(If you haven’t read Part I of this two-part post, it’d probably be a good idea to read that one first. And this time, major spoilers for Jessica Jones, so if you read through my previous spoiler alert, prepare to be majorly spoiled.)
(I’m not kidding. I’m spoiling end of the final episode here. Go watch it.)
Superhero comics and adaptations, especially origin stories like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, thrive on formula; in effect, they follow traditional hero narratives so tightly that the same plot diagram could be used to map Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and pretty much every other Marvel superhero debut.
That Daredevil and Jessica Jones largely escape this pattern is incredible in itself. That they both depict complex, well-written antagonists is another full miracle. And that those two characters are so vastly different from each other is just more icing on an already high-quality cake.
While, in a mythos that contains violent “heroes” like the Punisher and Elektra, Wilson Fisk could almost be considered an antihero, Jessica Jones’s Kilgrave is as clear-cut a villain as Marvel has ever produced. He is, in short, a manipulator, a rapist, and a murderer, and moreover, he uses his innate power of mind control to absolve himself of all responsibility for his actions. At one point late in the series, he protests that he treats his victims to the best of everything the world can offer—that he has no clue when anything he makes them do is against their will (because after all, how would he?). Kilgrave is the controlling abuser who fails to comprehend any alternate interpretations of the world, who takes whatever he wants because he can, and who, when called on it, hides behind a veil of childhood trauma and psychological abuse.
What makes him more significant than the myriad characters that employ these tropes in other shows and films is that, sometimes, it can seem like he has a point.
How would someone whose every word must be obeyed know when people are displaying genuine emotion? What would that be like—carefully wording every phrase to ensure the lack of a command?
But in a show about rape—physical, mental, spiritual, emotional rape—that question becomes a central point in its examination of the dynamics of power. I (and I think most sane people) would argue that in a society that entitles men to sexual power and autonomy, the accompanying self-control is an individual man’s responsibility. Kilgrave is likewise tasked with a phenomenal power, and his response to that power is effectively, “how did I know? She didn’t say no.”
But his moments of seeming lucidity don’t end with that one moment. Potentially Kilgrave’s best sequence occurs when he finally faces his parents—scientists who used experimental methods to try and cure his degenerative nerve disease, who consequently caused his powers to manifest, who were subsequently terrified by his abilities, and who then abandoned him as a ten year-old child and fled. Standing in his cell with him, observed by almost the show’s entire ensemble, they say that they ran after he made his mother nearly kill herself with an iron. Kilgrave screams that he was a child having a tantrum, and that’s what children do.
In this scene, Kilgrave once again deflects responsibility for his actions onto the easiest people to blame: in this case, his parents. Yet this time, I can almost see his point. Children, unlike young white men, aren’t an empowered demographic—they’re in fact one of society’s most vulnerable. To take his words at face value (which incidentally is difficult; there are multiple claims here, and never any real conclusion as to who’s telling the truth), his parents created a monster and weren’t read for the responsibility that entailed.
And he kills them for it.
This is the type of moral grey area that Jessica Jones inhabits—the type where everything can easily become black and white, but where little threads of each sometimes bleed across the surface into each other. Kilgrave is, in all common definitions, true evil. He fully deserves his death, which comes moments after he describes—with palpable glee—how he’s going to enslave and rape Jessica’s best friend. Yet, like Fisk, he’s (frighteningly) human. My least favorite moment of Daredevil was Fisk’s backstory, because the writers—for one of the few times on that show—went with the lazy “traumatic childhood” formula without relating it to the rest of the show. In contrast, Kilgrave’s moments with his family are some of Jessica Jones’s strongest, not because they demonstrate anything new or redeemable about an in-the-end irredeemable villain, but because they give his character a background built not on pure good or evil but on a series of tragic mistakes.
Kilgrave has human flaws. He had a childhood, a family, hopes, desires, dreams. He has no mental deficiencies, no delusions of grandeur; he knows exactly the scope of his power and what he can do with it. And he is just as fully-formed, just as dynamic and complex, as the hero he opposes. Ultimately, that complexity and humanization don’t (well, for most of us) make him sympathetic—he’s too evil for that.
They just show that evil can be complex, and terrifyingly human.