The Kingpin, for the first few episodes of the Netflix Daredevil series, exists completely in shadow.
Warning: This article will contain Daredevil spoilers
The criminal underworld doesn't even say his name. He exists as a legend, a boogeyman, someone who sees everything and pulls all the strings. The audience learns he's a scary guy with almost supernatural control over the streets.
When a random thug gives Matt Murdock the name "Wilson Fisk," his immediate and unthinking impulse is to kill himself in the worst way possible. Headbanging your way onto a metal spike is more tolerable than whatever the Kingpin will do to him, after all.
Then the reveal of our big bad happens directly after. Vanessa, the art dealer, begins their conversation with a joke at the expense of modern art. Once he says he's an interested buyer? The sell begins. The dialog here isn't that special, but his response to the question of how the piece makes him feel instantly creates an entire character in your head:
"It makes me feel alone."
This is an old trope
The idea of the civilized crime boss, the one who is refined and soft spoken as a contrast to his brutality in business, is an old one. Vincent D'Onofrio is amazing in the role because he takes it a step further. It's not just a matter of a monster who also knows how to make an amazing omelette in a well-appointed apartment. The Kingpin is a deeply troubled individual, and he doesn't do a very good job of hiding it when he's forced to deal with people directly.
An interesting question: Do we buy the idea that he wants to wake up from nightmares every morning looking at something that reminds him of one of the most traumatic moments of his life? The painting's connection to his past is interesting, and explains how scared he sounds in his first scene, but I'm not sure it makes sense once you sit down and think about it.
His voice is small, and it always sounds like he's struggling to catch his breath. There's a sort of childlike vulnerability to him, mixed with his obvious power in the criminal underworld. My favorite scene of this season takes place in a nice restaurant where Fisk and Vanessa are enjoying a dinner that is obviously going well. She's attracted to him; he's not just open and direct with his feelings but he's also a man of taste and means.
That's an incredibly potent combination if you want someone to take care of while wanting to be taken care of yourself. The show does a wonderful job of allowing the relationship to grow in a natural way, while helping the viewer understand what they see in each other. She's attracted to his control, and power, and their mutual affection is horrifying and comforting, in turns.
Then someone interrupts the dinner, and Fisk becomes Kingpin. We find out that almost everyone in the restaurant is an armed guard, and the scene has been carefully staged to both protect him and make the environment feel natural. They're not having a quiet dinner together, they're inside a sort of criminal Air Force One he was able to create for those few hours.
The depth of his rage at being embarrassed in that way finds an immediate victim, and Fisk responds by literally removing the Russian's head, using a car door. This won't be the last time we see Fisk lose control, but when it happens again it will be for a similar reason: because he fears that he's lost the respect of a woman.
Erudite villains are often depicted as having nominal respect for women — as non-combatants in their mob war, for example — that is eventually revealed to be rooted in casual sexism. Sexism is bad, but to twin it with "evil" characters too often allows a viewer to distance themselves from the idea that they might sometimes be casually sexist — and that the story's hero might be casually sexist — as much as the viewer distances themselves from the idea that they might be "evil."
Fisk's attitude and reverence towards Vanessa and Madame Gao is one thing, his clear, intense desire to be respected and trusted in return is another. In moments when he realizes he might lose that respect, his anger is not directed towards them (as his father's often was), but toward the people who have actually put him in that situation. Daredevil clearly, refreshingly establishes that Fisk doesn't simply value women, but also their opinion.
This shift from refined man of taste to thug has, again, been done more than once in film and television. It's D'Onofrio's subtle way of making Fisk seem like three kids hiding behind a trench coat that makes the character so interesting. He often sounds like he's about to cry, or scream, and that aspect of his vocal performance mixed with his imposing physical presence gives the viewer a sense that he's drowning within himself.
He also lets himself known to the world at just the right time, attacking Murdock's credibility while building up his own. Up until the first press conference we get the feeling he might be a Howard Hughes-style recluse, that his inability to appear in front of people may be a weakness instead of a strength.
That may in fact be the case, but his ability to get over that fear in order to advance his position makes him even scarier. It's worth remembering that many people fear public speaking more than they fear death; a man who can fight his own phobias so effectively is way more interesting that someone who simply knows how to pick up a gun.
It also adds another layer to his relationship with Vanessa; that press conference may have been one of the hardest things he's had to do, and it's her hand he reaches for during his speech.
Marvel has finally created a villain that's as fun to watch as its heroes
It's also worth pointing out that it seems through most of the series that Fisk's master plan is more or less simple gentrification ... helped by the use of ninjas and organized crime. When you look at the history of what was happening in New York when Daredevil was being written, this was a very real threat in these neighborhoods. In the show it's happening in the crater of an alien invasion, but his plan to "clean up the city" has historical precedent, and is rooted in real-world violence. He's not after an ancient artifact of power, he's just a well-heeled mob boss trying to make some cash.
The show is smart in that it lets us know Fisk is hurting, it defines the source of that hurt while reminding us that this man is still a monster. The best villains are the ones who could sit down with you over a glass of good wine and make a halfway decent argument about why they're the good guys.
Fisk could do that very well, and the fact the doesn't try to puff himself up is just another small detail that helps keep the character feel fresh. He could have lied and pretended that he knew wine during his date with Vanessa but instead he spins his glass to add air to the wine, takes a deep smell, tastes it, deems it acceptable ... and then admits that his assistant picked it out.
Marvel's films appear bulletproof at the box office, but one of the few weaknesses of the cinematic universe is the utter lack of interesting villains. Loki is the best known, and most fun, bad guy Marvel has put on the big screen, but Wilson Fisk is one of the most interesting aspects of Daredevil. Marvel has finally created a villain that's as fun to watch as its heroes, and surprise! It happened on television.