Thursday, October 29, 2015
October 29, 2015: 21st Century Villains: Wilson Fisk
[For this year’s installment of my annual Halloween series, I’ll focus on 21st century pop culture villains. Share your favorite villains, new or classic, in comments!]
On the comic book villain who takes the genre to complex, compelling new places.
There’s a lot to like about the recently released first season of Daredevil (2015), the Netflix TV show adaptation of the longrunning Marvel comic book. British actor Charlie Cox is perfectly cast as blind lawyer and vigilante in training Matt Murdock (as are all of the show’s other principal roles), the writing and direction are consistently top-notch, the action sequences are clear and effective but also consistently balanced by quiet and intimate dialogue-driven scenes, and the season builds to a wonderful climax that wraps up a great deal while leaving us very ready for season 2 (and beyond). But for my money, by far the best part of Daredevil season 1 is exactly what I expected it would be going in: hugely talented veteran actor Vincent D’Onofrio’s stunning performance as Wilson Fisk, the man who will become Daredevil’s supervillain antagonist Kingpin.
Certainly a great deal of Fisk’s character in season 1 fits the familiar bill of a comic book supervillain, if executed to perfection: not just in his larger-than-life physical presence (the already big D’Onofrio apparently gained thirty pounds to play Fisk), but also in both his origin story (told mostly through a series of flashbacks in one mid-season episode) and his present agenda. For the former, Fisk is the product of a dark and violent childhood, one that culminated in a traumatic incident that (it seems) scarred and changed him forever, preparing him for the role he is now beginning to inhabit in earnest. As for his present agenda, he is already very wealthy and powerful by the time we meet him, but has plans for much more, and particularly for reshaping the city that he towers over into more of what he sees as his own idealized image. That agenda makes him into a more grounded, realistic comic book villain than some, but it certainly isn’t unique—take a Spiderman villain like Doctor Octopus, a brilliant researcher who was trying to develop revolutionary new scientific advances when it all went awry.
Yet there’s something different about Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk than any other comic book adaptation villain I’ve encountered, and I don’t think it’s just in D’Onofrio’s amazing performance (he’s not the first great actor to play a comic book villain, after all). There’s a layered, multi-faceted humanity to the character, a combination of some of our darkest characteristics with some of our most hopeful and inspiring goals, not only for his city but also in his own life (as reflected by his season-long romantic storyline, also a first in my experience with comic book villains). Moreover, one of the central themes of season 1 is that Cox’s Murdock is confronting his own darkness as well as his heroic goals, and trying to figure out where the line is between those elements (if indeed such a line exists, and if it can be held even if it does); as a result, Fisk and Murdock mirror each other, not in the superficial way often present between heroes and villains, but in a much more nuanced and challenging way, one that makes it difficult at times to characterize Fisk as a villain (or Murdock as a hero) at all. And so when, in the season finale (SPOILER alert), we see Fisk fully embracing his villainy for the first time, in one of the great monologues ever put on film (DOUBLE SPOILER alert for that video), the moment is certainly villainous yet deeply and powerfully human at the same time.
Last villain tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other villains you’d highlight?