Marvel developed a real problem in the wake of Loki’s rise in popularity. No other baddie could compete with the charm bomb of vicious wit and antagonist allure that is Tom Hiddleston’s God of Mischief. But finally the MCU has offered us another baddie worthy of awe. More impressive yet, he doesn’t demand world-threatening drama and a blockbuster venue to scare and delight us.
Let’s explore what makes Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave such a marvelous villain.
Though Jessica Jones is a lesser-known Marvel character, I bet most of those who tuned in to binge her new Netflix series knew that her foe was Kilgrave, A.K.A. Purple Man. Casting Doctor Who star David Tennant was a shrewd move to lure in fans. And the marketing has been driving us mad with anticipation, teasing only glances of the malevolent man. More crucial, the series began by only giving us glimpses of Kilgrave in moments of PTSD-style hallucinations. We’d seen how tough as nails Jessica is. So having her reduced to a whimper over a memory of this man jacked up our fear of him even when he’s not on screen. It was a masterful move that made his eventual reveal feel like a punch in the gut, just as it should.
The motivations of the MCU’s string of forgettable foes—including fellow Doctor Who Chris Eccleston’s Dark Elf in Thor 2—often boil down to greed, revenge and/or world domination. Loki wanted to rule Earth and Aasgard, sure. But his motivation was a intoxicating mix of super sibling rivalry, rage over his true heritage, and a deep-seated inferiority complex. This brew made him deliciously interesting and a bit relatable. The MCU was all the richer for it. And even though Kilgrave is an unrepentant serial rapist and murderer, Jessica Jones allows him to be more than a compilation of tired villain cliches. He’s a person too.
Kilgrave has the god-like power to bend people’s wills to make them do whatever he wants, whether that means handing over a $5k jacket, playing cello until their fingers crack, giving in to his every sexual desire, or flat-out murder and mutilation. But what drives him? He has a dangerous sense of entitlement, forged on his abilities and the abuse as he suffered as a child at the hands of his parents. But when it comes to stalking and torturing Jessica Jones with an ever-growing stack of corpses, his other drive is love. It’s a twisted brand that inspires him to meticulously recreate her childhood home, and threaten the lives of innocent people to convince her to give him a chance. That conflict helped payoff on the anticipation build, because Kilgrave was not only as terrifying as promised, but also brought an unexpected angle to his villainy.
Kilgrave is threatened by Jessica’s ability to reject him. He wants to own Jessica. To overpower her. To rule her. To make her smile for him. He is entitled male rage personified. How dare she reject him! How dare she call him a rapist! (Real talk: He is absolutely a rapist.) To add complexity to his character, the show even gives us glimpses of his perspective on Jessica and his relationship. But this isn’t Rashomon. A smiling Kilgrave recounts the time he released his mind-control hold on her for 18 seconds. He saw her failure to flee as confirmation that she loved him, as consent. With 18 seconds and no violence, Jessica Jones let us into the mind of this mad man and offered one of the first season’s most chilling moments.
Legions of Whovians can expound about the charms of Tennant for days. The Scottish actor may not be classically handsome, but you can’t deny he cuts a dashing figure in a sharp suit. And he shares a charged chemistry with Jessica Jones star Krysten Ritter that adds an element of chaos. When the pair attempted “cohabitation” and being a dynamic duo for good, we were riveted exactly because who could have expected his earnest romanticism of her victimhood from those early flashes of a screeching tyrant? Kilgrave is a master manipulator in more than mind control. And to be that convincingly, Tennant had to make turns from terrifying to vulnerable. And he did it neatly without falling into hokey. The show is more compelling by Kilgrave not being only repellant. And just like with Loki, we feared him and his wishes for the world, yet we can’t deny his allure.
It all boils down to this. Jessica Jones creator Melissa Rosenberg has given us a villain that is horrendous yet intoxicating, vicious yet entertaining. By casting a sex symbol to geek girls around the world, Rosenberg set up a conflict for the show’s core audience. He has a power over us too. We—like the characters on the show—have to struggle with our feelings about Kilgrave. On one hand, he’s a sociopathic serial killer, who puts nothing above his own desires and thinks nothing of prompting hordes of people to suicide. On the other hand, he’s the tenth Doctor, and it’s hard to shake off our long-established love of Tennant’s smiles and shouts. Even more so when his Purple Man has finally brought some fury, fire and R-rated mayhem into the MCU.
Jessica Jones is now streaming on Netflix.