(Minor spoilers for Marvel’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones. If you haven’t, go watch them. They’re worth it.)
Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk and Jessica Jones’s Kilgrave: beyond their roles as antagonists in Netflix series based on Marvel comics, they have very little in common. One is a businessman attempting to take over Hell’s Kitchen through, essentially, gentrification (that must have been a fun pitch to a room full of studio executives), and the other is a serial rapist and murderer with the power to compel anyone and everyone (well, except one of those ones) to do whatever he wants. But compared to Marvel’s previous offering of generic, one-note, and often lazily-written villains (slight exception for Loki, who’s at least fun), they do share a single key quality: depth.
But why is depth important for villains? Why do complex, dynamic antagonists matter? How did you know I would ask that question? Oh, you read the title, didn’t you? Nicely done.
But in all seriousness, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a difficult time developing its villains, especially those that don’t appear in more than one film. Whiplash, Malekith, Yellowjacket, Ronan the Accuser, Aldrich Killian, the list goes on and on—boring, disposable villains, meant to appear once, provide no more than an inanimate obstacle for that franchise’s hero to overcome, and then disappear into the dustbin of Marvel’s vast ensemble of characters.
And to be honest, Marvel should know better. They’re home to one of the best-written villains not just in comics, but in literature and fiction in general: a child who witnesses the execution of his family, watches the genocide of his people, twice encounters a deep and lasting hatred for the nature of his existence, and then decides that any and all means are valid to keep those people safe.
I’m talking about Magneto, who on multiple occasions decides that human death is an acceptable trade-off for mutant safety, and who, more incredibly, remains just as sympathetic and compelling. The thematic backbone of X-Men, or at least early X-Men, rested on the dichotomy between him and Professor X, who were respectively modeled on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. For that interaction to have any thematic weight, both had to be complex, dynamic, and compelling.
And that lengthy tangent brings me back to the main point: Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave are by far the best-written villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and their shows are—consequently—the best pieces of writing Marvel Studios has yet produced.
Let’s start with Daredevil, which—after ten films that left the hero/villain divide fairly unexplored—spent the bulk of its time dissecting the small and subtle differences between Matt Murdock (played by Charlie Cox) and Wilson Fisk (played by Vincent D’Onofrio). Both want, in their eyes, what’s best for the city they love. Both are intelligent, perceptive, and intensely flawed characters. Both employ violence as a tool. But Murdock, unlike the both revered and feared Fisk, controls that tool. Fisk is prone to tantrums—a quite euphemistic way of referring to that time he smashes a man’s head to pulp with a car door.
Why did he do that? Because that man embarrassed him on a date.
Not out of spite, or sadism, or that obnoxious and lazy brand of evil glee owned by some of the villains I listed earlier—because his vulnerability was exposed, and he struck back. In that single moment, Fisk becomes a rounded character, not necessarily sympathetic but, more importantly, human.
And Daredevil moves forward with that idea, painting Fisk as an inwardly vulnerable figure whose vulnerability begins to seep through the cracks in his ironclad facade. As his plan collapses, he weakens, becoming progressively angrier and more unhinged until his final appearance—an all-out brawl with a suited-up Murdock after escaping from an armed transport—in which he devolves into total rage. In the end, he becomes the immediate counterpart to Murdock’s laserlike focus and control, just as throughout the show he had existed as the shadow—the dark side, even—of the Man in the Mask.
At its core, Daredevil is a show about the boundaries of vigilantism—the lines Matt Murdock cannot cross in his quest to fulfill his purpose while preserving his soul. Fisk presents an example of what happens when those lines are crossed, but ultimately, he’s more than just a caricature and, to be honest, more than just a villain as well. Fisk is, in his own view, a hero; what separates him from the MCU’s plethora of badly-written villains is that his audience can understand why. And that understanding illuminates why, for us, he could never actually be a ‘good guy,’ and why Matt Murdock can. His presence, more so than anyone but Matt himself, makes Daredevil compelling.
See Part II, now forthcoming (but most definitely posted by the time anyone reads this), for my (spoiler alert: quite similar) thoughts on Jessica Jones and Kilgrave.