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Daredevil – Shadows in the Glass (Review)

To celebrate the launch of Marvel’s Daredevil and the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are reviewing all thirteen episodes of the first season of Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Much like Stick, Shadows in the Glass emphasises the relatively episodic nature of Daredevil.

If Stick was “the mystical ninja tie-in episode”, then Shadows in the Glass is the obligatory “villain episode.” This is evident in the choice to open with a teaser dedicated to the morning routine of Wilson Fisk. It is a nice structural choice to repeat the sequence two more times, once at the midpoint and once towards the end. The second iteration of the sequence plays much the same as the first, but the third version plays out with both Wilson Fisk and Vanessa Marianna, suggesting that Fisk is no longer as alone as he claimed to be in Rabbit in a Snowstorm.

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Daredevil is a show that really does take advantage of its format to flesh out and develop the world of Matthew Murdock. It would have been easy to structure Daredevil as a simply thirteen-hour origin story with a reasonably high budget. However, the show capitalises on the extra space afforded to a thirteen-episode season. None of the Marvel films could afford to devote fifty minutes of character development to the antagonist, and even Loki has never been given as much narrative attention as Fisk. (Only Michael Fassbender’s Magneto can compete with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Fisk.)

Shadows in the Glass provides Wilson Fisk with a supervillain origin story very clearly designed to mirror that of Matt Murdock.

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There are a lot of reasons why this is a good idea. The most obvious is that Vincent D’Onofrio is a fantastic performer, and giving the actor more material is always a good thing. D’Onofrio’s performance as Fisk is absolutely fantastic, pitched perfectly between a very grounded and human character and something altogether more iconic and heightened. In particular, there are extended monologues in both Condemned and Daredevil that only really work because Vincent D’Onofrio is delivering them.

However, it also takes advantage of the format of the season. Fisk made a vocal cameo in Into the Ring, but was only properly introduced in the closing minute of Rabbit in a Snowstorm. The joys of having thirteen hours to tell a story – particularly thirteen hours produced and released as a single block – is that there is room for extended set-up and pay-off. The series can delay the introduction of Wilson Fisk without sacrificing any character development, because there is time to do that later.

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There is also the fact that Wilson Fisk is just a compelling character in his own right, and that a story based around Wilson Fisk makes a great deal of sense – structurally – at this point in the year. We are pushing into the final stretch of a thirteen-episode run, and the final five episodes will heighten and stress the conflict between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. Reinforcing Fisk’s humanity this point of the story helps add weight to Matt’s soul-searching in Speak of the Devil. A complex and multifaceted villain is infinitely more fascinating than a cardboard cut-out.

For all that Wilson Fisk has become a character indelibly and undeniably associated with the larger Daredevil mythos, it is interesting to note that he was a relatively late arrival to character’s selection of foes. Daredevil originally had a more conventional collection of supervillains, including characters like the Owl or Gladiator or Angar the Screamer or the Matador or the Purple Man. These were created as stock silver age villains, but it is telling that the characters who endured as part of the Daredevil mythos tended to go through darker and grittier reimaginings.

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After all, the Purple Man created by Stan Lee and Joe Orlando arguably bears only a superficial resemblance to the version Brian Michael Bendis wrote into his celebrated Alias run. It seems quite likely that version of the Purple Man played by David Tennant in AKA Jessica Jones will owe his characterisation more to the latter than the former. Certainly, the versions of the villains featured in the first season of Daredevil tend to skew more towards the low-key and gritty, as opposed to flamboyant and theatrical.

The first season of Daredevil features characters like Wilson Fisk, Leland Owlsley and Melvin Potter – but never refers to them as “the Kingpin”, “the Owl” or “Gladiator.” It emphasises the more grounded aesthetic of the show. And it is not necessarily definitive. This is, of course, only the first season of the show. More than that, the show slyly includes all sorts of affectionate easter eggs. Shadows in the Glass alone includes Melvin Potter’s buzz saw blades and Leland Owlsley’s green suit. Later shots of the shop include a pair of dictinctive stilts.

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Still, it seems unlike that Daredevil will ever work up a way to include Stilt Man, perhaps the most wonderfully silly member of Matt Murdock’s rogues’ gallery. Wilbur Day is something of a joke, the embodiment of an innocence that has long since bled out of the pages of Daredevil. Since Frank Miller’s iconic run on the character, these colourful supervillains have been forced out of the title or forced to become a lot more hardcore. With the notable exception of Mark Waid’s recent run, the world of Daredevil has tended towards the dark and gritty.

The character of Wilson Fisk might be indelibly associated with Daredevil, but that is not where he began. The character was created by Stan Lee and John Romita Jr. in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man. Although Fisk occasionally wades into the world of Peter Parker, he always felt a little out of place against the backdrop of iconic foes like the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. Wilson Fisk was grafted in Daredevil only a few months after Frank Miller took over the writing of the title, but he has remained in place.

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In the documentary Men Without Fear, Frank Miller recalls the reaction he received on asking to take the character of the Kingpin away from The Amazing Spider-Man:

I’d been writing Daredevil for a few months when I told them that I wanted to steal the Kingpin away from Spider-Man. That was risible at Marvel. Who the hell wants the Kingpin? He was the Jackie Gleason of super-villains. He might as well have been called “Fat Man”, because most of what he did was he was used his belly to fight Spider-Man. He was not known as the most brilliant achievement of the Stan Lee regime, okay? He was just what I needed, because I needed a gang lord.

Miller recalls how a conversation with John Byrne inspired the transition from John Romita’s version of the Kingpin to Frank Miller’s new and updated version within three panels at the end of that first issue.

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Fisk is a fascinating character in his own right. He is very much a product of his environment, just like Matt Murdock. He is presented as a character who has repeatedly (under the pen of both Frank Miller and Ed Brubaker) tried to escape from his life of crime, only to find himself drawn back in. Miller and Brubaker hint at a man who is trying to be better than his nature, but who is unable to completely escape his circumstances. Wilson Fisk will always be something of a monster, no matter how hard he tries not to be.

Steven DeKnight and Vincent D’Onofrio build on this idea, with Shadows in the Glass featuring a character desperately trying to convince himself that he is a civilised man. After telling Vanessa about the murder of his father, Fisk draws attention to the cufflinks he wears every single day. “That’s why I still wear these. To remind myself that I’m not cruel for the sake of cruelty! That I’m not my father! That I’m not a monster!” That seems to account for a large part of Fisk’s daily rituals.

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Whether it’s the classical music playing in the background, the omelette or the fine suits, Fisk repeatedly asserts his own humanity and civility. No matter where the day takes him, no matter how it plays out, Fisk at least starts the day as a refined and cultured gentleman. It is a lie, but it is no greater a lie than that told by Matt Murdock. Matt represses his own anger and violence beneath the smooth exterior of an educated lawyer; Matt externalises that violence to the point where he dresses entirely in black and wages a one-man war on crime.

Fisk is a man who plots to bend the city to his will. He is presented as something akin to a force of nature. In In the Blood, Vladimir suggests that Fisk prohibits people from using his name as an attempt to build himself into something more than a mere man. It might be true. Daredevil repeatedly suggests that both the protagonist and antagonist are victims in their own ways. Perhaps both Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk are ultimately products of the urban environment. Perhaps they simply embody and express different facets of the city.

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Steven DeKnight has been quite candid about the influences on the show. Frank Miller was obviously an inspiration, but the show also drew from the work of Brian Michael Bendis:

We drew our spiritual inspiration from the Frank Miller run and the Bendis run. We pulled a lot from elsewhere, but those two, for me, were the big influences of the tone we wanted to capture. I’m a huge Frank Miller fan and a gigantic Bendis fan — I’m very excited for Jessica Jones, because I think that Alias is one of the great graphic novels, just one of the greatest I’ve ever read. I love Bendis’ work, and I loved his run on Daredevil. It was so different for a comic book.

The influence of Brian Michael Bendis’ iconic run on Daredevil is arguably felt in the way that the show compares and contrasts Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk.

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Bendis seemed to suggest that Wilson Fisk was not necessarily a unique individual. He seemed to posit that there had to be a Kingpin, but it did not have to be Fisk. During his Golden Age arc, Bendis wondered who had held that role in Hell’s Kitchen before Wilson Fisk:

Knowing everything I know about organized crime, having studied it for so many years, I became aware that there would be an arc of organized crime that happened before Wilson Fisk. It couldn’t just be Wilson Fisk. 

Or let’s say he birthed himself out of Lucky Luciano or Bugsy Siegel. There would still be people in between those two that would be just as interesting, if not more interesting. And then there’s the Fixer, who was with Daredevil in the origin, and you start putting a tapestry together of organized crime within the Marvel Universe. And in those years you add a chapter.

Bendis posited that role of “Kingpin” had to exist outside of Wilson Fisk. So he crafted a whole tapestry of continuity suggesting that Fisk was simply heir apparent to the title. More than that, Bendis suggested that there had to be a “Kingpin”, to the point where Matt declared himself “Kingpin” in the Hardcore arc.

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Bendis really hammered home the idea that Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk were really not that different underneath it all. Of course, Matt has an infinitely stronger moral code than Wilson Fisk, but the characters are firmly intertwined and interlinked. The anger and violence that drive Matt Murdock are not so distinct from the forces that drive Wilson Fisk. Bendis never suggested that Fisk saw himself as the hero of his own narrative in the same way that this iteration of the character clearly does, but the similarities are clear.

Much like Steven DeKnight does across the first season, Bendis made a point to parallel the arcs of Wilson Fisk and Matt Murdock. Both characters saw their lives collapse around them, trying to claw their way back from a catastrophic loss. Bendis suggested repeatedly that both characters were co-dependent and intertwined. His first arc, Underboss, drew attention to the delicate status quo that existed between them. His last arc, The Murdock Papers, ended with both characters in the same place.

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There are obvious traces of Bendis’ version of the character to be found in Vincent D’Onofrio’s interpretation of the character. In Hardcore, Fisk advises Agent Driver that men like him built this city:

This city was literally built by my people. Brick by blood soaked brick. And decade after decade the city screams at you that it cannot function financially without men… just like me. The city is structured socially, politically, economically around us. Through us. Because of us. What I am telling you is that when you finally do understand this… your life will become a lot less stressful.

It is a sentiment that feels quite close to the version of Fisk presented by the show. Vincent D’Onofrio never utters a monologue quite like that, but it is easy to imagine him saying something similar in later seasons.

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The series hints at this idea a couple of times. It is suggested that both Matt and Fisk are products of their environment, reflections of a brutal urban environment that shaped and molded them into who they wanted to be. Tending to his wounds at the start of The Path of the Righteous, Claire advises Matt, “You told me you were the man this city needs. I think that was only half true. I think you’re also the man this city created… for better or worse.” The statement is just at true of Fisk.

It lends a certain undeniable tragedy to the character, inviting the audience to wonder if there was another world where Wilson Fisk enjoyed a happy life. In In the Blood, Fisk explained to Vanessa that he simply could not stay away from New York. “I realized that this city was a part of me, that it was in my blood,” he confesses to her. It is a revelation that makes a great deal of sense, one that alludes to the grand tragedies of the comic book character. Both Frank Miller and Ed Brubaker suggested the great tragedy of Wilson Fisk was his inability to leave New York behind.

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Brubaker admitted a fondness for the character, arguing, “He’s one of the greatest modern villains, I think, a real Shakespearian-level character.” Shades of Brubaker’s take on the character can be seen in Shadows in the Glass, particularly the portrayal of Fisk’s childhood. Wilson Fisk is clearly a character in which executive producer Steven DeKnight is deeply interested and invested; Shadows in the Glass is the only episode of Daredevil that is exclusively credited to DeKnight’s pen, with the exception of the season finalé.

Shadows in the Glass suggests that Fisk is ultimately a victim of the same sorts of traumas that resonate throughout Daredevil. The show has rather cleverly set up a lot of the information revealed in Shadows in the Glass. Once again, there is a wonderful sense of internal consistency to all of this. Fisk’s conversations with Vanessa in episodes like In the Blood and World on Fire all fit quite comfortably with what Shadows in the Glass reveals about the life and times of Wilson Fisk.

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Daredevil has done a nice job comparing and contrasting its two leads. The show has only rarely wandered into the rhetorical quagmire of the “slippery slope” argument, accepting massive differences in methodology and morality. However, the series has repeatedly suggested that the two characters have more in common with one another than they would care to admit. The flashbacks to Fisk’s childhood in Shadows in the Glass very consciously mirror those to Matt’s childhood in Into the Ring and Cut Man – right down to the first tasting of an alcoholic beverage.

Even Wesley seems to be a mirror to Foggy – a business colleague who becomes a close personal friend, and then makes himself complicit in the schemes and lies. Wesley seems to genuinely care about Fisk, as his actions and dialogue in The Path of the Righteous suggest. He is not simply a paid stooge, he is true believer. Even in Shadows in the Glass, he seems to take offense on Fisk’s behalf when Nobu makes all sorts of crude threats. “I just… I don’t like the way he speaks to you, that’s all.”

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There is something surprisingly tender in the interactions between Fisk and Wesley. The show portrays their relationship as genuinely loving. In In the Blood, Wesley offers Fisk a handkerchief before wiping the blood from his own face. In World on Fire, Fisk identifies Wesley as “a friend” to Vanessa. In Shadows in the Glass, Wesley recognises that Fisk needs Vanessa by his side. In Nelson v. Murdock, Fisk’s associates point to Vanessa as something that makes Fisk week; Wesley cares enough about Fisk to recognise that she makes him happy.

The existence of Wesley does a lot to legitimise Fisk. Wesley is understated and stoic. He is not cruel. In Into the Ring, he admits to a distaste for brutality even as he uses the threat of such violence as leverage. If Wesley can buy into Fisk’s vision of Hell’s Kitchen, the audience is more likely to accept it. Vanessa might be lured by the promise of power and the strength of will, but Wesley seems more level-headed. He humanises Fisk in a very interesting and nuanced way, suggesting an unquestioning love for and trust in his employer.

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There are a host of differences, of course. While Matt Murdock lost both of his father figures, Wilson Fisk knows exactly where his father went. Most notably, Fisk seems to consciously avoid the advice given by his father. “You want something out of life, you gotta put yourself out there,” his father insists. However, when Fisk ceases control of his criminal empire, he insists on keeping himself to the shadows. His employees refuse to speak his name, under penalty of death. Fisk has managed to keep himself to himself. While Matt did what his father wanted, Fisk did not.

While Matt Murdock is arguably defined by his absent father figures (both Jack Murdock and Stick), Wilson Fisk seems to concentrate his attention on more maternal influences. He is drawn to Vanessa’s passion and independence, and he seems to genuinely respect Madame Gao much more than any of his other associates. It is telling that Fisk does not manoeuvre Gao to her death in the way that he does with the other members of his motley crew. Both Vanessa and Gao reinforce the advice given by Fisk’s mother – telling him to do what needs to be done.

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It is interesting that Fisk is shown to be so deferential towards these major female characters. If there is a larger structural problem with the first season of Daredevil, it is that the female characters feel a little under-developed and lacking in agency. The series has interesting female characters in major players like Karen Page or Vanessa Marianna or Madame Gao or Claire Temple. However, these characters never seem to be afforded the same dramatic weight or power given to characters like Matt Murdock or Wilson Fisk or Stick.

It is not a major problem, because the show is cast very well and most of the primary cast does get developed over the course of the run. At the same time, it is something that might be worth looking at going forward. It is reassuring that AKA Jessica Jones and Luke Cage will be headlined by characters who are not white men. The Marvel cinematic universe has been rather slow to accept diversity and difference; it is nice to see that the various Netflix miniseries are a lot more willing to break that particular mold.

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Deborah Ann Woll often feels under-served by the material on Daredevil, with Shadows in the Glass once again mirroring her trauma with that of the more major characters. Woll always gives the show her best, but it can often feel like the Karen and Foggy subplots exist to buy time and thematically mirror the more meaty material given to characters like Matt or Fisk. The show does eventually figure out how to give Karen her own arc in the final stretch, but there is something quite perfunctory about how the series treats her character for most of the run.

Once again, Karen refuses to let herself be defined by her victimhood. When Urich suggests that the could simply let it all go, she rejects the idea immediately. “No, I have already been hurt by those bastards. You know, I don’t care what I signed or how much money they paid me to forget. I don’t. And I’m not just going to stick my head in the sand and let it happen to somebody else because I am scared. Which I am… a lot.” As with the rest of the season, Shadows in the Glass emphasises that it is up to the victim (and no one else) to decide when they have recovered.

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Shadows in the Glass does continue the show’s attempts to update Frank Miller’s distinctly eighties atmosphere of urban decay for the twenty-first century. Urich’s grand exposé about Wilson Fisk is firmly grounded in the rhetoric of the current recession, playing up images of economic disparities and political protection. For all that the show is set in a version of Hell’s Kitchen that has not actually existed for quite some time, Daredevil is very much a television show rooted in the consequences and legacies of 9/11.

When Urich talks about the fatigue that has set in, he muses, “Maybe it’s just the shadow of weariness. Of how tired we are, struggling to claw our way back to a middle class that no longer exist, because of those who take more than they deserve. And they keep taking, until all that’s left for the rest of us is a memory of how it used to be before the corporations and the bottom line decided we didn’t matter anymore.” It is very much a narrative framed in terms of current debates about how political and economic power is divided in contemporary society.

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In The Path of the Righteous, Karen references Fisk and his allies as a bunch of “one percenters”, while Wesley seems aggravated that Karen will not silently endure all the suffering heaped upon her. It is too much to suggest that Daredevil is a compelling examination of contemporary American society, but the show is clever in its use of modern issues and anxieties as the backdrop to what is essentially a classic pulp narrative. The first season of Daredevil might have easily been written as set in the eighties, but setting it in the here and now gives it a nice resonance.

There is also something quite clever in the way that Shadows in the Glass subverts a lot of the “good, honest reporter” tropes that have been accruing around Urich since his first appearance in Rabbit in a Snowstorm. Urich’s earliest appearances seemed almost romantic and nostalgic in their portrayals of the media. Even when Urich turned up at the siege in Condemned, it seemed like the show was suggesting that one good and honest reporter could change an entire city with nothing but his integrity and a notepad.

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It is a classic cliché, one rooted in the idea that the press exist as guardians of liberty. It is very much a familiar story, and it is nice that Daredevil ultimately subverts that narrative in a number of cruel and cynical ways. Shadows in the Glass has a final act very similar to The Ones We Leave Behind, with Urich on the cusp of a breakthrough before he is tragically and brutally undercut by Wilson Fisk. It seems that one man sitting behind a computer might not be enough to save the city, no matter how much integrity he might have.

Cleverly, Shadows in the Glass subverts the pithy and insightful voice-over media coverage that frequently wraps up stories like this in a neat little bow. For all that Urich is prepared to skewer Fisk, he finds his own tools used against him. Fisk exposes himself to the world, making a grand public announcement. Fisk even uses many of the same words and phrases that Urich constructed. It seems that talk is cheap; rhetoric is just a tool that can be harnessed and manipulated. Urich can use that tool for good, but Fisk can exploit it.

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Shadows in the Glass also introduces Ben Urich to “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.” The scene between the two is very atmospheric, and betrays another comic book influence from the writing staff. As Steven DeKnight has acknowledged, the show was not just inspired by the scripting of classic Daredevil stories:

It goes to character, character, character. While we didn’t pick any specific storyline from any of the runs on Daredevil, we definitely were spiritually influenced, me especially, largely by Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis’s run with Alex Maleev.  

We were also very much influenced by Alex Maleev’s art — we looked at that and said that’s the look of the show. I mean, that really captures it.

The show’s visual design owes a lot to the artwork of artists like Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. However, Alex Maleev is a very clear influence on the look and feel of the series, with his scratchy artwork perfectly fitting the noir aesthetic. One need only look at a panel of Maleev drawing rain to see the similiarities.

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With Shadows in the Glass, the first season of Daredevil begins to move towards what is clearly an end game for the show. The second half of the season is properly underway, and affording an episode to Wilson Fisk helps to align everything before the show starts properly building towards its finalé.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Daredevil:

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