Wilson Fisk — The Man and the Monster

** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS for Daredevil Season 1**

Though there is a time and a place for cackling, mustache twirling villainy, modern audiences have become increasingly sophisticated in their tastes. Monochromatic evil is no longer accepted as a valid explanation of motivation. Rather, we want our storytellers to spend as much time developing their antagonists as they do the protagonists. It makes the conflict more interesting and the characters that much more real.

In the beginning of the recent Netflix adaptation of Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is a shadow villain. We see the results of his actions and meet people who talk about him with fear and respect, but don’t see the man himself until part way through the series. In fact, it takes several episodes for us to even learn his name, and the man who tells us promptly kills himself rather than facing the consequences of his “betrayal.” By that point in the series, Wilson Fisk is plenty intimidating and clearly the big bad. The writers could have easily ridden this buildup to characterize their villain. However, they did something much more clever and difficult. They made us like him.

In the next few episodes, we actually got to know Wilson Fisk directly. What we observed contrasted with his fearsome reputation. We saw that he was intelligent, well spoken, thoughtful, charismatic, and courteous. We watched his slightly awkward attempts to woo an artist and saw how desperately he wanted her to love him back. The writers showed us how dark his childhood had been, and his actions began to make more and more sense. Sure, we saw him give orders that were ruthless and illegal, but the intent was good, right? He wanted to save the city that he loved. I knew he was the bad guy, but found myself wanting a redemption story for him.

That was, of course, until he crushed a man’s skull in a moment of peak. It wasn’t just the brutality. After all Matthew Murdock, the series hero, also spends most of the story dealing with is rage and violent impulses. What makes one a hero and the other a villain is that Murdock constantly questions his actions and motivations. Fisk, on the other hand, finishes brutally murdering Anatoly Ranskahov and then quickly reverts to his calm, rational, and well-spoken self. He has absolutely no guilt from his actions.

In many ways, a villain that we can understand and empathize with is even scarier than the mustache twirling variety. They get into our heads. I empathized with Wilson Fisk. I wanted him to succeed and be redeemed. However, he gave into his fatal flaw of rage and let it rule his actions. He let the evil win. Had he not been so well rounded, it would have been a footnote in the series. However, because the writers took the time to build my empathy with the character, it felt tragic and terrible.


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