A hero is only as good as the villain, and nowhere is this truer than comic books. Without good villains, there’s no drama or tension, and certainly little opportunity for a hero to engage in some derring-do. The best comic book villains are more than mere psychopaths, evil geniuses, and mustache-twirling despots, though. They are opposites to the great heroes, individuals who match them in strength, intelligence, ambition, and/or zeal. They often have some sort of relationship with the heroes; they’re the yin to the other’s yang. Indeed, in a different world, they might even be friends.
Consider Magneto, the X-Men’s arch-enemy. The master of magnetism seeks to rule the world, not merely for personal gain, but to keep his kind — mutants, like the X-Men — safe from a holocaust like the one he survived as a young Jewish boy named Max Eisenhardt. What’s more, Magneto and Charles Xavier, the X-Men’s mentor, were once close friends in a joint quest to protect mutantkind, and that broken relationship adds pathos to their conflicts.
Or consider Batman’s greatest foe, the demented Joker. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke suggested that Batman and the Joker are more alike than not. Both experienced tragic events in their lives that left them deeply scarred and forever altered their perspective of the world. Indeed, if not for some twist of fate, their roles could’ve been reversed. (This concept is explored in Batman: The Brave and the Bold’s version of the Red Hood.)
In cases like this, the best superhero stories don’t simply give us action-packed and super-powered scenes of good overcoming evil; they also give us powerful reminders of the tragedy of evil, of how good men can go horribly wrong, and how, as much as we hope for redemption, sometimes that’s just not reality this side of eternity.
Note: The following contains potential spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
Netflix’s acclaimed adaptation of Daredevil gives us just that sort of storyline, and that sort of villain in the character of Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin. When the series begins, we know nothing about him, not even his name. All we know is that someone powerful has begun rattling the New York underworld, taking over operations and encouraging the current crop of crime lords to retire to Florida. He’s a shadowy presence, which makes him all the more frightening — the perfect foe for the “Man Without Fear.”
And then we see him for the first time and our expectations are subverted. Yes, he has a commanding presence, physical and otherwise, thanks to Vincent D’Onofrio’s spot-on performance, but he’s shy and hesitant in public, barely able to look anyone in the face, much less a beautiful woman with whom he’s become smitten. He speaks haltingly, with nervous twitches all over his body. And when he’s introduced, he’s not committing a crime or making some nefarious plans with his lieutenants. Rather, he’s standing alone in an art gallery mesmerized by a seemingly blank white canvas. It’s a great introduction because we see him first, not as a supervillain but rather, as a lonely, flawed individual.
This is important because it humanizes him, just as the series humanizes Daredevil, aka Matthew Murdock. To be sure, we subsequently see Fisk do terrible things and make terrible plans. He kills people with shocking brutality and is cavalier with regards to his enterprise’s human cost. At the same time, however, we see him fall in love and do his best to impress and court someone. We see that he can be intensely loyal and friendly, specifically with his second-in-command, Wesley (one of the series’ most fascinating characters). He’s intensely private, particularly when it comes to his upbringing. He’s deeply protective of his mother, whom he loves above all else.
But most importantly, like Daredevil, he has roots in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and desires to make it better. (It’s interesting that in the first Daredevil trailer, it’s Fisk and not Murdock that is doing the voiceover, and he’s talking about his plans to save the city, not take it over or ruin it.) Admittedly, those plans are a bit twisted and megalomaniacal — he clearly believes that you need to break a few eggs if you want to make an omelette — but it’s not difficult to take him at his word. Or at least, we want to. We hope we can.
This is when Daredevil begins tightening the screws. Just as the series is a chronicle of Murdock’s ascent from mere vigilante to superhero, so too is it a chronicle of Fisk’s downfall from somebody who arguably wants to save New York to somebody who is fine with its destruction. And just as it tightens the screws on Fisk as Murdock and others pick at the chinks in his criminal enterprise, it also tightens the screws on us viewers as we’re made to feel the weight of his moral decline.
We’ve already begun empathizing with Fisk, due to those aforementioned qualities, but then the series reveals his childhood and compares it to Murdock’s. Both men grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, but their family lives couldn’t have been more different. Fisk was raised by a vain, abusive father who despises his family for getting in the way of his ambitions. Contrast that to Murdock’s father, a boxer who’s willing to throw fights and bear public humiliation to give his son a better life. Both fathers are killed, but whereas the senior Murdock is gunned down by some gangsters after he refuses to throw a fight, Fisk kills his father with a hammer to the head in order to protect his mother.
If that doesn’t engender empathy for Fisk, I don’t know what will. We know what he’s been through, how desperate his life was — and so, to a certain degree, we understand his violence, abhorrent as it may be. But then two events occur that cement Fisk’s transformation into the Kingpin.
The first occurs mid-way through the series, after an attack apparently directed at Fisk leaves his lover, a woman named Vanessa that he met in the art gallery, on the brink of death. Grief-stricken, he refuses to leave her side even at the risk of losing control of his empire, and for a moment we have hope that he’s had a wakeup call. While seated at the edge of her bed, he talks about how he’s never been a man of religious faith, and we expect a sort of deathbed conversion — and then he goes on to reject God altogether and instead, promises to make those responsible for endangering Vanessa suffer.
The second occurs in the final episode, as Fisk is being hauled away in handcuffs after his crimes have been exposed. He tells his guards that he’s always been fascinated by the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, and recites the story. Aided by D’Onofrio’s performance, subtle editing and camerawork, and an ominous soundtrack, the scene becomes increasingly claustrophobic until Fisk arrives at a moment of clarity and delivers the series’ most chilling dialog:
[The Samaritan] did this simply because the traveler was his neighbor. He loved his city and all the people in it. 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… I’m not the Samaritan… I’m not the priest, or the Levite… I am the ill intent who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on.
Watch the entire scene below.
Fisk’s downfall is now complete, and evil has finally won out in his soul. And for all of the moments that our hero Daredevil was in a jam, his life hanging by a thread, it is Fisk’s admission that is the series’ most hopeless and fearsome moment.
By the series’ end, we do see justice win out, for the time being anyway; the war isn’t over, but a battle has been won. There’s relief that Fisk’s evil has been exposed and that he will (hopefully) be held accountable for his crimes, but it’s hard to celebrate because in the process, we’ve seen up close how long evil has been crouching at his door (to use the Biblical parlance) and how far it has twisted him — and it’s a sobering realization.
I’d argue that, even more so than the strong production values, casting, set design, and amazing action choreography, Daredevil’s moral complexity — specifically its ability to balance satisfaction over the hero’s deeds with sorrow for the villain’s downfall and fear for their degree of brokenness — is its greatest asset. It’s certainly one that I hope continues on into the second season. And when the second season begins, I’m sure we’ll see Fisk again — but he won’t be Fisk, will he? Fisk is long gone now, and tragically, all that remains is the Kingpin.