Marvel’s live-action adaptations have a fantastic track record. Great action, a willingness to taken even some truly bizarre comic book heroes and turn them into relatable figures, and so on. But there’s one area they usually falter in: their villains. That is, until they completely nailed it with Jessica Jones.
Here’s your mandatory Spoiler warning: There will be major spoilers for the entirety of Jessica Jones season one below. If you’re not done watching just yet, turn back now!
While Marvel’s movies have had a spotty track record with their villains—it’s only really Loki who stands out, and a lot of that is thanks to the charm of Tom Hiddleston rather than the character himself—it’s unsurprising that their forays into television have been where we’ve seen the company’s truly fantastic villains: three of the company’s four finest bad guys (the aforementioned Loki, Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk, Agents of SHIELD’s Grant Ward, and now Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave) are found on TV.
And that’s probably down to a simple matter of time—in any given Marvel film, we have about two hours to get to know the villain of the piece, and that’s on top of spending time getting to know the heroes (and watching the heroes punching things and blowing stuff up). Compare that to 13 hours of a Netflix show, or, in the case of Ward, two and a half seasons of TV and counting—there’s just simply many more multitudes of hours of scripting that can afford to be spent on exploring the villain, compared to the mere minutes we’ll get in a movie. We don’t really get the time for the hows and whys, to really discover what makes a character tick.
This inevitably leads us to getting the most simple and easy-to-understand villainous archetypes: the world destroyer. They just want ultimate power, or ultimate destruction, or a little from column A, a little from column B. Ronan, Ultron, Malekith, Red Skull, Hydra—hell, even Loki when he was the main threat of the first Avengers film. We’ve seen this epic-scaled plot time and time again in Marvel’s movies, because it’s quick and easy. “Oh, they want to take over the world and [Hero X] has to stop them? Got it. Bring on the explosions!”
The extended time frame of television allows writers to experiment with villains—and in Marvel’s case, it often means letting these characters operate on much smaller scales. Ward is likely still the grandest, with his plans to rejuvenate Hydra, but all Fisk wants in Daredevil is control of a New York neighborhood. Kilgrave’s villainy is even more laser focused, entirely on Jessica Jones herself.
And part of that is what makes him so fascinatingly sinister, and what makes Kilgrave chillingly effective as a threat in Jessica Jones. His powers are already fearsome—and yet, low-rent enough that they almost prompt the scary thought experiment of wondering if you’d be just as villainous in similar circumstances. It’s terrifying to think about what would happen if Kilgrave ever decided to step inside Avengers Tower, or through the gates to the White House. But that’s the entire point of Kilgrave: He never would. Those ambitions are wildly beyond him, despite being perilously in his reach, because everything he does is in reaction to Jessica leaving him after the death of Reva Connors.
As a foil to Jessica, Kilgrave is one of Marvel’s most personal villains so far—and that deeply intimate connection to the hero of Jessica Jones amplifies all of his actions, in such a way that even though his threat is specific to a single character, he still feels as wildly dangerous (and arguably at points even more so) than huge villains like Ultron or Loki.
The intimacy of Kilgrave’s threat to Jessica and her allies is that he backs the threat up with a truly terrifying bite—something made all the more terrible by the fact that the devastation in his wake is all to goad Jessica into acting against him. From direct involvements in deaths like Hope Schlottman’s or Reuben’s, to Kilgrave’s own parents, or indirect tragedies like the fallout of Reva’s death for Luke and the downfall of Will Simpson from police officer to drugged-up villain, Kilgrave leaves a tangible trail of gore and grief on his relentless pursuit of Jessica.
Rather than having him simply state that he is bad, we actually get to see it in awful action again and again. And this also gives him an unmatched presence in Jessica Jones, even in the first half of the series, where Kilgrave’s appearances are limited to glances and brief scenes. It matches Jessica’s own feelings as he enters her world again—he’s always there in the background, watching and waiting, and slowly infecting the world around her. This makes for a ceaseless, almost exhausting experience to watch unfold over the course of Jessica Jones’ 13 episodes—Jessica and Kilgrave drive each others motivations in such a symbiotic way, because of their past relationship that gives their whole conflict so much more weight than the average tussle between hero and villain in a Marvel property (arguably, only Ward has come close, thanks to his extensive build up in Agents of SHIELD so far).
But aside from his startlingly personal motivation, what makes Kilgrave feel like such a standout character in Marvel’s villainous roster is how much a product of our current climate he feels like. For all intents and purposes, Kilgrave is an abusive-ex-turned-serial harasser. In an age where the vile harassment of women online and offline is becoming a steadfast part of the news cycle, Kilgrave is essentially a superpowered man reacting like an emotionally-stunted child for being spurned by a woman he idolizes.
Everything he does is motivated by his own view of Jessica as his true love—as his property, essentially, someone that he can control and own—and when she fights back, he rages in entitled fits, and lashes out at Jessica and her friends. Kilgrave might as well be the superpowered equivalent of an anonymous Twitter troll, in the flesh. You don’t often get to hear in real life about maddened despots who literally want to enslave the Earth or blow the whole planet apart like Ronan or Thanos, but you hear about people like Kilgrave (sans the superpowers, of course) in the news, day in and day out.
Kilgrave’s unpredictability and his deeply unnerving powers make him a chilling monster. And the relentlessness of his evil is only underscored in the moments that he comes close to some sense of redemption—like the moment Jessica convinces him to save the life of a family in “AKA WWJD?”, or his near-forgiveness of his parents after their years of experimentation on him in “AKA Sin Bin.” These moments tread an incredibly well balanced line between almost making you feel pity for Kilgrave and attempting to justify some of his heinous actions. And he’s especially terrifying because of the personal threat he poses to our hero.
But what makes Kilgrave especially terrifying is that, once you strip away the comic book side of him, he’s one of the most shockingly life-like monsters Marvel have ever had. We see his menace so clearly throughout Jessica Jones not just because of the purity of the story the series tells, but because Kilgrave is a lot more uncomfortably close to real life cases of harassment than we’d like to admit.