A rumor. A memory. A passing face in the crowd. That's all Kilgrave is at the beginning of Jessica Jones. His onscreen time is minimal, but his impact is felt everywhere. It's felt in the people he's corrupted and the shattered lives they're left to put back together once he's gone.
With the ability to control minds, Kilgrave's physical presence isn't what makes him a great villain—this isn't a question of brawn, because he'd lose every time—but it's his influence over others that makes him stand out from the rest of the Marvel rogues gallery.
What Marvel's Netflix series have shown is that true villainy isn't about magical scepters or Infinity Gems or any other type of enchanted MacGuffin; it's all about how you're viewed by those around you. And it's in this brand of villainy, the type of villainy that seems like it was ripped right from the headlines, where Marvel's Netflix shows trump their big-screen rivals. By crafting better villains, these shows are, in turn, crafting even better heroes.
In Daredevil, the Kingpin was just a man—flesh and blood—operating out of a city where gods roam the skies. But his presence is what made him the most powerful person in New York.
No one knew his name; hell, no one knew if he was even real. But that didn't stop his impact from being felt by everyone from the lowliest drug dealer to the most powerful businessmen in Manhattan. A mere mention of his name could send someone into panicked convulsions … or it could just get them killed. That's not power you get from a chemical accident or an iron suit; that's power you have to earn.
The Kingpin's mark was all over the city, even though the character himself didn't start making appearances until a few episodes in. His reputation preceded him, so when he finally did become a physical threat, all the pieces fell into place to make him an adversary of the mind, body and soul of Matt Murdock. In the end, their final fight revealed more about Matt Murdock as a hero than anything in the previous 12 episodes.
The same is true now with Jessica Jones. Everyone knew David Tennant could play an incredibly sinister villain, but what no one saw coming was how vile he would be without even being on screen. That's just how the Purple Man operates, though. He's more Jim Jones than Red Skull, and he's infinitely more terrifying because of that.
The look on Jessica Jones' face when she realizes he's back in her life says more about him than anything a Thor movie villain could accomplish in two hours of destroying computer-generated cities. The way he snakes into her life, completely under her nose but without her even knowing, can make your skin crawl. Or, in the case of Hope and her ill-fated parents, it can break your heart.
But because of that, because the villain is just so good at being bad, it makes Jessica's journey even more powerful. She began the series as a victim, someone who was more inclined to run from Kilgrave than face off against him.
The series moved on, though, and his influence in Jessica's life, and in the lives of those around her, grew stronger. The threat became more real, more all-encompassing, forcing her to become the hero she never thought she could be. By being a believable threat, Kilgrave unlocked the character Jessica was always meant to be.
Now, try to remember Whiplash's motivations from Iron Man 2. What about Emil Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk? Do you even remember who the villain was in Thor: The Dark World? How did any of these villains make the hero better?
Because these big-screen villains are such an afterthought, we never see the heroes struggle. Unlike a bleeding and beaten Matt Murdock or a binge-drinking Jessica Jones, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor don't have much adversity to face. They're the New York Yankees of the superhero world, and if you're anything like me, you're just hoping for a villain to come along to actually give them something interesting to do.
They need to be emotionally dissected on the screen so we can poke and prod their faults like a raw, exposed nerve. But with no villains equipped to do that, we're left with nothing but battles against robot armies and a few sitcom quips to slog through so we can all go home happy. A multibillionaire, a literal god and the embodiment of the American spirit—we might as well be cheering on the 1 percent during a game of blackjack.
The truth is that it's a lot easier to sell T-shirts and pricey collectibles of heroes like the Avengers, but it's the characters like Daredevil and Jones—the ones who struggle and get defeated and keep coming back—who audiences will actually relate to. You'll probably never get it on the big screen, but at least the people behind these shows realize that a hero can only soar if there is a credible villain to drag them down first.