Daredevil: Fisk and Murdock as Foils
The first season of Daredevil sets Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) as counterpoints to each other. Through both characters, viewers watch men work to undermine each other despite professing similar goals. While what these men want may seem similar, the devil, as the saying goes, is in the details.
Hell’s Kitchen is the setting, and its revitalization is the passion of both characters. Fisk and his philanthropy and “better tomorrow” mentality all stand in for an underhanded gentrification of Hell’s Kitchen. Fisk accepts what he is doing and the extralegal means of obtaining the territory he desires all with the idea of serving a greater good. Despite some the fears of his associates, Fisk is dedicated and focused on this goal, and that is how he endures and rationalizes the unpleasant actions he has to undertake. In some ways, his problem is that he sees the city he loves as an abstraction, a place that really only exists in his mind, and he undertakes all his actions—criminal and otherwise—to make the real place of Hell’s Kitchen fit with the image he has of it. One can argue this is a variety of idolatry, where real places and people are harmed and sacrificed to the fiction Fisk has created of that same place.
Murdock, with his lawyerly activities and vigilantly ones, professes the same idea as Fisk. Namely, he wants to save Hell’s Kitchen from the crime, poverty, and institutional corruption that infest it. His public, legal actions are admirable if sometimes futile, much like Fisk’s. In his costumed activities, Murdock elects to beat up and threaten the same criminals he would have to represent as a public defender. He doesn’t understand the scope of what he’s undertaken, and the ends he believes he can achieve through these actions is vague at best. Unlike Fisk, however, Murdock doesn’t have an ideal of Hell’s Kitchen, and when he talks about defending it, he means defending the people and places as they exists, not as he would like them to. His results may be short-term and immediate, but there is a cathartic quality to them, as Murdock confesses to enjoying that he makes a difference. Fisk, in this regard, will be perpetually displeased because no matter how much he remodels Hell’s Kitchen is cannot ever be the place he imagines it to be.
The Pain of Being Alone
Fisk explains that he was prepared to be alone, and that he was ready to accept a life where he was not understood or loved. It comes as a surprise to everyone, then, that Fisk forms deep and true relationships. Murdock, too, expresses some shock that Fisk has someone who cares for him and would mourn his passing, essentially stating that Fisk is not some lone, evil entity, but a human being with an interior life and personal relationships. James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) appears initially as Fisk’s right-hand man, but is shown over time to be a loyal friend who cares for Fisk as an employer and as a man, going so far as to bring Vanessa to him when Fisk appears to be in dire need of a true interpersonal connection and human support. For her part, Vanessa chooses Fisk and shows him playfulness, tenderness, love and passion, giving of herself and establishing trust when she gives him her handgun, when she refuses to leave him because she was poisoned, and when she accepts his ring and proposal. She and Wesley may rationalize some of what Fisk does, but they do not shrink from him, accepting the man and his flaws.
Though his actions and behavior, Murdock pushes away the people closest to him. He alienates Foggy (Elden Hensen) not so much with his vigilantism but with his years of lies. Karen (Deborah Ann Woll), Claire (Rosario Dawson), and Stick (Scott Glenn) all get pushed away by Murdock either through his lies, his choices, or his unwillingness to change his behavior to accommodate the feelings and needs of others. There is a significant stretch of time where Murdock’s only source of interpersonal interaction comes from his “anonymous” dealings with Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie). It is a mark of how alone Murdock is that his only marker of friendship comes from a priest who cannot turn him away. Murdock does make efforts to mend these relationships—though it may be argued it is the other party in the cases of Foggy and Claire, who do the hard work of repairing what was damaged.
A Tangled Web that Does not Belong to Spider-Man
Both characters lie. Fisk lies through disingenuous public dealings and through hiding his financial chicanery and illicit sources of income. For his personal dealings, however, he is remarkably honest. He promises to tell Vanessa the truth and does so, even when it exposes him to judgment and possible legal action that would ruin everything he worked to accomplish. His honesty with Wesley is likely what brought him so much respect and loyalty from the man. Similarly, Fisk and Madam Gao are cautious and respectful to each other. Notice it is she who betrays him with the poisoning scheme. This is not to suggest Fisk is a paragon of honesty. He does misrepresent the truth to Vlad (Nikolai Nikolaeff) and sets up the Russians to be destroyed through treachery. In a similar manner he uses Nobu’s vanity against him, engineering a showdown between him and Daredevil. When it comes to his personal dealings, though, Fisk remains honest.
Murdock lies to everyone closest to him, and in doing so harms the faith they have in him. Foggy’s anger at having been deceived for years is underplayed if anything. Though his chilly treatment of Foggy and Karen, Murdock shuts down the one avenue of confession and help she might have had once she’s killed Wesley, leaving her no place to turn except inward and into self-destructive habits. In a reversal of their positions in regards to the setting, it is Fisk who values the real people in his life more and provides them with the truth, while Murdock’s lies sabotage the relationships because he does not trust the real people in them enough.
Fear and Violence
Fisk’s father (Domenick Lombardozzi) pushed him to be strong and fearless, and he reinforced his lessons with violence. As an adult, Fisk is ruthless but not sadistic. It does not please him to have to use violence because it is risky and expensive. This strategy is somewhat surprising, seeing how he is able to physically overpower most of his opponents. Nonetheless, he’s not afraid to use violence or to have others use it on his behalf. Fisk’s fears are all social. He is awkward in public gatherings, twitchy and physically uncomfortable in crowds, and nervous when dealing with a woman to whom he is attracted. He overcomes these fears through his trust in the personal relationships he creates.
Though his comic bears the line “The man without fear,” in the Netflix show, Murdock shows himself to be a man eaten by fear and doubt. His confessional meetings with Father Lantom, his increasing isolation to allegedly protect his friends, and his prolonged mediations on whether it is right to take a life to save lives are all hallmarks of someone who cannot cope with the anxiety and uncertainty of his situation and the choices he has to make. Fisk is trouble by nightmares about his past, but Murdock worries about his present and future. The few times the views see Murdock committed to action and without anxiety are when he is masked and attacking criminals. He even confesses to the relief it brought him when he beat up the man who was abusing his daughter. The immediacy of combat and its results give him closure, so when he wears the mask—when Murdock is Daredevil—he does seem to operate without fear because there is no room for it.
The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled
In many ways, Fisk and Murdock are similar. They both want what is best for Hell’s Kitchen, though they disagree on what exactly is best. They are both, to lesser and greater extents, liars and criminals who wonder if having the strength to do what they must do will leave them alone, a personal life sacrificed for saving their community. Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) expresses disbelief in the idea of heroes or villains, but does say people follow their own agenda. While Fisk and Murdock may have roughly similar agendas it is in the means they use to approach them and the effectiveness of their actions that differentiate these characters.
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