilgrave’s sociopathic streak. It reminds the audience that in the real world, monsters always fancy themselves the victim.