It’s been a long time since I watched a TV show at the same time it entered into the cultural Zeitgeist, but the combination of Netflix coming to Australia and the recent release of Daredevil, Season 1, means that I’ve inhaled thirteen episodes of comic-book awesomeness at the same time as everyone else is watching it.
For those who are wondering: Daredevil is good. Very good. Very dark, at times, but Daredevil was always the character to do that with. For all that Batman has a reputation for being grimdark these days, largely courtesy of the Nolan films, Daredevil is the original hard-luck film-noir superhero. Nothing good happens to him in the comics. Like, seriously, nothing. You need both hands just to count the dead girlfriends, you know? Or the times he’s been driven crazy and started to think of himself as an actual devil. Or the times he’s actually been possessed and turned into a devil.
Well, you get the picture.
Good as the series is – and it’s very good – my favourite part has been Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as the antagonist, Wilson Fisk. D’Onofrio’s one of those actors who is excellent with the right director and script, and Daredevil gives him both. He’s over-the-top violent and crazy, but highly empathetic, to the point where even though Daredevil is basically rehashing the same grand master-villain plot as Arrow’s first season, Daredevil’s comes off feeling fresh.
What makes Fisk such an effective bad guy? Let’s take a look.
ONE: NO-ONE IS VILLAINOUS 24-7
The first four episodes spend a lot of time setting up Wilson Fisk as the big-bad of the series, through many of the conventional methods of building up a big-bad: people are afraid of saying his name; lots of people who work for him do terrible things; the bad-ass who almost kicks Daredevil’s butt kills himself rather than betray the Kingpin. It’s good set-up for an season-long villain and the show is content to make you wait.
Then, when it showed you Fisk for the first time, he’s chilling out at an art gallery, staring at a painting. There are little twitches in the performance that suggest how much it’s affecting him, but there’s nothing violent or criminal in that moment. Then, when we come back to him in the next episode, he’s flirting with one of the Gallery employees (and not doing it terribly well).
Only later, once you’ve had a chance to get to know him better, do you get to see Fisk do something criminal (and, when it happens, it’s one of the most violent things you’ve seen in the first few episodes).
In The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel, Robert J. Ray points out that there’s a lot of power leading into the firsts of a novel: the first time you see the antagonist; the first time you put the antagonist and the protagonist in the same space; the first time your antagonist crosses a line; etc. They’re moments of big reveal and smart writers figure out ways to space them out.
By giving Fisk a life outside of being the leader of a criminal underworld, the screenwriters of Daredevil get to build the anticipation: first we’re anxious to see him; then we’re anxious to see him actually be the Kingpin and confirm he’s a criminal; then we’re anxious to see him behave like a villain.
It would have been far less satisfying if the first time we’d seen him, he’d been seated behind his big desk in a corporate tower while flunkies tell him about the problems Daredevil has been causing to his criminal enterprise (and yes, I’m looking at you 2003’s Daredevil movie, and your criminal waste of Michael Clarke Duncan).
TWO: PUSH THE VILLAIN TOWARD A MOMENT OF CRISIS
Stories are all about bringing your protagonist to a moment of crisis and forcing them to make a choice. Luke Skywalker chooses to accept the force. Rick Blaine chooses to let the love of his life get on a plane ’cause it’s the right thing to do. Superheroes in every superhero movie ever end up choosing to be superheroes, despite the personal cost.
But to make those moments mean something, you have to drive the characters to a moment of crisis – generally the climax of your film.
Daredevil does that, following in the grand tradition of fucking with Daredevil as a character, but the real strength of the series lies in the fact that it’s doing the same thing with its villain. Just as Mat Murdoch is learning to be a hero, Wilson Fisk is finding his grand schemes of rebuilding Hell’s Kitchen are being undermined because he’s fallen in love.
He is a man caught between two worlds – Wilson Fisk the lover and Wilson Fisk the Kingpin – and as those two worlds start to interact his entire life falls apart, to the point where he must finally choose which one to embrace at his own moment of crisis as the series heads towards its climax.
THREE: EMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
Daredevil frequently crossed lines that made me uncomfortable as a viewer – to the point where I commented on the dark-and-getting-darker tone on Facebook while I was watching it – but I can’t deny that they made spectacular use of their more graphically violent scenes. First, because they were relatively sparse, and secondly, because they were all in the service of illustrating exactly who Fisk is.
Fisk is a highly humanised villain – we see glimpses of his background throughout the series, showing you why he becomes the man be becomes – and he has the trait that all great villains share: a sense that there, but for the grace of god, go I. Any one of us could have done the things he’d done if we grew up in a house like he did; any of us could go over the top like he did if we were sufficiently embarrassed in the one situation where we wanted to avoid embarrassment.
Fisk is enormously powerful, physically, but highly vulnerable emotionally, and it makes it easy to empathise with who he is. And the series never lets up with this: little things, such as his love of the white painting be buys on his first appearance, take on new and horrifying implications as the series goes on and you suddenly get why he’s so entranced by this piece of art. It adds little moments every episode that makes you feel for him.
Over thirteen episodes, Daredevil does a phenomenal job of creating a very human villain who is simultaneously evil as hell, so when he’s eventually toppled by the series namesake it is both a rational triumph and a subconscious tragedy.