Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Kingpin Problem | Thoughts on Marvel's DAREDEVIL on Netflix

The creators of Marvel's DAREDEVIL series, streaming on Netflix, missed an opportunity with the Kingpin character. Specifically with the character's origin.

Spoilers ahead:

During the arc of the show, we are shown glimpses from the childhoods of the hero, Matt "DAREDEVIL" Murdock, and his main opponent, Wilson "KINGPIN" Fisk. There are parallels to their upbringings. Hell's Kitchen is the neighborhood where they both grew up. There is a focus on their relationships with their fathers. Where Matt's relationship with his father is nurturing and loving. Wilson is a victim to his domineering, power-hungry father. Here is where the opportunity is missed.

The young Wilson is portrayed as a wimp. He's the fat, quiet kid. He's meek, a pushover. He's a victim. Wilson's father, Bill Fisk, abuses his wife and son psychologically and physically. Bill wants to become a local politician to gain wealth and power. Bill Fisk is a bully.

What would have been a more interesting choice would have been to swap the victim and bully roles of the son and father. Make young Wilson Fisk the bully and his father, the victim. Make Bill Fisk represent all authority which young Wilson would learn to dominate.
Put the moral center in Bill Fisk, making him the one with whom the audience empathizes but also thinks is pathetic. He would be a prisoner, trapped in his own home, living in fear of his child who would destroy him at any moment. Make young Wilson's mother, Marlene, an enabler of her son's evil behavior. Make her a woman, living in denial, who believes her only, precious, angelic son can do know wrong, who defends his worst acts. Make her give young Wilson his power. Make young Wilson into a demon, Adam Lanza, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who grew up and became an organized crime boss.

Why would this have been a better creative choice? For the following reasons:

1. It's less obvious
It's less obvious and more interesting to make young Wilson inherently evil, who feels power over his own parents, who are sniveling weaklings bowing to their child. It's a reverse of the expected family power structure. Also, abusive parents creating villains is incredibly well worn and boring.

2. It's an example of creators trying very hard to make a villain relatable and thinking the audience is dumb
Too often creators, especially in super-hero stories where the delineation between good and evil is absolute, are desperate to make the villain a fully rendered character. In order to achieve this they mistake understanding a character for relating to a character. As the audience, we don't need to relate to a character to understand them. Moreover, we don't need to see ourselves in a villain to understand them. Creators, in an effort to make their villains fully rendered and understood, try to make them relatable. And the way they try to make them relatable is by making them a victim, because we've all felt ourselves to be victims at one point. But we have also been in a position where we felt power, and maybe even held it over another. As the audience, we have the capacity to understand what it's like to be a villain with power. By putting the villain at an early age in a victim role the writers of DAREDEVIL have disrespected the emotional intelligence of the audience.

We don't need the villain to be relatable. We don't need to feel their pain as our own. We just need to understand what they want and why they make decisions to get it.

3. It would define Wilson Fisk's relationship with authority
Being able to instill fear in his own parents would give a basis for the adult Wilson Fisk's power over institutions of authority in society. It would give the character a sense of entitlement. He would feel it is his right to hold sway over government officials, the police, and other criminal organizations. He expects to hold power over those entities of authority.

4. It would define the Wilson Fisk's relationship with Vanessa
Make young Wilson enabled by his mother. An evil young Wilson could use his mother's affections to compete and hold power over his father. This would demonstrate how he sees women as objects to possess for purposes of status within power structures.

When adult Wilson courts Vanessa, we see it as a microcosm representing his ambitions to control the city. Vanessa is an object of beauty, like the city, that he desires to possess and control. We would understand how Wilson views Vanessa from his relationship with his mother.

It would also give motivation for Wilson to take care of his elderly mother. In her old age, she is an artifact from his youth. She was the one who gave him his power, allowed him to wield it, and protected him when it might destroy him.

5. It makes more sense for the villain
I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak when I was in college. In his talk, Vonnegut said something to the effect of, "Don't explain why your villains are evil. Just make them evil." He cited Shakespeare's Iago from OTHELLO. You never question why Iago is evil, he just is. His desire is to take down the king, Othello. He does so through underhanded and subtle means. It's not explained to us that Iago was beaten as a child, or he saw his mother beaten. Iago is Iago. The theory works for other Shakepearean characters. It's not explained what occurred in Macbeth's childhood that drove him to commit murder as an adult. It's his wife and his ambition that drives him. We understand it as an audience.

DAREDEVIL decides to tell the story of the villain as a child to give reasons for the character's decisions as an adult. But as it stands in the series, the young Wilson Fisk doesn't seem capable of the acts and rise to power the adult Wilson Fisk does without thinking. It is inconsistent. It would be more consistent to have young Wilson, a bully, enabled by his mother, beat his father, rather than have his father beat him.

In the show, young Wilson is berated and abused by his father. He finally uses his physical power to brutal effect. He kills his father while protecting his mother from a beating. This signifies Wilson's birth as the Kingpin. It's his only act of violence we're shown from his childhood. But it's done to protect his mother. The killing is justified. In the future, adult Wilson kills out of anger, or for business. It's not consistent with his young self's experience. It would be more consistent with the future, adult Wilson, to have him as a teen, beat his father routinely, until one day, over something inconsequential, he kills his father.
We gather the adult Wilson wants the same thing as his father: power. as a motivation to be better than his father. But it's difficult to reconcile where this desire manifested in his youth. If it was illustrated that he saw how he could manipulate authority in his father, how he could gain power within his family, it would give a basis for his future self's hunger for wealth and power.

UPDATE: Here's a quote from Robert McKee's book, STORY, (which I am a fan of though other might have their problems with it):
    Contemporary attitudes tend to favor mono-explanations for behavior, rather than the complexity of forces that's more likely the case.
    Do not reduce characters to case studies (an episode of child abuse is the cliche in vogue at the moment), for in truth there are no definitive explanations for anyone's behavior. Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more he diminishes the character in the audience's mind. Rather, think through to a solid understanding of motive, but at the same time leave some mystery around the whys, a touch of the irrational perhaps, room for the audience to use its own life experience to enhance your character in its imagination.
    In King Lear, for example, Shakespeare cast one ofhis most com-plex villains, Edmund. After a scene in which astrological influences, yet another mono-explanation of behavior, are blamed for someone's misfortune, Edmund turns in soliloquy and laughs, "I should have been what I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardy." Edmund does evil for the pure pleasure of it.

5. It's not Tony Soprano
The Kingpin is kind of similar to Tony Soprano. They're both wealthy crime bosses. They're both big, bald, physically imposing men. They're both ruthless. In THE SOPRANOS, we are given glimpses into Tony's childhood. His father is a gangster, but mostly kind to his kids. His mother is an overbearing, anxiety-filled, toxic menace. Tony and his sister by and large are normal, good-natured, 60s-suburban New Jersey kids.
In DAREDEVIL, there's an opportunity to respond to the character of Tony Soprano. In making young Wilson an inherently evil child, or one who's nurtured into evil by a willing mother, you can set up a differentiation between the two similar characters.


Essential scenes to construct the character's arc might include:

1A. Young Wilson demonstrates his power over the neighborhood kids. 
We come across a group of older kids bullying a group of kids for their lunch money. The younger kids are about to give up the money, but one kid shows up and defends the group, standing up to the group of bullies. During the confrontation, a much larger kid shows up (young Wilson). The bullies think he'll help them, but he beats them up and takes all the money the bullies have acquired. The one kid who defended the others is thankful, but young Wilson beats him up, too, then he beats up the other group of kids and takes all their money as well. What is essentially a microcosm of what would occur if Kingpin defeated Daredevil in the future, and the basis of his anger toward defenders of the weak. Establishes the character's dominance of those who would be dominant, as well as his disdain for the defenseless.

Challenge: Show how the weak as unsympathetic, as a worthwhile target, as an opportunity.

1B. A Young Wilson sees his father bullied and sees he can bully him as well.

2. Bill's fear of his son and Marlene's devotion to her son over her husband. 
Young Wilson is brought home after fighting a neighbor's son in school. Bill is afraid of his son, but tries to threaten him. He's quickly quieted by a stern look from young Wilson. Marlene jumps in, justifying her son's violence. The other kids should have been tougher. They started it after all. He was defending himself. Establish the power dynamic within the family: Young Wilson is the bully and center of power; Bill is the victim, dominated; Marlene is the enabler of young Wilson's behavior.

Challenge: Show Bill in the wrong and Marlene in the right.

3. Bill's fear intensifies.
From a window, Bill observes young Wilson, who doesn't know he's being watched, as he kills a neighbor's puppy in the street. It's the same neighbor who's son young Wilson fought in school. Establishes Bill's wariness of his son, the imposing doom of his son's presence and the vindictive nature of young Wilson.

Challenge: Shift Bill from being wrong to being right.

3. Young Wilson dominates his father. 
Too scared to sleep, Bill tries to talk with his wife about their son, but finds resistance from her. She either sees no problem or is in denial. She suggests Bill try to connect with his son.
Bill tries to get young Wilson to help with a household project. But during the work young Wilson become irritable and, when one of the tasks gives him the opportunity, he puts his father in a choke hold, almost killing him. But then young Wilson laughs, and says it was a joke. Ramps up the threat of his son.

Challenge: Show Bill as pathetic, as pitiful, deserving of abuse.

4. Young Wilson kills his father.
Bill gives young Wilson the wrong toy for his birthday. Young Wilson lashes out, berates his father. His father finally shows some tooth and shouts back. But that's all the trigger that's needed for young Wilson to kill his father. And he beats him to death with the toy. He sits down fully composed. Establishes the small, inconsequential things that can set off young Wilson (and the Kingpin). How violence, even against his father, is a solution to the most mundane problem.

Challenge: Make Marlene's choices understandable.

5. His mother protects him.
His mother, horrified, Bill's fear transferring to her, still helps to cover up the crime to protect her son. Establish link between young Wilson and his mother. One that will endure until they are much older. 

Challenge: Make bond understandable.


In the end making the young Wilson a demon creates a scarier villain for the hero to face. Sadly, the creators of DAREDEVIL took the more obvious approach.


Gavin Lees said...

The Kingpin is Eric Cartman. That... makes a whole lot of sense.

Unknown said...


stefano gaudiano said...

interesting article. it sounds like you have your own story to tell, which is always a good thing. i don't think a better formula can make stories less formulaic or ultimately less dull. the actor sank his teeth into the role like Kirby drawing the hell out of whatever.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Stefano. I'm a big fan of your work.

I agree there isn't a magic formula for telling stories. But there are common themes to successful stories, like musical notes or chords. I found some of the Kingpin character decisions to be too easy and common.

I do enjoy Vincent D'onofrio's work. I don't think this performance was his best, but he certainly looked the part.