We finished watching Daredevil Season 1 a couple of days ago. As mission statements go, it’s a pretty extraordinary 13 hours of TV. This is not the Marvel Universe we’ve come to expect in the movies and not just because of the show’s frequent, exuberantly bloody and creatively brutal fights. Daredevil really is a show that aims to be about life in the real world, or at least, the Marvel Universe’s version of it. There’s no power armour, no magical weapons and no conveniently located SHIELD office. Just a fist fight for the soul of a neighbourhood between two of its most powerful and most conflicted sons.
Well, actually, three fistfights at once. Lousy odds but it’s not like that’s stopped Matt Murdock before.
Those fights are, in order:
- The battle for Hell’s Kitchen
- The battle to make peace with the parallel abusive childhoods of Murdock and Fisk.
- The physical confrontation between Murdock and Fisk
The Battle for Hell’s Kitchen
To begin on the largest chessboard, the battle for Hell’s Kitchen demonstrates the intelligence behind the show’s world building. This is the first time we’ve seen New York in detail since the events of Avengers Assemble and the aftermath of the Chitauri attack is as surprising as it is logical. The chaos caused by a global paradigm shift has, as all things are, been seized on as an opportunity by organized crime. Hell’s Kitchen itself was, it’s implied, a rough but not inherently terrifying neighbourhood prior to the attack. After it, as we see, it’s a place where people live under sufferance and Fisk and the other gang bosses have industrialized crime on a regional level.
That’s worth highlighting, because Fisk’s own view of his work is inherently hypocritical. He spends the series committing a string of crimes to seek atonement for his defining one and refusing to look that in the eye. As far as he’s concerned, he’s saving the old neighbourhood. The fact he’s doing this by running innocent people out and selling entire blocks to criminal enterprises is something he simply doesn’t let himself see until the final episode. All that matters is the boy from Hell’s Kitchen does good.
That willful blindness ties into his volatile, irregular temper too. Fisk is constantly working hard on not only forgetting what he did but also what he’s doing. He’s a man who has evolved in place, forever staring into the corner that he was told to look at and trying to ignore what he knows he did. The show plays his guilt almost like an illness; Fisk’s rigid discipline and precision a means of, if not distracting him from that guilt and rage, then certainly a means of sectioning it off. Everything about him; his education, his precision, his elegance, even the calm, measured way he speaks is as much of a suit as the one Matt wears, just far better tailored.
This is at the core of why the two men clash; they’re approaching the same problem from opposite directions. Matt openly uses Daredevil as a means of excising decades of rage at his accident, his injury, the loss of his father and the dreadful way he was treated by both his parents. Fisk wraps his moment of relentless, near hysterical brutality in a cocoon of culture, elegance and focus because he knows he needs to be more than them. Except for the times when he doesn’t.
Then, Fisk works from the boardroom down, because fundamentally his neighbourhood, and what he did there, repulses him. In contrast, Murdock works from the street up. He tells himself that it’s because as a lawyer his job is to stand between his client and harm and there’s certainly an element of that. But, where Fisk is comprehensively ruthless, Murdock is both efficient and masochistic. Murdock is denied the one opponent he clearly wants; his father. As a result, he throws himself at impossible odds to prove he’s not just a better man than Battling Jack, he’s a tougher one. Or to put it another way, Fisk is trying to destroy a neighbourhood for personal gain. Murdock is trying to save a neighbourhood and prove a point. Both are at war with themselves long before they’re at war with each other and that begins in their parallel childhoods.
Both men have abusive relationships with their fathers and, while Fisk’s is overtly violent Murdock’s is no less insidious. Fisk’s dad beat him and his mother, Murdock’s absorbed countless beatings and inadvertently scarred his son in doing so. One man bled for his family, the other made his family bleed. Both left scars.
It’s how Fisk and Murdock work around the damage their fathers caused that shows what sort of people they are. Fisk never recovers from that single moment of homicidal rage not just because of the horrific consequences but the euphoric release it brings him. There’s a conflict inherent in all people who are physically large but intellectually inclined and it’s one I recognize in myself. Fisk wants, desperately, to be the measured, cultured businessman who saves New York from itself and industrializes crime. But he enjoys being the angry, brutal teenager smashing the person who’s hurt him into a dozen pieces of meat. For him, it’s release, a chance to let himself go in a manner his lifestyle forbids elsewhere (a savage, bloody-knuckled penance of a sort Murdock would recognize). Beating someone who’s done him wrong or betrayed him is another chance to channel the monster his father created into something that may not be good but is hopefully good enough. It’s why he uses so much ritual, folding his life down into a series of precise movements that if they don’t cage him at least mean he isn’t surprised. And if he isn’t surprised, he doesn’t lose control and if he doesn’t lose control, people don’t die. Fisk and Bruce Banner also have a surprising amount in common. They’re both brains trapped in raging bodies, both men who value control. The only difference is Fisk is at peace with what he is.
In contrast, Murdock isn’t at peace with either of his two lives. His embittered tirade about how little the law does for the people who need it the most shows just how little time he has for his daytime life. Like Fisk, Murdock’s day job is a means to an end. Or at least it starts that way. The show mirrors his gradual change in tactics with a growing appreciation for just what his day job can do. His work with Foggy and Karen, and the success they have, shows Murdock the one thing his father couldn’t; there are some fights you only win as a team.
Which brings us to the last fight the two men have; with each other. They’re both intellectuals drawn to physical violence, the sons of abusive fathers, idealists who get their hands not just dirty but bloody.
The only, and biggest, difference is that as we’ve seen Fisk wants to save Hell’s Kitchen by destroying it and Murdock is prepared to destroy himself to save Hell’s Kitchen. For both men, the neighbourhood is merely a canvas for their meaningful exchange of blows to take place on. Both are hurt, both are damaged by their pasts and both are desperate to if not heal then at least even out the score card.
I’ve deliberately not gone into detail about the fight scenes in the show because that’s an article by itself, but the two fights that Murdock and Fisk have are worth examining here. Murdock loses the first because he’s an idiot; driven to a bloody knuckled Opus Dei-esque act of penance that culminates in his near murder at the hands of Nobu, one of Fisk’s reluctant colleagues. By the time Fisk shows up, Murdock is three quarters dead and no match for him. Fisk has set the battleground and the rules and the best Murdock can hope for is to leave alive. Which he does… barely.
Their second fight is the reverse. Fisk thinks he’s set the ground but is promptly metaphorically, and physically, upended by Murdock. The fact that their differences are settled in a back alley is also significant. There’s no extra agenda, no other people, just two angry, broken Hell’s Kitchen boys beating the hell out of each other until one doesn’t get up. It’s particularly interesting that where Fisk dominates the first fight, this one is even. Murdock doesn’t just dictate the terms here but finally learns to lead with something other than his chin. He acquires one of Fisk’s own advantages, the armour, and uses Fisk’s ubiquity against him. Any organization eventually fails and Murdock applies classic martial arts theory to his takedown of Fisk’s syndicate; find a weak point and push till it breaks.
But for all that, it’s still a close run thing. Pro wrestling has a term, ‘booking’ that refers to how a match’s outcome is decided. This is a very strong piece of booking, ensuring that both men leave the fight looking good, even if only one leaves it upright. Even after Fisk is arrested, the show makes it clear he’s far from done and the line about his trial being likely a year away is all but a trailer for season 3.
A war for the heart of a neighbourhood, a war for peace of mind and in the end, a war because that’s what they’re best at. Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk are reflections of one another, both uniquely gifted, both uniquely scarred and both united in their inability to walk away from a fight, any fight. They’ve clashed for decades in the comics and no doubt will clash for years on screen but the real tragedy isn’t that. It’s that neither would have it any other way.