So I watched the first season of the Netflix series Daredevil, starring Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer cum vigilante-superhero who, as the masked "devil of Hell's Kitchen," battles the forces of evil in NYC. Murdock's mirror image is Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin), played by Vincent D'Onofrio, the source of much of Gotham's naughtiness.
I feel safe in saying that Daredevil will contribute to Netflix's reputation as a non-network go-to source for innovative entertainment. (Yes, Netflix, you can use that as a blurb.)
I'm not going to review all 13 episodes, plots, execution, etc., because I don't wanna and what's the point and spoiler alerts and do I have to do every damn thing around here.
What I do want to explore, briefly, because I'm in Starbucks and there are these middle-aged men who wander around every morning, venti mocha-chocha-latte-ya-ya in hand, showing complete strangers their new cellphones like they had just discovered radium, is how Murdock and Fisk are presented as antagonists but not necessarily antonyms, making this series fascinating in ways you would not necessarily expect from such material.
Daredevil begins in media res, with our hero, dressed in a black compression suit and what looks like a doo-rag pulled over the top half of his face, already on the move against Russian human traffickers. We are treated to plenty of backstory, however, and that's where the real fun begins.
Matt is the son of Battling Jack Murdock (John Patrick Hayden), a club fighter whose career is more or less controlled by Mob types (and you know how they get). Son Matt grows up quickly, stitching up dad's wounds and braving a motherless and lower-working-class existence in the aptly named Hell's Kitchen. One day Matt falls victim to a car accident that also involves the release of potent chemicals that not only blind him but also give him heightened sensitivities such that he can "see" in other ways, supernatural ways, befitting a budding Marvel superhero.
Matt soon finds himself not only in the dark but also utterly alone after his father refuses to take a dive in a big fight. Determined to let his son hear his father announced a "winner," Battling Jack defies his Mob bosses and knocks out his opponent, only to pay the ultimate price — but not without leaving his son a nicely padded bank account, which pays for a bed in a nicely decked-out Catholic boys' home. Matt's Catholic background will loom large in the proceedings, and in a most unexpected way.
Young Wilson Fisk has other issues. A chubby, nervous kid, he is the son of a brutal wanna-be councilman who believes political office is the key to manipulating interests for personal aggrandizement and ever-increasing power. When Wilson's old man loses the council election and becomes deeper in debt to Mob loanshark Rigoletto, he takes out his frustrations on wife and son, physically and verbally abusing them. Fisk père pays the ultimate price, too, but not at the hands of the Mob. Matt's and Wilson's fathers both may have found themselves squeezed under the calloused thumbs of gangsters, but for very different reasons. Both men may have wanted to redirect their fates, and those of their families, but with dissimilar intentions. And both Murdock and Fisk will carry the legacies of their fathers into their adult lives differently, too, with Murdock finding heroic internal resources when needed, and Fisk exploding in horrifying, murderous rages when he reaches the limits of his resources.
(Strangely, Domenick Lombardozzi, Hauk from The Wire, plays Fisk's brute of a father with a stereotypical Howard Beachey/Jersey Shore affect. Why someone named Fisk sounds like Hitman #3 from The Sopranos is never made clear. Perhaps to explain an Italian-American playing Kingpin? Just to telegraph his thugishness or similarity to the Rigolettos of the world?)
Both Murdock and Fisk fashion themselves saviors of sorts. Murdock, though a lawyer who likes to quote Thurgood Marshall, realizes there are limits to what the law can do in a city pretty much run by super-criminals from all corners of the globe, laws unto themselves. Hence Murdock's alter ego, the much misunderstood masked man who is often blamed for the very crimes he is battling (a not-uncommon irony for superheroes: think Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson's crusade to catch him, or the Green Hornet and Kato, or the Batman of The Dark Knight iteration). He is going to bring Fisk to justice one way or the other, within the law or without.
Fisk, too, wants to save the Hell's Kitchen he grew up in and repeatedly professes a deep love for. (Note that this section of Manhattan is never referred to by its modern moniker, Clinton. Today's "Hell's Kitchen" bears little resemblance to the version depicted in the original Daredevil comics, when it was a tenement-ridden haven for ne're-do-wells.)
Fisk's plan is typical of most pseudo-deities: he is going to save the Kitchen by "renovating it," which is to say, destroying it, knocking down building after building, regardless of the chaos it wreaks in the lives of long-term tenants who have no place else to go. (In fact, one key plot twist involves a sole holdout, an elderly Hispanic woman whom Matt's partners in law, Karen and Foggy, attempt to aid, with dire consequences.) Fisk positions himself as a master builder who is going to make the city safe by destroying the environment he believes caters to lowlives, even as he connives with drug and human traffickers to gain surreptitious control of the city's police, media, and local government. In this one respect Daredevil offers nothing distinguishable from every other Hollywood cartoon bad guy: the predatory developer/rapacious capitalist as enemy of the people, as if Mr. Potter's great-grandson had made it big in early 90s New York real estate.
Both Murdock and Fisk have lady loves who know who they are, where they come from, what they do, but who offer differing levels of acceptance. Rosario Dawson plays Claire Temple, a nurse who happens upon a stricken Murdock and who binds his wounds. Given her life as a healer, she is much more ambivalent about Murdock's tactics, even though she is drawn to his heroic vision. Fisk, however, has won the adamantine loyalty of an art-gallery owner, Vanessa Marianna (played by the classy Ayelet Zurer), who sold Fisk a massive canvas of textured white nothingness, which evokes for the criminal an image from his childhood — a living room wall at which he was ordered to stare to envision a future when he is a "king." In other words, young Wilson was trained to project his future onto a blank canvas (also an obstacle to be broken through), one to be filled with dreams of violent conquest. (Contrast this with Murdock's own meditation practice, in which he turns inward to seek a very personal peace.)
Murdock and Fisk are also self-justifiers, men for whom the end justifies the means, and whose intentions are everything. Fisk wears, and is often seen rubbing, as if a magic lamp, his father's cufflinks, a tick to remind himself that he is not his father, someone who gloried in violence for its own sake. Again, Fisk hopes for ultimate vindication, despite his evil deeds, because he has faith in his vision of a new heaven on earth. Murdock, on the other hand, crosses himself at the memory of his father, in reverence of a man whose integrity he hopes one day to live up to by bringing justice to a system corrupted by diabolical and often unseen forces. And while we, the audience, know who the real bad guy is, there is always the possibility that Murdock will become everything he hates. And that's where his Catholic faith comes in. Matt is a tortured Catholic who often seeks guidance from a wise priest.
Yes, a wise priest, Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie). Neither a self-righteous cartoon nor a liberalizing doubting Thomas, Lantom is a priest who believes in a real devil and who is trying to coax Matt into making a good confession by helping him discern his true motives in the choices he's making. (At first it's unclear whether the priest knows that Murdock is the "masked devil" of Hell's Kitchen vilified in the press. Later we discover that the priest has his own insights into Matt's many facets.)
At a funeral for a journalist, Father Lantom asks Matt how's he's holding up.
"Like a good Catholic boy."
"That bad, eh?"
Catholicism is presented as both a serious bulwark against the moral graylands of late modernity and as a source of its own internal contradictions, inculcating guilt and self-doubt even as it offers forgiveness and moral assurance.
Fisk, too, references religion at key points. Sitting at the bedside of his beloved Vanessa, poisoned at a lavish party, the victim of Fisk's perilous existence in which friends and enemies are often one and the same, he talks of how his father was decidedly not a religious man and that his mother tried to be, but failed. Fisk was nevertheless intrigued by faith, read the Bible, but also failed to embrace a religion, and hence must admit, "I cannot pray for you." Yet, as the first season reaches its climax, Fisk retells the story of the Good Samaritan to a couple of police in the process of taking him to jail — only in Fisk's telling of the biblical tale, the Samaritan is a man who loves his "neighbor" because he is a citizen of a city he loves.
"I always thought that I was the Samaritan in the story," he says, mournfully. "It's funny, isn't it? How even the best of men can be ... deceived."
"What the hell does that mean?" asks one of the cops.
D'Onofio shifts his head, looks to the ground, and, as if experiencing an epiphany akin to Luther's, from deep within the bowels, he says, "That I am the ill-intent...who set upon the traveler who set upon a road...that he shouldn't have been on."
The Samaritan's object of mercy goes from being a fellow citizen to an intruder in one awful moment.
Shades of I am the one who knocks.
Cox is most appealing as a vulnerable superman not shy in seeking help from friends and Faith when necessary. I was puzzled at first by D'Onofrio's interpretation of Fisk, however, his gravelly voice almost a copy of Christian Bale's Batman. He seemed uncomfortable in the role. And then I realized that, no, it's Fisk who is uncomfortable, in his own skin. The voice is that of someone constantly swallowing his own pain. And as the episodes progressed and Fisk began to show his many shades of rage and self-justification, D'Onofio's performance grew larger and more menacing, more complex and compelling, more monstrous and, yes, human. We may be watching the creation of one of the great characters in TV history.
By the close of the season, Matt's dark demon has transformed fully into the Marvel Daredevil, donning a new costume inspired by his dad's red boxing trunks and gloves and made of the same lightweight and impenetrable material Fisk's own suits are spun from. And Fisk has embraced his inner Kingpin, his self-delusions about being the city's Good Samaritan buried alongside several former colleagues who underestimated his ability to do the recklessly destructive thing in the name of protecting a perverse vision of the future, born of a traumatized and ever-present past.
Which "savior" will redeem Hell's Kitchen? Whose vision will prevail — that of the blind man who sees his own capacity for the demonic more clearly than most, or that of the sighted man blind to his own resemblance to a sadistic father?
And will the city look more like heaven or hell when its redeemer has finished "cleaning up"?
Anthony Sacramone is the managing editor of ISI Books, Modern Age, and the Intercollegiate Review. He blogs at Strangeherring.com.