Daredevil Season 1 was one of the greatest crime dramas of all time
The death knell sounded for another Marvel Netflix show yesterday. Both companies confirmed that Marvel’s Daredevil wouldn’t be returning for a fourth season. Reasons abound for why this happened: Disney may have wanted to clean house before migrating everything to their upcoming Disney+ subscription service, Netflix may want to instead focus on shows and content that it has full control over, or maybe the show didn’t perform well enough to inspire confidence in a fourth season. Whatever the case, we lost something truly great with Daredevil’s cancellation.
You’ll have to forgive me if I choose to be more mournful about the death of Daredevil than Luke Cage or Iron Fist. Luke Cage did some truly great, if a bit clunky, storytelling about being a black man living with bulletproof skin, and how he chooses to serve his community and himself with it. Iron Fist, well, let’s just say I watched the entirety of those two seasons and Season 2 is a vast improvement over Season 1, which is a low bar.
But Daredevil set the standard of what a Marvel show, unshackled from having to hit a TV-14 target, could be. It’s Marvel by way of HBO, willing to show the mental, physical, and human cost of being a superhero. It also has some of the best political intrigue on television.
What makes Daredevil Season 1 such a revelation is that it takes Daredevil — a interesting but showy hero — and pits him up against one of the best villains in Marvel canon, the indomitable Kingpin, Wilson Fisk.
This town deserves a better class of criminal
What makes Wilson Fisk such a threat to Daredevil — both the nocturnal crimefighting vigilante and his book-throwing attorney alter ego, Matt Murdock, is that he is both physically powerful and mentally shrewd.
Wilson Fisk is a physically intimidating character. Always portrayed as somewhat corpulent, he’s able to use his girth with grace and ferocity whenever he needs to flex his strength. But rarely does Fisk engage in direct confrontation. In fact, the Wilson Fisk in Marvel’s Daredevil — played by the talented Vincent D’Onofrio — actually hates having any attention directed at him. He’s content with holding power in the shadows while other people carry out his actions. His closest confidant, James Wesley, always ensures that his name is never uttered in business dealings.
Wilson Fisk is a truly menacing figure — his influence and corruption seep into Hell’s Kitchen’s bones. A figure that is rarely seen on-screen for the first half of Season 1, you see his invisible hand everywhere: from paying off police to investing in construction projects after New York’s partial destruction in The Avengers to doing shadowy dealings with crime syndicates. The threat of Fisk’s wrath even drives one of his lackeys to suicide after he reveals the Kingpin’s identity to Daredevil. That’s influence you can’t even buy. That’s power from sheer force of will.
There’s an arc after Matt Murdock and his allies discover that Fisk is pulling the strings on a vast conspiracy of real estate consolidation and political influence that they decide to shove Fisk into the spotlight and watch him burn up. Fisk, seeing this move coming, decides to pull the trigger first, and do what every great white collar villain does: hold a press conference. If his life is going to be in the public eye, than he’s going to at least be in control of it. In doing so, the public not only becomes aware of Fisk, they seemingly like him.
It shows that the most terrifying villains aren’t those that wield inhuman superpowers or high tech gadgetry. The most terrifying villains are those that can warp society — and, seemingly, reality — to their will. They convince everyone — or everyone that matters, at least — that they’re actually the good guy.
Fisk is a wealthy, white male mogul who seems nigh untouchable with his immense fortune that can buy him almost anything and anyone. His army of loyalists, sycophants, and corrupt officials are what keep him in power. And when that power gets threatened, they’ll do anything to keep it. It’s an all too prescient storyline in 2018’s America.
Despite initial setback, the law firm of Nelson and Murdock start building a paper trail to prove Fisk’s influence on the police and government officials. But, as jurisprudence dictates, they need a credible witness. They need to flip a Fisk crony. Fortunately, with the help of Daredevil’s fists, they may be able to do that. Unfortunately, Fisk isn’t afraid to put some bodies in the ground to protect his interests.
What was once a cat and mouse game about playing within the confines of the law is now a race to find and protect a witness before Fisk can have them all murdered. Fisk isn’t one to let morals get in the way of his goals, whereas Daredevil — despite working outside of the law — stops short of killing to achieve his ends.
It’s an incredible escalation of stakes that doesn’t need to involve blowing up a planet or nuking a city. How do you face an enemy who seems to play by the rules one minute and then brush them all aside the next? How do you defeat a villain when you’re one person and they control public servants, glorified hitmen with badges, and the public’s trust? How does one survive in a world where the most powerful seem dedicated to oppressing and controlling you, and your every waking moment is depressingly tinged with that knowledge?
Like I said, prescient.
This is truly the genius of Daredevil Season 1. Despite all the backflips and ninjas and superhuman senses, the show’s greatest strength is showing this chess game between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and how the forces of evil — or maybe more accurately, the forces of avarice and pragmatism — always try to stay one step ahead.
There’s a bit of wish fulfillment in the idea that the good guys win, which is kind of depressing when you think about it, but it provides so much cathartic, poetic justice that you just revel in the fantasy of it. One key witness who was more scared about the fate of his eternal soul than the wrath of Fisk was all it took to knock down the whole house of cards. Daredevil escorts him to make a statement, and Nelson and Murdock take the case of prosecuting Fisk.
The feds come, knocking down doors and taking names, and Wilson Fisk is quickly clicked up and sent to be processed.
The Good Samaritan
But everyone thinks they’re the hero in their own story.
What makes Fisk so engaging, and so tragic, is that he honestly thinks he’s making the world a better place. That, despite all of the murder and the sabotage and the corruption, he believes what he’s doing, he’s doing to save New York, the city he loves.
This is the schematic that the best Marvel villains are built from, whether it’s Micheal Keaton’s Vulture fighting to feed his family and pay his workers in Spider-Man: Homecoming or Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger warring for racial justice in Black Panther, good villains are just heroes with less scruples.
Fisk grew up in a household with an abusive father and a dotting mother, infusing him with both unbridled cruelty and incredible love. He falls in love with an art curator while also bashing in a lackey’s skull when he interrupts them on a date. He’s both a scared child and a unrepentant murderer.
When Fisk is finally arrested, he becomes reflective. In a armored truck being transported to prison, he tells the two guards about the biblical tale of the Good Samaritan.
He talks about how a traveler was set upon by men of ill intent, who beat the traveler and stripped him of his clothes. The traveler lay dying on the side of the road and was passed by two men who ignored his calls for help: a priest and a Levite. He wasn’t helped until a Samaritan came upon him, who plied him with oil and wine and took him to an inn to rest.
While he recants the story, Fisk realizes that he is the villain to another hero’s legend. This exchange between Fisk and one of the guards sticks with me:
I always thought that I was the Samaritan in that story. It’s funny, isn’t it? How even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature.
The hell does that mean?
It means that I’m not the Samaritan. That I’m not the priest, or the Levite. That I am the ill intent, who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on.
In other crime dramas, most characters who skirt the law never fully embrace the fact that they are the antagonist, whether it’s Stringer Bell in The Wire, Tony in The Sopranos, Walter White in Breaking Bad, or Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire. These characters, despite committing atrocities, still believe, in some way, that they are good people.
Fisk fully embraces that he is responsible of everything evil he put into the world, and makes no more excuses that it was done for benevolent or altruistic ends. But confessing to sin is not the same thing as accepting perdition. If he is truly going to be the ill intent, then he will not atone for his actions.
He sets up an escape after his biblical lesson, making one final play to be free from repercussion.
You took everything!
But Fisk truly breaks down by the end of the show.
His empire is in shambles. The public has turned on him. But he still tries to escape the city, escape punishment for his actions.
He’s a cornered animal by his final confrontation with Daredevil. Seeing no other means, he attacks.
A frightened, thrashing aristocrat is always less intimidating than a buttoned up, confident one, and there’s always some joy in seeing cracks in the veneer of the high-class corrupt. And Fisk is no exception.
His last-ditch effort at escape fails, and he finds himself in a cell with four white walls, left with nothing but his rage.
The forces of good win — at least, temporarily — against impossible odds with nothing but their wits, their fists, and their perseverance.
Daredevil Season 1 was such a revelation in terms of crime drama writing, I would pine for more of those surprises with each new season, but they never came. While I really enjoyed the other two seasons of Daredevil, they never hit the same Machiavellian heights as the first. With Fisk behind bars, the shadowy ninja group, the Hand, tried filling the void, but they never really succeed in filling those shoes outside of a minor arc where they successfully cover up a murder at a hospital, which gaslights the protagonists as well as any of Fisk’s ploys in the first season.
The best Marvel Netflix seasons are about characters grappling with trauma or oppression while the rest of the world acts like it didn’t happen. This is true with Fisk’s corruption in Daredevil, Jessica’s trauma from Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, and the plot behind the death of Frank Castle’s family in The Punisher.
Daredevil shows how the greatest villains can be those that grab the levers of society and manipulate them for their own gross, selfish purpose, but unlike in Marvel’s universe, we have no vigilante to swoop in and save us from evil demagogues. It’s up to us, as a people, to keep the powerful in check, lest we’re overruled by their own self interest.