The MCU’s Most Terrifying Villain: Kilgrave

I am new to love, but I do know what it looks like! I do watch television.

I mentioned on my past Jessica Jones posts that I would get around to discussing the main antagonist, Kilgrave, well here it is. At this point I will not be attempting to keep things spoiler free, you have been warned.

In a show that is in many ways one of the most feminist television shows I’ve ever seen, I almost feel bad about how much I’m going to be talking about the male villain. But Kilgrave (David Tennant) is an enthralling depiction of the greatest threat to feminism (or simply, humanity), the lust for power and control, and is therefore worth discussing.

Kilgrave, even on the surface level, is one of the most frightening villains in the MCU or any superhero show/movie for that matter. He has the ability to compel people to do whatever he says with no more effort than it takes to issue the command. And what’s worse, is that it’s not even that he takes over your body to achieve this goal, he takes over your mind. He plants in your brain the overwhelming urge to complete his task, he makes you want it, more than anything. At our core, our wants and desires are a huge part of what makes us each the person that we are. So he’s not merely making you a puppet, pulling strings as he sees fit, but he is changing who you are fundamentally, albeit temporarily.

For anyone who has ever struggled with an intrusive thought, or an urge they had to suppress, they know how hard it is to reconcile that thought with your identity. So for Kilgrave’s victims, these implanted urges weigh heavily on them long after his control has worn off. They know, logically, that it wasn’t their choice, yet it still feels identical to any other thought or desire they’ve ever had before.

What makes Kilgrave so scary as a viewer is how relatable he is. Now, I know that sounds like crazy-talk. How could somebody so cruel and evil be relatable? Well, because in many ways, it’s not immorality that Kilgrave demonstrates, but amorality. To people with morals, he looks evil, and depending on your moral philosophy, he might be. But Kilgrave isn’t a representation of our morality, but something deeper. Kilgrave represents the Freudian concept of the id.

The id is the part of the psyche that creates impulses. It’s the source of our most base desires and needs. This instinctual part of us drives our wants and seeks immediate and complete gratification. According to Freud, the id “knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality”. It just craves. Take this line that Kilgrave says when confronted by the notion that he is evil:

Evil. How reductive. I mean, it’s true that I’ve never given a second thought to anyone that I’ve let die, but I take no pleasure in it like a truly evil man would. I’m merely removing nuisances. Public service, really.”

Kilgrave’s thoughts and actions never pass through any sort of moral filter. He sees what he wants and then makes it happen. Now, in fully developed people, we have mechanisms to control those urges, the ego and the super-ego. These are what gives us our sense of morality, and our ability to plan, set long-term goals, or have patience. With little exception, all of these are lacking in Kilgrave. For example, here’s another line of his when Jessica is making him wait for her arrival:

“How do you people live like this? Day after day just hoping people are going to do what you want. It’s unbearable”

His ego has never fully developed because he has never needed it. In his early childhood before his powers, he was kept isolated and tested on against his will and lacked any control at all, so having the ability to control his urges was pointless. And after he gained his powers he still never needed to learn to control his urges since there was never any obstacle in having his impulses met.

It’s not until Jessica defies his control that he has to start taking a different approach. He has to make plans, he has to try to cater to what he thinks Jessica wants in order to gain her affection. But he has never had to do any of this before. His only knowledge of this part of the human experience is what he has learned through movies and television. Like many men in the real world, he feels entitled to have love reciprocated and thinks that by making grand gestures and professing his love that things will all work out for him. He doesn’t care about what Jessica’s feelings are, he just wants them to be a certain way and tries to change her mind.

“Look, after a while, however long it takes, I know you will feel what I feel!”

So when I say that Kilgrave is relatable, I mean that he represents that deep part of everyone that just wants their needs met. That infantile, entitled craving for satisfaction. What makes him scary is thinking about how one’s own id might take over if they had a power like his. How would you react if suddenly the barriers of other people were no longer an obstacle? One of the characters in the show even struggles with this. Jeri Hogarth (a powerful defense attorney played by Carrie-Anne Moss) is used to being persuasive and having control over situations, but finds herself trapped by her wife who is refusing to sign the version of their divorce papers that Hogarth wants. Hogarth wants this problem to go away, and her goals are being blocked by her wife Wendy who is refusing to budge. Wendy holds a long kept secret over her head to get more money out of Hogarth. Hogarth fantasizes about how great it would be to have Kilgrave’s powers, stating:

“What a waste. He could solve so many problems with his gift…if he was on our side”

Hogarth thinks that she could use these powers to get over the troublesome obstacle of people. And sure, anyone who has worked a retail job knows that people can be awful, but while it’s easy to say that you would only use those powers for good, it’s a slippery slope from righting wrongs to imposing your own version of “right” onto other people, taking away their free will. Jessica Jones, for all her faults, doesn’t dream of having powers like he has, and sees them for how controlling and horrifying they are. She even calls Hogarth out when she mentions how his gift could be used for good:

What side would that be? The side that uses people? Treats them like animals? Just to throw them away like garbage? The side that rips your life apart and destroys you from the inside out? Whose side exactly would that be?

All this to say that even though we can see why Kilgrave became the way he is, that doesn’t excuse his actions. All but the most die-hard moral nihilists would agree that what Kilgrave does throughout the series is wrong, no matter what personal morals (or lack thereof) Kilgrave has.

In the end, Jessica must kill Kilgrave in order to stop the trail of devastation he leaves in his wake. And she accomplishes this by catering to the same impulses that drive all of his actions. She makes him think that he has won, that he finally has her under his control again. Kilgrave even has doubts about what he sees and is rightfully convinced that it’s a trick. But his weak ego can’t hold up to his powerful id, and he buys into the deception. Ultimately, his downfall is caused by falling prey to his own out-of-control id, just like he’s forced upon all those around him.

There is one more thing that makes Kilgrave one of the most memorable villains in recent memory, and that’s the performance of David Tennant. Many people know him from his time as The Doctor on Doctor Who, but he quickly makes you forget about all the happy memories you had with him (outside of one use of the word “Well…” which was very reminiscent of The Tenth Doctor). From his first appearance as a silhouette whispering in Jessica’s ear, he strikes fear into the audience. His cocky, yet cold demeanor is chillingly familiar to anyone who has been around controlling narcissistic people. The casual, almost flippant way he makes people harm themselves is eerie enough, but once he has his sights set on Jessica, and we see the breadth of his obsession with the one “thing” he can’t have, he’s downright terrifying. Tennant’s ability to encapsulate every facet of Kilgrave’s chaotic whims and motivations is second to none. There is even one part towards the end of the series where he delivers a soliloquy to no one on a rooftop. In anyone else’s hands, that moment could’ve been cheesy, but Tennant sold it just like he does with every scene he’s in.

The fact that I can’t choose a favorite MCU villain between Tennant’s Kilgrave, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk speaks volumes about both performances. But Tennant was just one part of what made Jessica Jones so great. My next write-up will be about the series as a whole, and the overarching themes of power, control, identity, and accountability. 

I hope you enjoyed my first post written just for this blog. If you have anything you want me to write about, let me know, and I’d love to hear what you all think of Kilgrave and Jessica Jones, so leave a comment!