Protagonists and Villains

This post is going to talk about the new Daredevil TV series. It isn’t really spoilery, but if you want to avoid all hint of what the characters do in later eps, be warned that I do hint.

So my husband and I finished watching Daredevil last night. I liked it well enough; there were some elements I really appreciated, and it turns out I have some hard-coded subconscious switch that responds really well to black masks tied at the back of the head, because they remind me of the Man in Black from The Princess Bride. ๐Ÿ˜› (I actually didn’t want to see him get his proper costume, because I liked the simple black mask so much.) If you want to chat about the show in general in the comments, feel free.

What I’m here to talk about is Karen Page and Wilson Fisk.

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Karen first. I’ve never read the comics, but I understand that she’s Daredevil’s love interest, the Mary Jane to his Spider-Man. I was relieved to see that not be the case here: I’m sure they’re building toward it, but the writers are content to take their time, to let it happen in a way that (we can hope) will feel natural, rather than shotgunned. In fact, the romantic relationship she has is with Foggy, not Matt — and now that I look her up on Wikipedia, it looks like that love triangle is a staple of the comics. But it doesn’t get played as a love triangle, not yet. Karen kind of drifts toward him, then drifts away when they all start having interpersonal problems in the later part of the season. By the time the finale happens, it’s clear she and Foggy aren’t a thing anymore, without ever having had a Breakup Scene. And I liked that.

Did I like Karen? Eh . . . yes and no. The “no” part is that I never really warmed to her as a person, never found myself punching the air over her dialogue or bouncing with excitement to see what she would do next. Then again, that’s true of most of the people on the show. About three-quarters of the way through the season, though, I figured something out:

The show treats her like a protagonist, not a sidekick.

Her introduction is totally sidekick/love interest material. Matt saves her; she becomes their secretary. But it turned out the plot that introduced her isn’t a one-off thing, an excuse to bring her into Matt and Foggy’s lives. It’s the start of something bigger, and having gotten hold of one end of the thread, Karen doesn’t stop pulling. She gets offered a moral choice by the villains, and chooses. She recruits allies. She investigates. She is frequently off in scenes without either Matt or Foggy around, and argues her side when she joins up with them again. She gets kidnapped by the bad guys; she gets her own damn self out of that trap, and deals with the consequences of it without (so far) ever telling Matt or Foggy what happened. In short, she is a proactive character with her own story going on, which interlocks with but is not dependent on that of the hero.

And for that, I love her.

***

As for Wilson Fisk . . . .

I think the easiest thing to say is that I found him an interesting character but a terrible villain. The show did a nice job of building him up as a person before we ever saw him do something bad. In fact, at one point I turned to my husband and said, “This doesn’t make him a good person by any stretch of the imagination — but my god is it refreshing to have a villain who isn’t a misogynist.” Fisk is extremely courteous to women. His love for Vanessa is real (though man, I can’t figure her out at all); so is his love for his mother. He appears to genuinely buy his own party line about improving the city, up until the end. I think you could even make an argument that the arc of the first season is, you start with two guys of moral ambiguity, and this is the process by which they change until you can properly sort the hero from the villain.

But as a villain, I have to say Fisk was a real disappointment. The characters are racing around for multiple episodes wringing their hands about how they have to “stop Fisk before he destroys Hell’s Kitchen!” His nefarious plan? Is to redevelop Hell’s Kitchen. Like, to build condos or something. He wants to gentrify a neighborhood that is, in the TV version of things, a crime-ridden slum. Even laying aside the fact that the real Hell’s Kitchen these days is nothing like what you see on the show, and even allowing for the ways in which gentrification is a problematic process . . . that is not the kind of Villain Plan that really inspires a feeling of desperation in me as a viewer, to the point where I would see why Matt contemplates murder to stop him.

Now, it’s absolutely true that Fisk is a bad person and a criminal. After building him up as this gentleman, the show then has him murder someone with utter brutality. I get that. But there’s this weird disjunct where he’s using a heroin distribution network to fund a scheme that looks like it came straight off of Wall Street. He’s apparently suborned a huge number of cops and judges and politicians . . . all to hide the unnecessary crime by which he is funding his nefarious condo development plan. Then you add in the fact that he seems to genuinely believe that he is going to make Hell’s Kitchen better, while never addressing or blatantly disregarding the fact that he’s one of the forces making it worse, and I wind up just throwing my hands in the air. I feel like the writers maybe did, too: the “smoking gun” the protagonists find on Fisk is that business with his father, which is not so much smoking as vaguely warm.

I get that the general aesthetic of this show was to keep things down on the level of near-realism. Nobody’s opening up portals for alien invasions here; this is about the daily lives of people in the city. I think that would have worked better for me, though, if the plot had felt more embedded in real conditions, rather than this uncomfortable marriage between Evil Crime Boss and Wall Street shenanigans. (This post compares Daredevil with Arrow, and praises the latter for having a better understanding of structural inequality and its effects. One might also usefully compare Wilson Fisk’s plan with Malcolm Merlyn’s.)

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I did enjoy the show, and will watch a second season if (when, probably) one happens. Fisk might be a more interesting villain now that he’s less Fisk and more Kingpin. And like I said, there were lots of other touches I appreciated, paramount among which was the way it handled people finding out who Matt was and what he was doing. I adored the fact that the show didn’t softpedal that, didn’t have the one angry scene and then get over it; the problem was lasting, and highlighted all the ways in which lying to people about being a nighttime vigilante is a real betrayal of their trust. I liked the fight scenes and the way the choreographer managed to change them up so they don’t all look alike. (Man of Steel could have learned from these guys.) I liked Claire and her reluctance to hop on the Daredevil bandwagon; I liked the priest; I liked the amount of dialogue they had in Spanish, and the fact that both Matt and Karen speak it, with perceptibly differing degrees of fluency. (I totally want the fact that Foggy studied Punjabi to become relevant some day.)

I will miss the black mask, with its loose fabric tails at the back. ๐Ÿ˜›

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