Jessica Jones and the Banality of Evil

Most of the characters in Marvel’s Netflix show Jessica Jones are not very Good – in the deeper, capital-G sense of the word.

They’re not very good people.

Some are certainly worse than others, and some are even moderately good, but few, if any, stand out as paragons of virtue. Indeed, the main villain of the story – Zebediah Killgrave, who uses his powers of mind-control to manipulate people for his violent and disturbing ends – is hardly the tale’s only bad guy.

He is simply the most powerful.

Early on in the season, Jones’ friend Trish Walker laments Kilgrave’s egoism: Men and power, it’s seriously a disease.

Kilgrave is dangerous not because he’s a depraved, disturbed individual – but rather it is his power which makes him dangerous. Another man with the same power might be just as villainous, and Kilgrave without his powers would be just another unremarkable man.

Indeed, over the course of the season we see this transformation to power take place in Officer Will Simpson, who spirals out of control as he becomes increasing reliant on a drug that boosts his adrenaline.

It’s not just the drug that makes Simpson a menace: his personality had always veered towards anger and violence. Rather the addition of a superhuman ability transforms him from unremarkably disagreeable to near-supervillian status.

Yes, all women, the whole season seems to scream.

In many way, these themes remind me of Hannah Arendt’s famous reflections on the “banality of evil,” from Eichmann in Jerusalem.

While in no way defending Eichmann – who was clearly immoral and depraved – in the end, Arendt finds him wholly unremarkable – a bureaucratic man whose terrible acts were driven by his own uncaring quest for power. In the setting of Nazi German, Eichmann unleashed great evil – but without the power of his position and context, he would have been just another, unremarkable, power-hungry man.

As Arendt writes:

In the face of death he had found the cliché used in funeral oratory. Under the gallows his memory played him the last trick he was “elated” and he forgot that this was his own funeral. It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.

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