Marvel’s Greatest Villain: Killgrave and Abuse on Jessica Jones

Killgrave, the villain played by David Tennant on Marvel’s new Netflix-only series Jessica Jones, is one of the scariest forms of evil in current popular culture. Based on the “Alias” comics,  the series introduces us to a, a private detective in Hell’s Kitchen living with PTSD and a side of super powers. She lives in a post-Avengers world, but isn’t all that interested in being a hero herself, inspite of her extreme strength and near-indestructible nature.

At its best, entertainment holds up a mirror to society while also telling a compelling story, and the sci-fi/fantasy genre uses its distance from everyday life to tackle some of our toughest, otherwise-taboo issues. While Jessica Jones depicts super powers, homosexuality, PTSD, and interracial dating without raising an eyebrow, it is the show’s treatment of long term abuse that makes it unlike anything else in entertainment right now.

Our villain Killgrave is capable of mind control based solely on suggestion. In the moment, his victims are suddenly filled with a desire to do what he has suggested, as though they are carrying out their own will. Later, however, they will remember everything they did and be horrifyingly aware that while it wasn’t really their choice, no one else will believe that. Killgrave’s powers magnify the existing real-world dynamics of abusers and their victims, where the abuser has ultimate authority over their victim’s life, yet to the outside world, the victim appears to be complicit in their own abuse. 

Much like Jessica’s own powers, Killgrave’s are not immediately clear or neatly outlined to us. In the first episode, we watch a young woman named Hope claw, kick, fight and scream as Jessica carries her away from the spot where Killgrave had told her to remain hours earlier. This shows us that Killgrave doesn’t have a literal, physical power to make victims do his bidding, only the power to make their mind solely consumed by carrying out his will. There’s something terrifying about watching a woman fight as though her life depends on staying with her abuser, but we also know that in real life, victims, whether of domestic violence, kidnapping or sexual assault, have reasons to stay, even when outsiders think they should flee or accept help. We know that control of children, finances, or pets can prevent a victim from leaving, as well as the reality that their lives are most at risk when they try to leave

It’s no mistake that Killgrave repeatedly tells Jessica to smile, both in her triggered flashbacks and via Hope. Using this particular command that has rightly come under fire in recent years shows how insidious that particular request/demand/suggestion is. The truth is, Killgrave’s “suggestions” are really commands, much like how a lifelong repeated chorus of suggestions aimed at women and others appear to outsiders as benign, but in practice, between their constancy and the ramifications for disregarding them (from your job to your love life to your safety), are commands.

No one believes Jessica, Hope, or Killgrave’s other victims, in the same way that victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse are disbelieved by everyone from loved ones and cops to prosecutors and judges. We see how Hope is vilified in the media, and Jessica rightly points out that if she joins her in accused Killgrave, her credibility will also be shot. After all, how could someone make her do something without using violence? And why didn’t she run away when she had the chance? What was she even doing with this man in the first place? We are gutted as we watch Luke dismiss Hope’s claims to Jessica, never connecting the dots to realize that he is also dismissing Jessica at the same time. Killgrave is not only the abuser, but demonstrates a heightened, comic-book twist on abuser dynamics, one that amplifies the ones existing in the real world. He didn’t just hurt Jessica, he has made her question herself, and she knows that others will question her, too.

Kilgrave is the perfect abuser to fly under the radar. Many people still believe that abusers only have a certain profile, which taps into our stereotypes about race and class, as well as our flawed belief that we can know evil when we see it. Evil doesn’t look like a wealthy, genteel, educated Brit. How could such a sophisticated man be capable of such evil, and why would a charming, attractive, wealthy man need to compel women to be with him? These are the questions that haunt real-life victims and undermine their truth. Kilgrave even lavishes some of his longer-term victims with expensive gifts and fancy dinners, creating a fantasy that the outside world sees as loving and generous, rather than controlling and abusive.

In the end, it turns out the most terrifying villain in the Marvel universe is not a crazy-colored alien, hell-bent on destroying planet earth, but something much closer to home: an abusive man and a society completely incapable of believing his victims and seeing him for what he really is.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Boston, Mass

Delia Harrington is a writer, documentary photographer, feminist activist, and all-around nerd. Her writing focuses on social justice, gender-based violence, pop culture and cultural exchange, while her photography focuses on grassroots activism. By day she works in international development, and in her spare time she volunteers with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and travels to politically tumultuous countries as often as possible.

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