This article contains spoilers for Marvel’s Jessica Jones Netflix series. It originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
“Pick up that coffee… throw it in your face.”
Of all the awful things that Kilgrave does over the course of Jessica Jones season 1, a certain moment has stuck in my memory – when a magazine vendor tells him that his stall isn’t a library. Of course, these words will be familiar to many geeks.
At some stage, most of us have been caught lingering with a comic we’re not sure about, or a magazine we can’t afford, in a corner of a comic shop or bookstore. We’ve all grumbled a little when we’ve been caught in the act of slyly perusing papers that we’re meant to pay for.
And what is Kilgrave’s reaction to this minor annoyance? Well, he compels the vendor to lob a cup of hot coffee into his own face. I actually let out an audible gasp when the java met skin, and Kilgrave simply sauntered off. Even incidental characters aren’t safe when Kilgrave is around.
In the MCU we’ve seen plentiful evil acts. Cities have fallen from the sky, aliens have invaded Earth, terrorists have blown up Tony Stark’s house, and we’ve witnessed what Wilson Fisk can do with a car door… but nothing in this universe has affected me in the way that Kilgrave can.
“What if there is someone else out there, but his ability was to make people do whatever he wanted?”
Kilgrave’s abilities are the foundation of his menace – if he tells you to do something, you do it. Only Krysten Ritter’s Jessica seems capable of denying his demands, although Trish managed to work around the problem in the final episode by wearing some snazzy Beats headphones (why had no-one else tried that?).
For the most part, Kilgrave had complete control over the other characters. Including forcing the aforementioned vendor to scald himself, Kilgrave’s treatment of the other characters was seriously twisted:
Within the main non-flashback narrative, Kilgrave told children to get in a cupboard, sent an entire support group to the gallows, told his mom to stab herself with scissors, encouraged a mobster to put his head through a post, forced Trish to put a bullet in her head, ordered ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ turned Luke on Jessica, forced a crowd to start killing each other, and compelled a young man to stand on the roadside staring at a fence ‘forever’ simply for being a pain in the arse. I’m sure I’m forgetting some, too.
Kilgrave’s gruesome wishes loom over the show like a creepy shadow, adding the consistently unsettling feeling that any character might not be trustworthy. his fear is established in the first episode, when Hope suddenly guns down her own parents, just when we think everyone’s safe, hours after she’d last been with Kilgrave. We might’ve thought she was safe when Kilgrave wasn’t in the room, but clearly he had a lasting effect.
Indeed, Kilgrave’s use of his powers varies from short, sharp demands (‘cut your heart out, dad!’) to long-form schemes and delayed actions. Kilgrave was nowhere to be seen when that poor unnamed chap stuck some garden shears in his skull, for example, and he even wrote specific romantic dialogue for Luke (“It was OUR sexual tension!”).
Although the MCU has featured baddies with lots of influence before – the way Thanos and his wishes hang over Ronan in Guardians, or The Winter Solider’s reveal that HYDRA had been internally overthrowing SHIELD – they’ve never dabbled with a villain with such an all-encompassing control over the characters around them.
The casting of David Tennant makes Kilgrave’s grim demands seem ever more shocking, and this must be deliberate from the showrunners. At points, when Kilgrave’s enthusiasm levels rise a little, he really does resemble a twisted version of the Tenth Doctor. His charisma – combined with his creepiness and callousness – makes for unsettling viewing.
“Jessica, I’m the only one who matches you… we’re inevitable.“
Kilgrave’s desire to snare Jessica is seemingly his only motivation throughout most of the series. In the flashbacks, you see glimpses of the things he made Jessica do. Everything from her facial expressions (‘smile!’) to her actions (‘deal with her…’) was under Kilgrave’s control. And in dialogue, we learn even more of what he made her do.
When Jessica and Kilgrave’s first big confrontation took place in episode 8 (AKA WWJD, set mostly at Jessica’s childhood home), we learn the full extent of Kilgrave’s pre-series relationship with Jessica. Although this was implied heavily (and assumed by many viewers) beforehand, spelling out Kilgrave’s rape of Jessica via dialogue allowed showrunner Melissa Rosenberg to examine his true evil. His evil doesn’t stop when the show cuts away – he’s done all manner of horrible things that we’ve not been shown.
Marvel villains past have invaded our planet and invaded people’s homes, but they’ve never invaded people in the way that Kilgrave does, physically and mentally. This adds to his menace. He’s not trying to use mind control to rob banks or take over the world, he’s trying to win back the girl he abused against her will.
Again, this is where the casting of David Tennant comes into play. If someone you expect to play a villain had been cast in the role (say… Andrew Scott, or Mark Strong), they’d just come across as a complete bastard. It’d be impossible to like them after such horrid revelations. However, this being the charisma fountain that is Tennant, Kilgrave slimily avoids the allegations, continues professing love for Jessica, and the show goes on.
Tennant’s charisma helps hammer home the idea of Kilgrave’s powers – you want to hate him, but he just won’t let you.
“You don’t see Eric crying when he goes in the sin bin.”
It’s also worth mentioning that Kilgrave’s introduction to the show is unique. We don’t get a generic villain origin story in the first episode. There’s no industrial espionage or lab accidents. Like Fisk at the start of Daredevil, Kilgrave just exists. He looms over the show before we’re even told who he is. And we don’t start with his evildoing, either – we start with the consequences.
The opening episode, AKA Ladies Night, begins with Jessica already being haunted the memory of Kilgrave. As she goes about her daily life, she hallucinates brief flashes of him. The one where he licks her face is particularly creepy and unforgettable. It’s a bit like the flashes of Tyler Durden that you get before Brad Pitt properly arrives in Fight Club.
This way of introducing Kilgrave brilliantly fosters a sense of paranoia in the audience, akin to the way in which Jessica sees the world. This only gets worse when the first case we see Jessica embark on leads right back to her old haunts, and ultimately, to Kilgrave.
Here, the writing and structure of the show itself is working to build a terrifying image of Kilgrave, before letting us meet him properly. And when we first clap eyes on him for a decent length of time, he forces kids into a cupboard. Urine seeps out from under the door. We should make no mistake – Kilgrave is an utter bastard.
This makes it all the more interesting, then, when the show begins trying to humanise Kilgrave. We get a few glimpses of his past beforehand, but the nature of Kilgrave’s villainous origin really comes to a head in episode 9, Sin Bin. This is when Jessica reunites Kilgrave with his parents – the people that made him this way. As a child, Kilgrave had a terminal illness. He was a relatively normal kid, with a rugby player hero called Eric. To save him, his parents experimented on him, accidentally giving him his powers.
In Sin Bin, the question is subliminally raised as to whose fault Kilgrave’s evil is. His dad posits that young Kevin never had any trouble giving orders (‘telling us when to piss’), but some degree of blame has to go on the parents. It sounds like they never explained his new powers, and abandoned him after he put an iron in his mum’s face. You’ve got to blame mum and dad, at least a bit, for Kevin becoming Kilgrave (‘was MurderCorpse taken?’).
And again, Tennant’s impressive performance helps us accept this big revelation. The monologue that Kilgrave comes out with – when mum asks if his captors have been feeding him right – is some of the best dramatic dialogue the MCU has seen. And when David Tennant starts crying, who doesn’t think of his emotional ‘I don’t want to go’ from Doctor Who?
In this episode, and at plenty of other points, the show tries to make us sympathetic towards Kilgrave. Rosenberg banks on Tennant’s inherent charm to level out the transition from murderous bastard to misunderstood victim. It’s almost a shame, in the end, that they can’t cure him, or contain him, or utilize his powers for the good of mankind (the scene where he tried out being a hero was brilliant, wasn’t it?).
So, Kilgrave’s actions – and the way in which the show presents him as a looming, ever-present threat – make him the MCU’s creepiest villain to date. No other Marvel baddie has this ability to get inside our heads, literally or figuratively.
Never has the MCU offered us quite this level of grimness. There was plenty of pain and death in Daredevil, of course, but not as with the frequency and imagination of Kilgrave’s sick demands from Jessica Jones. He put his dad in a blender, for Christ’s sake.
Also, rarely has a villain been as developed and fleshed-out as Kilgrave’s character. Although he’s presented as a source of creepy horror in the opening episodes, the revelations around his origins present us with the possibility that maybe Kilgrave isn’t entirely to blame.
Again, it’s almost a shame that Kilgrave has to die in the end. Death is never really an end in the comics, but that neck-snapping seemed pretty final, didn’t it? Still, there’s a chance that Kilgrave’s legacy could play an important part in the future of the Marvel’s Netflix shows.
Speaking of Netflix, this is the second time that Marvel’s collaboration with the streaming service has resulted in a terrific villain. Daredevil somehow had us engaged in Wilson Fisk’s love life – despite all his criminal actions – and now Jessica Jones has made us question whether a mind-controlling murderer could really be blamed for his manifold wrongdoings. Great actors handled both villains, too.
Perhaps there’s a lesson that Marvel’s film division could learn from all this – the more time spent developing a villain, the more audiences will engage with them. In the MCU movies, there’s often barely enough time allotted to constructing a villain, let alone deconstructing one. With Netflix’s lack of restrictions, though, they’re two for two with engaging, interesting, discussion-worthy baddies.
The likes of Malekith, Ronan and The Mandarin would certainly have benefited from having more screen time devoted to their motivations, background and character development. Admittedly, Loki disproves any claims that Netflix has all the best baddies… but none of the movie villains could get under your skin quite like Kilgrave.