Over the course of its ten-year march to pop culture hegemony, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has accomplished a lot of absolutely amazing things. Superhero stories are popular right now, and even casual viewers are familiar with concepts like chaos magic, many universes, and Infinity Stones. The MCU still faces challenges in a number of the crucial areas that make comic book stories so captivating, despite its numerous achievements. It still does a pretty poor job of depicting love tales, and it has a lot of female characters that it often struggles to know what to do with. One of the most annoying things about the franchise is that it still has such pathetic villains.
Of course, not every villain can be Thanos, but the appearance of figures like Killmonger from Black Panther, Mysterio from Spider-Man: Far From Home, and Wenwu from Shang-Chi are all unquestionably significant upgrades over earlier, simpler villains who merely desired to rule the world or eliminate Tony Stark for whatever reason. However, the majority of Marvel’s villains aren’t particularly compelling as personalities in and of themselves. Alternatively, if they are, the franchise is eager to recast them into a nicer, more approachable version: In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, former terrorist Helmut Zemo turned into a cute, dancing internet meme, and Loki and Agatha Harkness each have their own Disney+ shows thanks to their respective accomplishments in the Avengers movies and WandaVision.
So let’s be clear: Wilson Fisk, a former Daredevil antagonist played by Vincent D’Onofrio, officially joining the MCU in Hawkeye is nothing short of a gift. Fisk is one of the most emotionally complicated and complex characters in the entire franchise. He was simultaneously unrepentantly violent and terribly lonely, intensely anxious and dangerously possessive. Despite all of his weaknesses, he is a really relatable character and the kind of villain you could almost imagine supporting in the appropriate situation. One of the best love stories in the MCU is his romance with art dealer Vanessa Marianna, and his lengthy monologues about seeking better for his city often come across as sincere rather than egotistical. In essence, there’s a reason why fans have yearned for his comeback ever since the four Netflix Marvel programmes were cancelled in 2018.
But there’s also a good reason why they advise you to be selective in what you hope for. Yes, Hawkeye brought D’Onofrio’s Fisk back, for which I am really glad, but it’s difficult not to view his return in this context as a missed opportunity. Sure, Fisk is now dressed in a more “comics correct” manner, which should satisfy the more ardent MCU fans who grumbled about how long it took to bring him his iconic white suit in Daredevil. (Just so you know, this awful Hawaiian shirt combo is straight out of Amazing Spider-Man: Family Business.) However, from a narrative standpoint, it primarily seems as though Disney is relying on viewers’ familiarity with the Netflix series to give Fisk’s presence the emotional weight it lacks on the current screen. (Or, more specifically, any sum greater than zero.)
True, we aren’t certain if this Wilson Fisk is the same as the one we last saw in Hell’s Kitchen just yet. (However, D’Onofrio seems to believe that they are the same person, and the ending has several hints that support this.) Even if this is a soft reboot of the character, Hawkeye still seems to be missing the crucial elements that made Daredevil fans love the character in the first place.
The lack of time is a part of the issue here. There isn’t much room to introduce Wilson Fisk as anything more than the most basic kind of Big Bad because Hawkeye only has six episodes and there are a good half a dozen other plots to wrap up, including Yelena’s grief-fueled vendetta against her dead sister’s BFF, Eleanor Bishop’s decision to frame her poor dumb fiance, and the revelation that Laura Barton is a former SHIELD agent. He thereby gives the impression of being a low-class Mafia don with trite aspirations of greatness and an inadequately explained capacity to withstand explosions. The three-minute speeches in which D’Onofrio almost convinced you to support Fisk’s idea of a better New York have been replaced with blink and you’ll miss it moments. The only reminder of the fractured personal history that shapes him as who he is is the reappearance of the father’s cufflinks.
Even if Fisk is now ostensibly Maya’s “uncle” or whatever, viewers know very little about her and are unlikely to be interested in her tale until her spin-off, Echo, debuts. As a result, it doesn’t really matter much. Maybe this wasn’t the right time to introduce a character to people who didn’t watch Daredevil in the first place? especially since “So This is Christmas?” lacked the opportunity to adequately explain to new viewers why Fisk was such an intriguing and distinct antagonist in the first place, especially for the Marvel universe? Who among those indifferent viewers cares whether Fisk dies or not at the end of the episode? He doesn’t seem to be particularly important to any grander story this universe might be telling. And the reason for this is that Hawkeye never gave the guy a sense that he really cared.
The fact that Hawkeye is a Disney+ series means that it will never be as willing to explore dark or challenging issues as Daredevil was, which is the second problem. (This show finds it difficult to acknowledge that Clint’s decision to disguise himself as a dark ninja and murder people for five years was wrong, much less that he might need to make amends or atone.) If Hawkeye had been able to hold on to the deeper emotional notions that sequence implies, the Fisk who beheaded a man with a car door on Netflix is probably long gone.
Fisk is shown in Daredevil as a villain who manipulates and kills people with little to no regret. However, his savagery is directly related to his own anxieties, and his emotional motivations—including his love for Vanessa and his fear of embarrassing himself in front of others—are what drive him most. But during his presence in Hawkeye, there is little indication of this nuanced duality; at best, Fisk’s motivations are straightforward, and more often than not, he comes off as a weirdly cartoonish physical danger—a massive physical threat with scant regard for the inner. And this character deserves better than that, not to mention the viewers.
Of course, there is every reason to believe that Fisk’s entrance back into the MCU will ultimately be successful. The franchise would be able to embrace the darker and more complex facets of his character if it took a turn toward a more tonally suitable property (like, say, Echo). Watching him battle a freshly introduced twenty-something woman would be a vast improvement over giving him a more suitable foe like Charlie Cox’s recently reintroduced Matt Murdock. The Kingpin might regain his former level of complexity as a villain by delving deeper into who he is now, whether that is adding elements from Daredevil or even examining what happened to him after Thanos’ Snap.
Marvel wants foes for its heroes in an universe without Thanos that are not just strong and dangerous but also compelling personalities in their own right. As the old saying goes, a good villain is nothing more than someone who sees themselves as the hero of their own story, and no MCU antagonist has lived up to that description more than Fisk did – here’s hoping he can do it again.
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