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Let’s (Not) Start at the Very Beginning: The Origins of Jessica Jones} ?> Jessica Jones has done something unique in terms of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Peggy Carter, the show is connected to the world of the Avenger films. However, it works as a mature (and I can’t stress that word enough) stand-alone creation, developing its own individual characters and stories. Perhaps more interesting, Jessica Jones complicates the usual superhero narrative arc we have come expect and might suggest how future Marvel stories should be told.
Even though Jessica Jones does not have the name recognition with the general population as Spider-Man, the Hulk, or Captain America, the show doesn’t spend much time explaining who she is, how she got her powers, or why she feels the need to use her abilities to help people. But in terms of Kilgrave, the show’s villain, origins are very important and his origin story is used to develop further the true terror of his powers of manipulation. Kilgrave uses (a version of) his story to evoke sympathy and to manipulate Jessica, as well as the audience.
Origin stories have an important place in comic books. These narratives serve the functionary role as a necessary prologue for the real adventures of a hero. And it’s only expected that those narratives would be featured in film and television adaptions. Filmmakers continue (often unwisely) to return to origin stories when making superhero films, often shoehorning that narrative into a large story. Many were justifiably annoyed that the producers of The Amazing Spiderman opted to rehash the well-trod details of Peter Parker’s transformation into the friendly neighbourhood Spiderman, particularly as Sam Raimi had covered the same material only a decade earlier in Spiderman.
In the hands of good story tellers, origin stories can be so much more than a prologue, relating new details and perspectives to add unexplored dimension to the character.
What makes Kilgrave such a remarkable villain is the subtly of his malevolence and the horrifying implication of his powers of persuasion. Kilgrave is not a raging super-villain bent on world domination; he’s not the disfigured villain whose physical deformities symbolize his deformed morality. Played by David Tennant, my favourite Doctor, Kilgrave is utterly charming. In fact, he doesn’t always seem to be aware he’s hurting people with his powers. After all, who among us hasn’t told someone something in anger—shut your mouth, go play in traffic, go to hell? What if people found themselves, despite their own wishes or desires, compelled to do what we said?
I’m especially interested in how Kilgrave manipulates Jessica, and in turn the audience, through his origin story. He calls on her (and our sympathies) to distance himself from the harm he’s caused. In portraying himself as the helpless victim of emotionally distant parents more interested in scientific discovery than the well-being of their own child, Kilgrave makes Jessica feel sorry for him. His manipulative powers, he claims, developed as a result of their cruel experiments. He was just a poor, helpless child. He’s so convincing that not only does Jessica start to feel sorry for him, but the audience, who has seen his many examples of his cruelty, starts to question their understanding of Kilgrave.
It’s a more nuanced example of the sort of manipulation used by the Joker’s multiple versions of his own origin story in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Whereas the Joker tells several stories for different effect, Kilgrave tells one story for the very specific purpose of manipulating Jessica and causing her to reconsider her understanding of her former captor. In fact, the show itself conspires in this manipulation. We believe Kilgrave’s story for several episodes as no alternative version of the story is presented. It’s not until Kilgrave’s parents arrive and challenge that narrative that Jessica recognizes what Kilgrave has done.
In comics, a character’s origin story is used to explain something about what makes that person tick—a passion for justice because of the violent death of parents; an attempt to make up for failing to protect a beloved uncle; a need to protect an adopted home world. We expect a character’s origin story to reveal something profound about the character’s psychology. For Kilgrave, whose power makes people do or think whatever he wants them to, the origin story is another means of manipulating Jessica Jones. In spinning his story and making himself the helpless victim of evil parents, he causes Jessica to doubt everything she thinks she knows about Kilgrave. Despite the personal experiences of his control and the various horrific things she has seen him do to others, by representing himself as someone who couldn’t help who he became, Jessica finds herself (and we find ourselves—don’t forget, we’re manipulated too) more completely under his control.
For me, the most significant personal take away from Jessica Jones is the power of our origin stories and how those stories can be manipulated for various uses. I think about the ways we can frame the events of our lives to evoke sympathy or compassion or humour. What we say about our own origins and how we frame our origin stories shape the way others think about us. Yes, our back story matters. But not as much as how we tell it.
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.