The first post in my Marvel Doubles series which looks at the ways in which Netflix’s Daredevil frames its titular hero, and villain Kingpin, in more shades of grey than E.L. James could shake a stick at. What makes a hero heroic, or a villain villainous? In the grimy underbelly of Hell’s Kitchen, there’s more overlap than you might imagine…
Daredevil Season 1 was the first show in a long time to capture my attention and imagination in such a uniquely vivid way. Everything came together so beautifully to create Marvel’s masterpiece – a sweeping New York crime epic that focuses just as much on its monologues as its melees.
My favourite amongst the sprawling, superlative cast is Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, played with brittle brawniness by the incomparable Vincent D’Onofrio. Critically, his supervillain moniker is never used in the show, which wisely chooses instead to focus on the human being rather than the crime lord. What struck me in particular was how much the show allows us to sympathise with Fisk, whilst also reminding us that he is capable of doing terrible things. He is articulate, intelligent, passionate, romantic – and he also smashes people’s heads in car doors from time to time. It’s uniquely refreshing, then, to evoke such a likeable – hell, even lovable – side in a character capable of this level of brutality. Even with the aforementioned scene of extreme violence, I was still rooting for him to end up with Vanessa. How brave, to spend so much time on developing a fully-rounded antagonist that you can fear and fall for, even at the possible expense of your hero’s likeability.
I was very impressed by how imperfect Matt Murdock, the titular vigilante, was portrayed, often alongside the often more charming actions of his crime boss counterpart (car door beatings aside). Matt’s a pretty rubbish friend, an even worse boyfriend, and don’t even get me started on his lawyering – I’m sure he does more legal work than the show portrays, but, aside from a nicely conceptualised closing speech in court early on in the season, we see him exacting very little justice – except the rough kind, at night-time, whilst cosplaying as the Dread Pirate Roberts. (The new Daredevil suit is great and all, but I’m going to miss the pirate get-up, alright?) And yet Matt is still the hero of the piece, and for good reason. But Fisk is always a hair’s breadth away from heroism, a twisted mirror image of Matt that reflects all that he would become if he finally gave himself over to the dark. Their narrative trajectories echo one another, and I’ll be looking at the various ways the show portrays the duality of light and dark, hero and villain, in more murky ways than most – allowing me to bring in the themes of doubles and duality from my PhD research together with my newfound love for this special show. As the enigmatic Madame Gao says to Kingpin:
“There is conflict within you… Man cannot be both saviour and oppressor, light and shadow. One has to be sacrificed for the other. Choose, and choose wisely. Or others shall choose for you.”
*Spoilers for Daredevil Season 1 below*
Let’s begin at the start of their stories – what turned Matt Murdock into Daredevil and Wilson Fisk into Kingpin? Both characters suffered highly traumatic childhoods, but in very different ways. Matt was blinded by chemicals at a young age (after pushing someone out of harm’s way), and lost his father not long after (his mother we learn very little of, and she remains a mystery – all we know is that she isn’t a part of his life). Fisk and his browbeaten mother suffered constant abuse at the hands of his awful father, the kind of man who bullied him into dealing with his problems with force.
The maternal figures in both of these characters’ pasts are somewhat side-lined, with the focus generally falling on their respective father figures (although Fisk has an incredibly close and complex relationship with his mother, the kind he’s prepared to kill for). Matt had a very caring dad, who looked after him after he was blinded. Subsequently, Matt sewed up the wounds his father received after boxing matches that he lost on purpose to provide for his son; perhaps out of pride, and perhaps to enable his son to cheer for a triumph for once, Matt’s dad goes against gang pressure and wins the match, knowing he will be killed for going against their wishes, leaving Matt orphaned (a period of his life which remains mysterious during season 1). Fisk, on the other hand, had a terribly abusive father who constantly taunted him for his weight, loneliness, and dependence on his mother. He also mocked his masculinity, or lack thereof in his eyes, and encouraged him to use violence to solve his problems. One night, when his father was severely beating his mother, a young Fisk picked up a hammer and beat him to death. His mother helped him dispose of the body, but decades later he still sees his younger self, covered in his father’s blood, whenever he looks in the mirror.
Both were raised in relatively poor environments; however, both of them were able to work their way up the social and corporate ladder. However, Matt gives up a life of luxury after discovering his employers’ wrongdoing (persuading Foggy to do the same), whereas relishes his wealth and security until it is shown that his extravagant lifestyle is repetitive and meaningless – until he meets Vanessa, that is (see below). Matt and Fisk are both very much defined by their pasts, and crucially by their fathers – in trying to distance themselves from their fathers, they are unwittingly drawing themselves closer to being just like their dads: Matt’s dad didn’t want him to fight, and yet this is now his mission and passion in life. Fisk hated his father’s violence and cruelty, but has become violent despite his hatred for the man – though he specifically says he wears his father’s cufflinks ‘to remind myself that I’m not cruel for the sake of cruelty. That I’m not my father, that I’m not a monster… am I?’
Conceptions of justice/ moral compass
The concept of justice, and the varying ways in which is it served, is a huge theme that runs throughout the show. It’s unavoidable in any comic book vigilante story, in a way, and pivotal in ne centring on a hero who also just happens to be a lawyer. Along with Jennifer Walters, aka She-Hulk (who needs her own show asap, Netflix), Matt Murdock is one of the few lawyers-turned-superheroes in comic books, and as a law student myself it was lovely to see characters who proved that lawyers could be heroes too (for an opposite example, see DC’s Harvey Dent/ Two-Face).
Both men are passionately seeking to deliver (rough) justice to the city they love, specifically the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of NYC, where they perceive the law to be lacking. They both inhabit worlds of darkness -operating under the cover of night, and have twisted (though somewhat different) views of how best to ‘clean up’ Hell’s Kitchen. He wants to save his city as if its infected by the plague – destroy it, and then rebuild. In many ways, he’s playing God, and it’s up to the Devil to stop him, a clever role reversal.
Daredevil inhabits a fare more violent tone than most Marvel fare (except for Blade, another Marvel character I would love to see in the MCU), and so when we watch Matt Murdock breaking bones and beating people almost to a pulp, it’s so contradictory to the relatively bloodless fights of other Marvel heroes that it’s often difficult to watch the protagonist engaging in such violence (despite the awful actions of his targets). Alright, so he draws the line at killing, but the fact that our hero is more brutal than his other Marvel peers takes a little getting used to. I think it’s because of this major shift in how our hero is depicted which further serves to raise up Wilson Fisk as a tragic anti-hero more than a straight-up villain. We see him literally bash a man’s head into a bloody stump with a car door, and we still care about him, his friendship with right-hand man Wesley and his romance with Vanessa. It’s a credit to the writing and D’Onofrio’s acting that a man with such blood on his ledger comes off frequently as more of a sympathetic character than our protagonist.
Just as Matt is more violent than your average MCU hero, Fisk is less evil and more sympathetic than any Marvel villain that came before him. Let’s be honest here, the MCU doesn’t pride itself on its villains – most of them are one-note, cookie-cutter meanies from the Bad Guy Store that are the very definition of ‘one-and-done’. They’re not built to last, and no matter how much soul Mads Mikkelsen infuses into Kaecilius, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr Strange is going to magic-punch him into obscurity by the end of his movie. Jeff Bridges can clamber into the evil Iron Monger suit and cackle vaguely about his evil plans, but RDJ is going to Iron Man-punch him into insignificance by the final reel. And even Loki, my dear sweet misguided trickster prince, the most developed of the MCU baddies thus far, is nowhere near as nuanced as his fellow victim of ‘Daddy Issues’, Wilson Fisk. Fisk takes Daddy Issues – and MCU villainy – to a whole new level. Crucially, he doesn’t want to take over/ destroy the world like most MCU villains – his plans are fixed only on the destruction and recreation of Hell’s Kitchen. Compared to the likes of Loki/ General Zod/ Malekith/ Random Villain #374 and their plans for world domination, Fisk’s desire to revitalise Hell’s Kitchen seems positively reasonable (except for all the killing…) But for crossing that final line, Fisk could have been the hero of this story.
Their first meeting, in the episode entitled ‘Condemned’ (1×6), their first exchange of words further demonstrates the razor-thin line that separates their personal brands of morality:
Fisk: You and I have a lot in common.
Matt: We’re nothing alike!
Fisk: That’s what you’ll tell yourself.
Matt: You’re feeding off this city like a cancer!
Fisk: I want to save this city, like you. Only on a scale that matters.
Comic book stories are able to portray some of the most clear-cut light/ dark dualities in fiction – partly due to the visual element of storytelling they encompass, and also due to the heightened nature of the universe the characters inhabit, where everything from clothing choices to worldwide stakes are turned up to 11. (The exchange between Daredevil and Kingpin also reminded me of the confrontation between Austin Powers and Dr Evil, when the latter says ‘we’re not to different, you and I’!) Fisk also represents the same threat to Daredevil that Bane posed to Batman – he isn’t just a threat, in fact, but Batman’s physical and intellectual superior. Fisk has the same quality: he believes his actions – however horrific – are justified if they are carried out in pursuit of this righteous task; i.e. the ends justified the means, and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Matt is there to fill the gap Fisk has abandoned, and protect the few when no-one else has the will or the wealth to do so. I can imagine Fisk villain-splaining darkness to Matt in Bane-like fashion:
Bane: “Ah you think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, moulded by it. I didn’t see the light until I was already a man, by then it was nothing to me but blinding!”
The concept of the two being natural doubles of one another is perhaps never clearer than their interaction later in that conversation in 1×6. The show reveals the nature of that line which separates men like Daredevil and men like Kingpin: choice, to try and do good things (as opposed to waxing lyrical about changing the city for the better and then smashing people’s heads in car doors):
Fisk: You’re a child playing at being a hero.
Matt: No, no, I’m not trying to be a hero. I’m just a guy that got fed up with men like you and I decided to do something about it.
Fisk: That’s what makes you dangerous. It’s not the mask, it’s not the skills, it’s your ideology. The lone man who thinks he can make a difference. I’m glad we could talk. I respect your conviction, even if it runs counter with my own.
Crucially, Matt doesn’t see himself as a hero and Fisk does – which leads to a very real reversal of the way in which they view themselves. Much as Harry Potter’s lack of desire for the philosopher’s stone made him its keeper, so does Matt’s disbelief in his own heroism makes him the hero of the piece.
A rogue by any other name…
Comic books have always carefully named their characters so as to convey information about their past, powers or personality. Daredevil is no exception, and though their vigilante aliases are either left until the end of the show, or left out entirely, they still serve as reflections of the men that bear them. Take Kingpin, for instance. The very name evokes royalty, leadership, strength; someone who is essential to an operation of many, fixed in place and in control – a lynchpin. In contrast, Daredevil suggests recklessness, risk-taking, an unpredictable rogue – a loner.
Even their ‘real’ names reveal a lot about them. Starting with the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk: Wilson derives from ‘son of William’, the name of his father (who went by Bill). He is defined by his father, putting the emphasis on his first name as a legacy of the man he killed; he doesn’t need cufflinks to remind him of his past – his name alone is enough. Wilson also derives from the Germanic ‘wil’ meaning ‘desire’, and further serves to emphasise his goals to ‘save’ his city. Fisk is a Norse surname reserved for fishmongers, which reminded me of how Hamlet used the term as a euphemism meaning flesh-monger, or pimp. Biblical framing of being a ‘fisher of men’, he knows who is best for the task at hand and uses them for it.
Moving onto Daredevil, Matt Murdock: aptly reflecting Matt’s Catholicism, Matthew was one of the four authors of the gospels in the Christian Bible, and means ‘gift of Yahweh’ – yet another clever twist where, in this show, the Devil is the gift of God. His surname derives from the Gaelic for ‘sea warrior’ – perhaps more suited to DC’s Aquaman, but Matt is a warrior, albeit one firmly rooted on land.
In addition to the meaning that can be read into their literal names, the show’s version of the media twists the representation of their alter ego actions – Fisk is framed as a heroic figure using his wealth, privilege and resources to improve the state of the city and everyone in it. In contrast, for a good portion of the show, Daredevil is painted as a masked menace who prowls the streets at night searching for prey. Fisk uses him as a symbol, a physical manifestation of all that is wrong with the city – a living double which, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, bears the mark of all the sin and evil in the city.
Yes, it’s true; even superheroes and supervillains are entitled to a social life outside of their vigilante activities, and Daredevil and Fisk both have their own friendship trio that mirror each other throughout the series (and fit into the same kind of mould as Harry, Ron and Hermione). Matt has the dynamic duo of Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, who aren’t just great friends to him, but are the sweetest double act I’ve seen in a long time. Karen is nearly killed after she discovers a den of corruption connected to Fisk’s business endeavours, and joins Nelson and Murdock, attorneys at law, in their join quest to take down Fisk’s op. Meanwhile, Foggy is the Samwise Gamgee of the show, loyal to the end and generally doing lots of heroic things with Karen to save the city in their own way – and, unlike Fisk or Matt, they don’t need to speechify at great lengths about it (jk, guys, I love their speechifying, but Foggy and Karen do loads of amazing things for NYC and are never appreciated – except by one another).
Fisk, meanwhile, has his own loyal, loving duo in his life – his BFF/ PA/ Second in Command, James Wesley, who does anything and everything Fisk asks of him; and Vanessa Marianna, an art gallery owner who sees through Fisk’s carefully constructed disguise and loves the man behind the mask. The difference between the trios is that Fisk values his relationships and is a far better friend than Matt. He inspires loyalty – whether that’s through fear or familiarity, he inspires it nonetheless. There’s a well of emotion simmering between Fisk and Wesley despite the fact that there is so much left unexplored and merely implied in their relationship. I only wish we’d gotten a flashback episode to see how their bond developed – but the acting and writing of these two characters is so strong and subtle that the nature and depth of their connection is beautifully drawn without needing to fill in the gaps with exposition. There is genuine love, care and affection between these two men, and Wilson’s romance doesn’t disturb or destroy this connection. The most explicit example of this occurs in the episode entitled ‘Shadows in the Glass’ (1×8):
Fisk: If I needed you, I would have asked.
Wesley: I don’t think that’s always true, sir.
Their relationship reminded me very much of Professor Moriarty and Sebastian Moran from the Sherlock Holmes canon (and something which I would love to see explored in a standalone series/ movie) (For another fantastic example of a genuine, sympathetic friendship between mobsters, see Elias and Scarface in Person of Interest). I was afraid for some time that the crux of their arc would end in betrayal, but it never did. Wesley is the version of Samwise Gamgee that went to the dark side, and a beautifully cut foil to Foggy Nelson – both are unwaveringly loyal, they know and accept their friend for who he is and don’t want him to change. The main difference between these two friendships is that Fisk is honest about who he is with Wesley – but Matt isn’t honest with Foggy about who he is. When Foggy discovers Matt’s identity as the masked vigilante – after saving his life, I might add – their friendship is tarnished by the betrayal and it takes until the end of season 1 to even begin to mend that fractured relationship. Matt’s doesn’t just wear a mask for his vigilante work – he wears it in everyday life, shielding those who care about him from his true self, and putting the ones he loves in danger.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a comic book character will be in want of a love interest, and this show is no exception – romantic drama is as essential to the story’s make-up as rooftop skirmishes, which is no great shock. What is surprising, however, is that the supervillain has the most loving, caring and healthy romance not just on this show but in comic book adaptations period. This may seem like yet another political broadcast on behalf of the ‘Wilson Fisk is Misunderstood’ Party, but it’s true. Fisk meets Vanessa whilst visiting her art gallery, looking at the painting she playfully calls ‘rabbit in a snowstorm’ because it’s little more than a blank piece of white canvas. That image repeats itself three times throughout season 1; at the gallery, at Fisk’s childhood home, and as the closing shot of Fisk’s fate in the finale. The doubling of this image at three very different points in Fisk’s life (as well as appearing three times in its introductory episode, to stunning effect) is poignant storytelling at its best, without slipping into over-sentimentality.
There’s a fabulous moment during their first encounter where Vanessa boasts about her previous suitors, one of whom offered to buy out the entire gallery in exchange for a date with her – to which Fisk replies ‘a woman who can be bought is not worth having’. His cards are on the table, and Vanessa has to decide whether she wants to go all-in. He is completely honest with her from the start – from their very first date, in the episode entitled ‘In the Blood’ (1×4), they share this exchange:
Fisk: What I said about what I want for this city is the truth. But money and influence is not enough to usher change on such a scale. Sometimes it requires force.
Vanessa: I know you’re a dangerous man. That’s why I brought a gun to a dinner date.
Fisk: Would you like to leave?
Vanessa: No. I’d like a reason to stay.
They are a refined Bonnie and Clyde, a sane Harley and Joker, a modern Morticia and Gomez – sometimes, two people just get each other. I was worried that she would betray him, or that she was an undercover spy, or that she would be killed by the show to further his character development. Thankfully, none of the above turned out to be true. Vanessa is Fisk’s equal in every way; a Queen for a Kingpin – she sees him for what he is, accepts him and loves him; she doesn’t want to change him, she doesn’t fear him, and she is as honest with him as he is with her. It’s an entirely loving and supportive relationship and the healthiest romance I have ever seen in a comic book show – between villains, no less! Fisk lets himself be vulnerable in front of Vanessa – he lets her see him for who and what he truly is. She sees his true self and loves him. Like Othello and Desdemona, she loves him for the dangers he has passed, and he loves her that she pities them. Fisk is the living embodiment of Meat Loaf’s ‘I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)’.
In stark contrast, Matt never lets anyone see who he really is, never lets anyone in. As a friend and love interest, he has much to learn. His major relationship in season 1 is with college buddy and all-round good guy Foggy Nelson. The breaking of the fellowship between them is framed in romantic terms – with Foggy feeling betrayed by Matt’s lies and deception, and passing each other awkwardly in corridors for episodes ever after (until Karen tells them to stop sulking and work together in bringing down Kingpin’s corrupt operation). Similarly, Matt’s romantic endeavours aren’t going so well either – there’s a tentative sort of thing bubbling between Matt and Karen, and Foggy constantly refers to him as a ladies man, but despite his quiet charm, the most romance he experiences in season 1 is a chaste but meaningful kiss with Claire Temple, the first person to know his secret identity after stitching up a particularly tough fight. Sadly, he squanders the potential relationship with Claire, who suits him well and understands him whilst also calling him out on his nonsense. He pushes everyone away and stews in his own tortured heroism.
Imagery, Colour, Symbolism
Finally, some techniques to explore. The use of colour is incredible; I haven’t seen use of colour that effective since Tarsem Singh’s masterpiece ‘The Fall’ (which I highly recommend, if you haven’t already seen – a future blog post on doubling in this film on the way). Matt is often lit with a red light, foreshadowing the arrival of his vigilante alter ego, hinting at the colour of his future costume and representing the ‘world on fire’ he experiences in place of sight (as well as doubling his characteristic red glasses). Fisk is often dressed in dark colours, though he begins to wear varying shades of grey and blue as his romance with Vanessa blossoms – in contrast, Vanessa is perennially in flawless white clothes, though even she begins adding greys to her wardrobe as she is drawn deeper into her relationship with Fisk.
Religious imagery and concepts inhabit both Matt and Fisk’s worlds – Matt is Catholic with a pretty serious guilt complex, and often seeks wisdom from his loquacious priest. The first time we see him, he’s spilling secrets from his childhood at confession (in a scene which should have won Charlie Cox an Emmy), and he does good work under the guise of a devilish nom-de-plume and matching outfit. Fisk’s religious upbringing is less explicit, though he knows enough about Christianity to quote the story of the Good Samaritan in the final episode:
Fisk: I always thought that I was the Samaritan in that story. It’s funny, isn’t it? How even the best of men can be… deceived by their true nature. What the hell does that mean? It means that I’m not the Samaritan. That I’m not the priest, or the Levite. That I am the ill intent… who set upon the traveller on a road that he should not have been on.
Some final thoughts
This is an utterly ground-breaking show in so many ways – the humanising of the villain, the flawed hero, female characters with agency, friendships (and romances) even between villains, not to mention the stellar writing, directing and fight scenes. If I had any faults with the first season, I would have let Daredevil and Kingpin meet each other earlier and more frequently throughout the series, though the times they did come face to face were stand-out moments in an all-round wonderful series. However, I think they kept them apart for so long in order to heighten the stakes, emotions and motivations because by the time these two men came face to face, we knew them so well that their encounters had a greater impact. The themes of duality and doubling are never as pointed or poignant as when these two tragic characters, broken by their past, face their twisted mirror image in each other. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned for a follow-up post on the doubling of Daredevil and the Punisher (as soon as I finish season 2!)
Daredevil Playlist – Top 5 tracks:
- Wolves/ Only Human: Rag’n’Bone Man
- Way Down We Go: Kaleo
- I’m Your Man: Leonard Cohen
- Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Antony and the Johnsons (cover)
- No Rest for the Wicked: Lykke Li
- Bonus: Personal Jesus: Depeche Mode