No villain ever thinks they’re a villain. Not in real life. And yet that doesn’t keep the annals of pop culture from overflowing with diabolical mustache-twiddlers, baddies who revel in how downright evil they are. That might work in a self-aware parody like Dudley Do-Right, but in a superhero yarn, a one-dimensional evildoer can make the story more cartoonish and heavy-handed than it already is.
The creators of Daredevil have mostly avoided this trap, proving they know how to portray a villain in the most complex terms imaginable with Wilson Fisk. Granted, they’ve maybe explained the origins of his character a little too much at times, but they’ve always been concerned with why a terrible person is terrible, not just the misdeeds themselves. And that alone elevates Daredevil above pretty much every other entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In “The Path Of The Righteous,” writers Douglas Petrie and Steven S. DeKnight—each of whom penned a daddy-issue episode with “Stick” and “Shadows In The Glass,” respectively—extend the principle of the nuanced villain to several characters other than Fisk. And while we don’t get an entire back-story for each person, we gain further insight into what makes them tick, or at least why they’ve aligned themselves with the darker powers of Hell’s Kitchen.
First, there’s Wesley, who, as portrayed by Toby Leonard Moore, has so far conveyed cold pragmatism as Fisk’s right-hand man. But here, we see him show actual concern for the well-being of Vanessa Marianna—induced into a coma so she can recover from her poisoning in last week’s episode. The camera spends a good long time on him commiserating with a distraught Fisk in the hospital waiting room. Allowing small furrows of anxiety to crack the surface of Wesley’s placid face, Moore convinces you that Wesley desperately wants Vanessa to pull through, not because he’s afraid of Fisk going on a rampage in the event of her death, but because he actually cares for his boss and doesn’t want to see him hurt. Fisk himself shows further romantic depth when he insists that Vanessa be taken far away from him if she survives, as to prevent any further harm to her.
While watching “The Path Of The Righteous,” I tried to think of another comic adaptation that features such lengthy, poignant scene-work from two of its villains. Where else have we witnessed a sequence like this, which is essentially two bad guys displaying genuine grief in a hospital? Their dialogue could just as easily be an exchange between Matt and Foggy or any other of the show’s heroes. When Fisk says “I…,” then stops himself, you wonder if he’s going to finish the sentence with a platonic “love you” directed at his empathetic assistant.
Wesley also gains further sympathy by having a direct opposite in Leland Owsley, who, staying true to his cockroach mindset, is less preoccupied with Vanessa’s health and more worried about whether or not someone was trying to poison him as well. “I had a glass in my hand. Do I need to be checked out?” he grossly asks one of the hospital staff. On Daredevil, even the villains have foils.
They also have completely different motivations. Where Fisk is driven by a misguided desire to better the city, Wesley is driven by loyalty to his boss, and Owsley is driven by money, their tailor Melvin Potter, as it turns out, is driven by fear. After Matt sneaks into his workshop and bests him in a tensely clumsy fight that shows shades of his comics alter-ego, Gladiator, it’s revealed that Potter only began working with Fisk after The Kingpin threatened to harm his girlfriend (and yes, it’s an unseen Betsy Beatty, for those Marvel fans keeping score at home).
We’ve only seen Potter in a couple of short scenes so far, meaning it would have been easy to write him off as a one-note thug who runs on nothing except brutish strength and an appetite for destruction. But thanks to Petrie and DeKnight’s script and Matt Gerald’s menacing yet childlike performance, we view him as a sensitive soul who, like most of Daredevil’s characters, has been painted into a corner. Given that Matt promises to help Potter keep Betsy safe, I’m wondering if the series will bypass Potter’s role as Gladiator altogether, and jump right to him becoming Daredevil’s ally. If that’s the case, at least we got to see him wail his trademark weapon of circ-saw blades at Matt’s head a couple times.
While Matt’s busy with Potter, Karen and Ben are once again doing some detective work of their own by visiting Fisk’s half-senile mother, Marlene. During their gentle interrogation of her, they unveil that Fisk killed his father as a child, which of course quickly gets back to Wesley. Perhaps remembering the grisly fate Anatoly received for interrupting Fisk when he was occupied with Vanessa, Wesley takes matters into his own hands, locating Karen, then bringing her to a warehouse for another tightly ratcheted intimidation sequence that’s becoming a hallmark of the show.
While the threats he’s making to her at gunpoint are horrible (killing Ben, Matt, Foggy, and everyone else she loves before coming for her), they also dive further into his devotion to The Kingpin. As Wesley tells Karen, he and Fisk actually have opposing views of their city. However, that doesn’t matter to him, as he believes in Fisk and knows that he will make the world a better place. Even when Karen manages to grab the gun after he blackmails her to come work for Fisk’s organization, Wesley never falters in his convictions, staying true to his boss right up to the end where she empties the pistol’s chamber into his chest. Unlike Matt, who constantly questions the morality of his acts during his confessions with Father Lantom, Wesley—and most of Daredevil’s rivals—believe wholeheartedly in what they do. No villain ever thinks they’re a villain, and as Wesley’s worldview and the episode’s title indicate, villains can be righteous, too, even more so than the heroes.
- In another possible nod to the comics, Lantom says the phrase “fall from grace” to Matt. I’m wondering if this is a nod to the polarizing mid-’90s Daredevil arc of the same name. For me, it’s a high point of the comics, and I would love to see some of its elements incorporated into the MCU.
- I made a promise not to watch ahead, but I’m guessing Potter will be responsible for stitching Daredevil’s eventual full-on superhero duds.
- Claire’s back! Albeit very briefly.
- “She said she was deeply saddened and quoted a fortune cookie or some mystical shit,” reports Owsley after trying to see if Madame Gao was responsible for the mass poisoning. He really is the worst.
- Speaking of which, who do you detest more? Leland Owsley or Warden Norton? Discuss.
- I know Karen didn’t give her real name to Marlene, but she had to have known her visit would have gotten back to Fisk’s camp. The “nice blonde lady with the big blue eyes,” Marlene tells Wesley over the phone.
- Karen: “You look like shit.” Matt: “Then I’m looking better than I feel.”
- “I want to look in their eyes while I salt the Earth with their blood.”