This article contains spoilers for the whole first season of Daredevil and also touches upon Marvel Studios’ films up to Guardians Of The Galaxy.
Daredevil has been the talk of geekdom since it landed on Netflix earlier this month with 13 episodes of more mature content than we’ve yet seen from Marvel Studios. Social media is ablaze with praise for the show in the week after its debut, lauding everything from the performances to the adaptation to that hallway fight from the end of episode 2.
One of the most celebrated aspects of the show is Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. Contrary to Michael Clarke Duncan’s ruthless self-made mob boss from the 2003 film, D’Onofrio has created an interpretation of the character who seems to believe he is more altruistic in his criminal activity, staking all on the greater good.
“Our Fisk, he’s a child and he’s a monster,” D’Onofrio said, teasing the show at last year’s New York Comic Con. “Every move that he makes and everything that he does in our story comes from his foundation of morality inside himself.”
On the cinematic side of Marvel’s shared universe continuity, there’s usually a bit of a weakness pertaining to villains. Two of the arch-antagonists from recent films – Malekith the Accursed from Thor: The Dark World and Ronan the Accuser from Guardians Of The Galaxy – are pretty much interchangeable, as nondescript alien maniacs who each seek out an Infinity gem in order to avenge their people by genocidal means.
The obvious exception amongst Marvel’s big screen baddies is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, a character who has maintained the Shakespearean intrigue afforded by Kenneth Branagh’s take on the first Thor movie and easily stole the show from Malekith in the sequel. Loki continues to have a complicated relationship with just about every other character. Wilson Fisk is the only other villain who has even come close to being so complex and watchable.
We have seen his rationalised motivation in other comic book villains – if you want to build something new and/or better, you sometimes have to tear down whatever’s already in the way. But it’s not the what that makes him so interesting, as much as the why and the how.
D’Onofrio’s performance is a big part of why the character works so well. Not to discount the way in which he steals more or less every scene in which he appears, showrunner Steven S. DeKnight also keeps him in the picture throughout the first season almost as much as Matt Murdock and friends anyway.
Even over the course of a staggered, season-long origin story for Daredevil, we learn about as much of the villain’s background as we do of our hero’s, though it’s more economical in terms of flashback time.
As portrayed in the comics, the Kingpin is the cigar-chewing crime overlord of New York City who runs up against Spider-Man and other heroes in his criminal pursuits, as well as Daredevil. Known for his distinctive white suit, he carries a hell of a lot of muscle mass under his portly exterior, which makes him physically imposing in a toe-to-toe fight in addition to his genius-level intellect and mastery of tactics.
You may remember all of this from Duncan’s portrayal in the previous movie, which went hell for leather in putting so many characters into 103 minutes of screentime, with the result that Fisk was just one of three villains, even if he was the Final Boss and also killed Murdock’s father in this version. But by making Fisk the sole Big Bad over the course of these 13 episodes, the series gets more time to explore who he is as a character.
As mentioned, he wants to tear down what’s there so that he can build something new. The Hell’s Kitchen of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a wreck after the battle between the Avengers and the Chitauri in Avengers, an “incident” that is frequently referenced here. Fisk has used the poverty and corruption that arose afterwards as a foothold in his climb to power, but earnestly believes that the city deserves his brand of tough love if it’s going to get better.
At the same time, he starts out the season keeping his identity a secret. His slick, suited right hand man Wesley goes around referring to him only as “my employer” and those in his pocket are terrified of even uttering his name, lest they incriminate him. The lack of any public record once Murdock does find out his name naturally makes it hard for the lawyer to further his investigation, but Fisk’s strategy seems to be as much to protect his plan as himself.
We find out where this guardedness is coming from in episode eight, “Shadows In The Glass,” and it’s one of the highlights of this first season. With a repeated motif of Fisk being awoken early by traumatic dreams and getting up to make his breakfast, we eventually learn through flashbacks how 12-year-old Wilson snapped at his violent father and killed him with a hammer in a bid to protect his mother. Anyone would have bad dreams about such a memory.
The backstory adds an extra dimension to a character beat earlier in the season, during Fisk’s gentle courting of art dealer, Vanessa. She notices he’s wearing the same pair of cufflinks as the last time they met and he explains that he wears the same set of cufflinks every day to remind himself of his father. And it’s with Vanessa that we see the more baby-ish side of his nature.
A love story
Whenever Fisk is with Vanessa, we truly see a man who’s a little scared of wielding his own power, hence the cufflinks as an ever-present cue for nostalgia. As compared to his authoritative dealings with associates and rivals, he’s so gentle with her that he almost seems to afraid of breaking her.
For a little while, it seems as though there’s going to be a love triangle between Murdock, his legal partner Foggy Nelson and their secretary Karen Page, but the real love story through the first season is about Fisk meeting the character who will become his wife, if the comics are anything to go by.
DeKnight told Entertainment Weekly: “That’s the love story you’re following, the one you’re invested in, and seeing how that affects him and changes him. I think Vincent just brings such depth to it, his performance is just astounding.”
In Vanessa, he finds a partner who supports him and stands by him even in the face of the less palatable parts of his business. We never see her directly involved with his activities, but she’s at least aware that he’s up to no good. It’s unusual to see a romantic sub-plot for a supervillain in a superhero story – you’d have to go back to Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and even that involved a love triangle with a superhero/antagonist.
On top of this, his friendship with Wesley is nothing short of a professional bromance. Wesley is unquestioningly loyal to his employer, but he’s also the closest thing Fisk has to a real friend. It’s part of his personality that he struggles to show gratitude to Wesley – the scene in episode 11, The Path Of The Righteous, leaves this unspoken, but obvious nonetheless.
Not to say that you’re a dick if you’re on the Kingpin’s side, but in character terms, Wesley most definitely is. But his death by Karen’s hand, at the end of that same episode, is lent some pathos in Fisk’s heartbroken reaction. This is all stuff that might have happened to a villain off-screen in another show, but just as Matt has a circle of loved ones, so Fisk has Vanessa and Wesley.
We’re not so different, you and I
We also get one of the better depictions in recent memory of a hero and villain who are different sides of the same coin. In episode four, “In The Blood,” Murdock and Fisk get identical dialogue about their motivations at different points of the episode. “I just want to make my city a better place,” they both say, although we know that they each have decidedly different ideas about fulfilling that goal.
In order to keep himself in check, Matt has the standard Batman-issue “no killing” rule, redoubled by his Catholic upbringing and the guilt that comes with it, holding justice and a lifetime of morality as paramount. As Ben Urich has heard from his sources, “the man in black” starts out by roughing up bad guys and helping the innocent here and there.
Meanwhile, Fisk considers such efforts to be paltry, treating the symptoms of decay in Hell’s Kitchen rather than wiping out the disease. By the time of episode six, “Condemned,” Fisk has carried out an audacious coup against his Russian associates, who have routinely kidnapped and killed innocent people up to this point, by bombing all of their known properties and hideouts.
By the end of “Shadows In The Glass,” at Vanessa’s urging, he gets ahead of the increasing whispers about his identity by outing himself as a philanthropist who wants to make Hell’s Kitchen a better place, flipping the blame for the bombings onto that mysterious masked man. Although the press seizes on this for more predictable reasons, the two of them are so similar that it’s not hard for him to represent it the other way around by putting his head above the parapet.
Fisk’s insecurity gets the better of him by the end and his composure comes completely undone. Earlier in the series, Marvel really starts stomping around in their big boy boots by having Fisk violently decapitate Russian gangster Anatoly in very un-12A detail. For all of the rage, it still feels like a controlled explosion, taking place in the middle of nowhere, with his flunkies keeping watch.
But he’s prone to more unpredictable outbursts as the season wears on, including his beatdown of henchman Francis when Wesley turns up dead and his strangling of poor Ben Urich, all leading up to his final cry that the city is undeserving of his love as he fights Daredevil in the alley.
We’ve come full circle at the end of the season because these two anti-heroes, so similar in intention, can finally be marked apart completely. In contrast to Murdock, who has reconciled with his religion and will never stoop to murder, Fisk finally embraces that, in Biblical terms, he is “the ill intent” described in the parable of the good Samaritan.
Holding out for an anti-hero
In all of this, we must also consider the television environment in which Daredevil has arrived. Aside from the paradigm shift brought on by Netflix and services like it, “quality TV” has favored anti-heroes for a good long while now and it’s not just down to the quality of his character (or any lack thereof in the title character) that there were so many tweets from viewers and critics wishing they were watching a show called Fisk instead.
It could be that for an audience accustomed to the likes of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey and Walter White, we’re holding out for an anti-hero. Matt Murdock is hardly The Flash‘s Barry Allen himself, but he’s not devious or murderous like Wilson Fisk.
There are even times when the characterisation of Fisk and those in his personal sphere is reminiscent of another Netflix Original Series, House Of Cards. Like Frank Underwood, Fisk is an ambitious but manipulative figure, having his wicked way behind the scenes.
Furthermore, when he sweetly courts Vanessa, it’s not long before she’s acting as his Claire Underwood, complicit but not compliant in her encouragement of whatever it is she thinks he’s up to. Fisk even has his own Stamper-esque right hand man, in the form of Wesley.
There are precedents for Vanessa and Wesley in the Daredevil comics, of course, but whether intentional or not, there are some comparisons with Beau Willimon’s series in the way that DeKnight has imagined Fisk. The difference is that Fisk is more sympathetic than Underwood ever has been.
Nevertheless, the way that the character adapts to rivalries with business associates and a masked Murdock throughout the season does recall the resourcefulness of other TV anti-heroes, whether through subtle influence or howling fits of violent rage.
Anti-hero or anti-villain?
Superhero origin movies tend to have the villain rising up in correlation with the hero. Even since Iron Man, Marvel Studios’ output generally leans more towards its title characters than their antagonists, but in a two hour feature film, this has the side effect of leaving certain villains feeling underdeveloped.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Loki is both the most used and the most developed villain in the films and over Daredevil‘s 13 episodes to date, Wilson Fisk might have benefited from the exposure as much as the compelling new interpretation of his character. The same goes for the viewing audience’s current affinity for anti-heroes, but this show almost offers us something equal and opposite.
D’Onofrio’s take is so distinctive and instantly definitive, it completely makes sense that this serialised origin story covers Fisk’s side of the story as much as Murdock’s. This version of the Kingpin is Marvel’s best portrayal of a villain to date and bodes well for the studio’s future projects, on both the big screen and the small screen.