Despite the MCU’s attempts at replicating the long-running stories of the comics, supervillains tend to not last very long. It’s a tradition in movies dating back to the ’90s era of Batman inevitably dropping the bad guy off a roof before the credits rolled, something not even Marvel’s interconnectedness can seem to fix. And even those in the MCU that do regularly reoccur, like Thanos and Loki, are either built up over time or flip-flop their allegiances.
The biggest outlier to this rule, though, remains Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin. As portrayed in heated, idiosyncratic fashion by the wonderful Vincent D’Onofrio, the Kingpin has been around the MCU for almost a decade, and a lot of that is due to D’Onofrio’s effortless ability to apply his talents and the character’s own attributes to whatever best fits a certain series.
Wilson Fisk might be D’Onofrio’s magnum opus when it comes to his mastery of a kind of unhinged, striking physicality. The most famous example is his performance as the tragic Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence in Full Metal Jacket, a man who is slowly torn apart by the pressures of boot camp and ends up a haunted, murderous shell of himself. There’s also the manic, bug-infested Edgar in Men in Black and Conan the Barbarian creator (and amateur boxer/weightlifter) Robert Howard in The Whole Wide World, an underseen performance that D’Onofrio plays with electric pathos. He often plays a man swinging against the world, and he can do this in both comedy and introspective drama with ease. As Fisk, he constantly wrestles with himself (and everyone else). Few characters are as comfortable grasping desperately for familial ties, expressing boyish vulnerability, controlling an urban landscape, or beating a man to death with their bare hands as D’Onofrio’s Fisk.
All of this would come in handy in the original Netflix Daredevil series, a show that used Fisk and the titular hero as dual emotional backbones. But it’s perhaps Fisk that carries the widest spectrum of the show’s core on his broad shoulders — Daredevil, which would go on to introduce the Punisher in its second season, asked, “How do we struggle with human nature and what will we show the world for it?” Fisk embodied this question every step of the way. Fisk doesn’t want to be a hero, but he does have a moral code of sorts that leaves him forever at odds with his path.
It demands a lot of him, especially in a genre that tends to wrap up narratives either with a slam-bang special effects set-piece or (in the case of Daredevil) a brutal fight sequence. But D’Onofrio, rather than treat these as the expected dessert for a storytelling meal, is able to further channel Fisk into satisfying bull-in-a-china-shop rage. He bellows in simultaneous agony and fury, a man who knows that he’s never quite learned to control his most chaotic instincts and hasn’t made peace with the knowledge, either.
His handling of the intricacies of violence were matched by his ability to deliver it in outsized fashion. D’Onofrio returned to play Fisk in the last episodes of Hawkeye, a series that was removed from the little Marvel corner that he’d played with on Netflix and shoved into the building blocks of the MCU. Here Fisk was no less complicated, but — considering the higher stakes of a franchise that had just wrapped up a battle with a space warlord — he had to up the cartoonishness of his abilities a bit to fit his final-boss form.
But thanks to D’Onofrio, even surviving a car crash and an explosion feels at least a little grounded, so tied is the Kingpin’s monstrous strength into his frenzied (and sometimes even relatable) aspiration. With some villains, one must dig deep to find what unites them to wider humanity. Fisk wears it on his swinging sleeves. The tone is a bit more hopeful and fantastical than the gritty Daredevil, but D’Onofrio never lets his part descend into absurdity. (Few actors could look as terrifying in a white suit and bright Hawaiian shirt.)
His portrayal doesn’t come out of nowhere; D’Onofrio has been thoughtful about his approach and open about his embrace of the comic book source material. One can find shades of his performance in comics across time, whether it’s in the character’s megalomaniacal, physically overwhelming early days or his lovelorn saga in the ’80s, when he’d fully transitioned from being a B-list Spider-Man foe to an A-list thorn in Daredevil’s side. D’Onofrio’s domineering grace amid bursts of outrage even seems a bit reminiscent of his role in the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon, where the Kingpin had his hands in absolutely everything, no matter how outlandish or complex. And when his animosity bubbles over, it’s easy to recall the Kingpin of the nascent Ultimate Spider-Man comics and the distressing ease in which he’d switch to depravity and rushing violence.
This spectrum of physicality, personality, and comic book faithfulness do D’Onofrio well as he stars in Echo, a series with much more bloodletting than we’re used to seeing on the Disney Plus MCU offerings. And Wilson Fisk is in fine form, assuming the status of patriarch in a way that is both unpredictable and oddly heartwarming. But he is, of course, still the Kingpin, which means that even his noblest intentions (as we sometimes saw in Daredevil) can be undercut by his desire for control and his inability to express himself in a way that isn’t caving someone’s skull in. And considering what the actor has said about the upcoming Daredevil: Born Again, we can expect more in this vein there.
The MCU’s finest villains (Killmonger and Vulture, just to name a few) are characters with motivations that we understand — and could possibly even relate to. And one can easily add D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk to that list. By crafting such a three-dimensional persona and turning the knob up on a few key facets, he’s able to tackle anything thrown his way, emotionally or narratively. The Kingpin might never be able to totally rule New York City, but he’s definitely able to run anything the MCU throws at him.
Echo is now streaming on Disney Plus and Hulu.