A primary problem with labelling a film/TV genre as “superhero” is that it ignores the fact that the best examples of the medium are as reliant on a strong villain as they are on a brave do-gooder.
Sometimes the moral foil even dominates at the expense of the straight-laced protagonist. Oft-used examples of this are Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson with their very different portrayals of the Joker in The Dark Knight and Batman respectively. Both exhibited scene-stealing combinations of black humour and leering menace whereas those assuming the role of the Caped Crusader have had to mostly internalise their emotions, sporting a sustained grimace and only occasionally able to explode into a righteous figure of fury.
The recent glut of Marvel movies have arguably suffered from featuring bad guys that mostly haven’t been that memorable. Perhaps its previous “brain trust” were so concerned with establishing the character development for a quadrillion Avengers and their supporting figures that, by the time they got to charting the arc of the nemeses, they had pretty much settled for somebody whose entire reason for existence appeared to very simply be wanting lots and lots of POWER. (Often because the charming hero had hogged the limelight at their expense.)
The most memorable of those has been Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki, who in terms of camp OTT villainry felt minor plotline away from starring in a local village panto.
By comparison, the recent run of Marvel series on Netflix – well, all two of them so far – have had foes which feel much closer to the sort of real-life monsters that we can almost imagine living amongst us, extraordinary abilities not withstanding. (Not needing to tone down the violence for a family-friendly undoubtedly helping.)
Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) had compressed such a massive amount of pent-up rage within his carefully composed public persona that, whenever he snapped, it was a wonder steam didn’t literally shoot out of his ears and whichever other orifices were caught on camera. The hulking figure felt fated to bust out with truly ferocious fits of ultra-violence – the uncertain results of which meant that they were to be feared by the audience rather than cheered on.
Building on the critical success of Daredevil, Jessica Jones has done something that feels braver and more original, focussing on a villain who plays upon our primal fear of being made to do things that we really don’t want to do. By feeling in some way complicit in whatever then takes place, the victims feel culpable for what has happened to them.
As Kilgrave, David Tennant is a master manipulator. It’s a brilliant performance from the Scottish actor, who exudes the same sort of charisma that charmed in Doctor Who but twists it to become at first wilfully mysterious, and after that a chillingly unpredictable presence – his characters’ misdeeds sometimes just casually awful, but at other times genuinely horrific.
Much has already been written about how Jessica Jones is “deeply feminist“, featuring a female lead character who is strong-willed, opinionated and empowered, as well as being someone who isn’t needlessly sexualised or primarily defined by the men who surround her.
With that the case, it’s all the more satisfying – or depressing, depending on your point of view – to realise that Kilgrave is in essence the embodiment of the entitled modern-day man-child: somebody who expects to get whatever he wants, and who flips the table (or gets others to do horrendous things) whenever people don’t act exactly as he desires.
Given that young women currently experience “certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels”, it’s encouraging to see a show – especially one receiving high levels of attention and praise – reflecting present reality through portraying how a male figure can lack such empathy that he resorts to abusive behaviour simply because he isn’t getting what he believes he “deserves”, unable or unwilling to see the situation from any other perspective other than his own. For this particular type of man, the actions of the women in their lives exist only to serve their own storylines, which are fuelled by rejection and resentment.
It’s not something that every man is guilty of and which every woman is subject to, of course. However, there is enough of a prevelance that it’s about time popular culture started better reflecting this odious phenomena, which would ensure the issue doesn’t lurk hidden from view – and often meaning that culprits may be unaware of the harm they cause. (Lindy West’s amazing account of meeting her online troll a prime example of this.)
Of course, the charm of Tennant – even in his sleaziest role to date – is something lacking in some of the vile rape threats that are Tweeted online. However, by slipping into the skin of such a repellant character – and making Kilgrave nearly impossible to take your eyes off of – he (and everyone else involved in Jessica Jones) is ensuring that it will be all the more difficult to deny the appalling inequalities that the different sexes face in their daily lives. Perhaps it may even inspire a few more do-gooders out there to help effect a positive change. Whether or not they wear a cape as they do so is entirely up to them.