Wilson Fisk transformed the villain’s role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He is not an evil robot, or the head of a vast conspiracy, or an ancient god of chaos. His life story is not the tale of a festering wound inflicted by the hero. He’s not even a Nazi. Wilson Fisk is a purely human force. He has no magic, no powers, no wondrous technology—nor does he seek to acquire any. He lacks the kind of megalomania that drives others to take over the world.
He relies on human powers: money, muscle, and connections – powers which can be leveraged through his knowing white privilege. He ascends as populist dictators do, staying within the boundaries of the elite as he consolidates power.
His basic desire is chillingly simple: dominance. He aspires to wrest the chaos of Hell’s Kitchen into an orderly fiefdom, where the demolition of all opposition will mean that at last, the trains will run on time. And he’s not the only burly bald man to harbor such ambitions.
The Hell’s Kitchen presented in Daredevil is no more real than the MCU’s Valhalla—but in both cases, the name itself suffuses the setting with meaning. In 2015, the neighborhood is generally known as “Clinton”, at least if it avoids the antiseptic “Midtown West”. It hosts luxury condos, the studios for The Daily Show, and $3,000/month studio apartments. That’s not where Daredevil lives.
Instead, Nelson & Murdock hung out their shingle in a version of New York City where the Bad Old Days never ended, and where Marvel’s parent company never cleared out the peep shows in Times Square. Sirens blare, strung-out junkies collapse in alleys, and the Sharks and the Jets might as well be holding a war council on the piers.
Marvel has been rightly criticized for the near-total lack of diversity of the MCU—and in almost every case, that choice appears to be the outcome of thoughtless bigotry. But for the first time in Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen, we see a critical eye turned on whiteness itself. The history of crime, chaos, and order in New York City is a story about the meaning of whiteness.
When white Americans deplore gang violence and organized crime, they invariably tap into racist stereotypes—because Americans hate people of color far more than they hate gang violence and organized crime. Joining a white gang isn’t shameful—it’s the basis for one of the most beloved songs in the history of American musical theater. Or multiple Academy Awards and many more nominations.
That’s the history of Hell’s Kitchen: where the Irish-American Westies murdered dozens of people and ran loansharking and smuggling operations; where the Italian-American Gambino Crime Family controlled the docks; and where the Gophers, the Parlor Mob, the Gorillas, the Rhodes Gang, and the Hudson Dusters inspired terror. These gangs were almost exclusively white.
Whiteness was a rare unifying factor in Hell’s Kitchen’s gang warfare, as suggested in West Side Story. Police would side with the gangs when their victims weren’t white—redoubling the oppression of the neighborhood’s Black and Puerto Rican citizens. It was still a limited form of whiteness; Hell’s Kitchen youth rarely graduated to Wall Street or the Hamptons. But it was enough whiteness to gain power: white-ethnic political leaders delivered patronage jobs to their loyalists, and white-ethnic union leadership made sure there was work available for their people. Combined, it meant an near-exclusive hold on well-paid government employment that didn’t require a college degree, particularly among police and firefighters. Even in 2013, two-thirds of NYC corrections officers are white, as are three-quarters of firefighters, in a city where under 30% of the population is white. The NYPD’s demographics come closer to the city’s as a whole, but only after a long, aggressive diversity campaign.
This is the Hell’s Kitchen where Bill Fisk and Jack Murdock raised their sons. Both families are white; “Murdock” is likely an Irish name, “Fisk” is English, but Wilson’s mother Marlene speaks of “zuppa” and perhaps, an Italian heritage. Both men tiptoed along the line between mainstream and criminal society—Jack was a boxer who took bribes from mobsters and died after double-crossing a promoter who paid him to take a dive. Bill Fisk, an abusive alcoholic, took a loan from a mafia loan shark to seek political office. In both cases, they sought prestige, power, and influence while up against a ceiling imposed by their social, economic, and ethnic circumstances. They experience the limitations of remaining on the margins of whiteness, but they do not betray any hint of recognition that they still carry considerable privilege over people of color. It is in this population, which feels its grievances but ignores its privilege, that totalitarian leaders build a flock.
Both Matt and Wilson far exceed their fathers’ limitations. Matt goes legit, earning a law degree and preparing to fight the good fight. But he still struggles, unable to penetrate the white-shoe world of Landman & Zack and keep his principles. Fisk builds an enormous criminal empire, with enough of a presence above ground to make Fisk a tycoon. A kingpin, even. At its height, the Fisk empire is nonetheless built on the same forces already present in Hell’s Kitchen: he can obtain the loyalty of dirty police officers, small-time criminals, and corruptible members of the construction industry, all strengths of the white-ethnic community.
Fisk’s power is explicitly racialized. He may associate with Madame Gao and other Asian-American gangs, but they are outside of his inner circle. Brett Mahoney, an African-American police officer, is outside his reach, and Carl Hoffman, another Black officer, appears blackmailed into Fisk’s service. The white Christian Blake appears eager to carry out Fisk’s agenda. Fisk can control white editors at the Bulletin, but murders the Black reporter Ben Urich. White lawyers and landlords oppose the Guatemalan-born Elena Cardenas; she is murdered by a white junkie on Fisk’s command.
While Fisk is confident in his power, he still clings to an inferiority complex developed in childhood. His whiteness allows him to gain immense power, but he is still barred, by class and ethnicity, from the highest towers. He endeavors to move from the margins of whiteness to its center: he hires James Wesley to represent him in the world, a man whose affect hints at a boarding school education. He prefers the Englishman, Leland Owlsley, over Russian or Chinese criminal connections. He meets Vanessa Marianna at a gallery, where he appears physically uncomfortable to be surrounded by high culture, no matter how much he craves it. His infatuation with Vanessa is strongly linked to her sophistication—she offers a bridge to an elite world he couldn’t enter with money alone. When they go to dinner, Fisk asks Wesley to choose the wine.
Wilson Fisk is rarely as honest and forthright as he is with Vanessa. He confesses the murder of his father. Bill was a brute who deserved no better, but it sparked Wilson’s belief that the world can be purified through great force. He tells her of his plot to bomb the strongholds of his Russian rivals, and they watch the destruction together. He discusses a utopian vision for Hell’s Kitchen, ultimately going public with a call for a new Hell’s Kitchen, free of violence because it will be wholly under his command. Fisk is a crime lord, but he sees himself as a great leader, who acquires power in order to push through a vision he may honestly believe is best. Other gangs cause chaos; Fisk’s crimes are in pursuit of his own order. Describing New York, he says, “I want to carve something beautiful out of its ugliness, set free its potential.” He goes on:
I’ve done things that I’m not proud of, Vanessa. I’ve hurt people and I’m going to hurt more. It’s impossible to avoid for what I’m trying to do. But I take no pleasure in it, in cruelty. But this city isn’t a caterpillar. It doesn’t spin a cocoon and wake up a butterfly. A city crumbles and fades. It needs to die before it can be reborn… What I said about what I want for this city is the truth. But money and influence is not enough to usher change on such a scale. Sometimes it requires force.
When Fisk’s ideology is laid bare like this, it is suddenly obvious who his bald, muscled form is meant to evoke:
Benito Mussolini came from humble roots, and struggled to define himself as an intellectual and a sophisticate. Mussolini’s Italy was a macrocosm of Fisk’s Hell’s Kitchen. Italy is a white country, of course, and carried imperial ambitions in the world. But, in terms of early 20th century racial theory, it was neither Saxon nor Nordic, and remained junior in comparison to Germany or Great Britain. Mussolini thus could not fully adopt Hitler’s racial theory, but he could still campaign against the Slavic peoples in Italy—as “inferior and barbarian” compared to Italians—in a mirror of Fisk’s war with the Russian gangs.
Mussolini and Fisk share a power base and a political zeitgeist. Mussolini downplayed the class conflicts of socialism, instead seeking a united nationalist front which permitted concentrated wealth and pacified the elites, while glamorizing working-class physicality. Fisk does the same, gathering the support of New York billionaires through Union Allied Construction and Landman & Zack to supplement his front lines. Italian spazio vitale (called lebensraum across the Alps) is mimicked by Fisk’s efforts to clear out existing tenants to rebuild with luxury apartments: new lands for the right kind of people. The point is driven home sharply since Fisk’s victims in this quest are people of color like Mrs. Cardenas.
Mussolini’s blackshirts play the role of Fisk’s dirty cops—militarized, working-class men who provide both muscle and status to the regime. This loyal base provided a counterweight to left-wing attempts to mobilize the working class, either by Italian socialists for labor rights or by Nelson & Murdock for tenant’s rights. Mussolini cracked down on the Mafia, particularly in Sicily, with the same vigor that Fisk attacks rival gangs, both men projecting an image of legitimacy and order above an agenda of removing personal enemies. Mussolini coerced loyalty from the press; Fisk bribes the editorial board of the Bulletin and murders the dissenting Ben Urich.
And, in the end, the law failed to stop either Fisk or Mussolini. Tipped off by the good guys, the FBI arrests Wilson Fisk, and takes down large swaths of his operation. But he musters an enormous attack on the FBI convoy, breaks free and heads for a flight out of the country. He is only defeated after being intercepted and confronted by Daredevil himself. Likewise, Mussolini was legally removed from power by the King of Italy and other elements of the fascist state. Arrested and jailed, Mussolini too was set free by a massive military raid, in this case by his Nazi allies. And like Fisk, he was done in by vigilante justice while fleeing the country: recognized by Communist partisans on his way to the Swiss border, he was captured and summarily executed.
The links between Fisk and Mussolini do more than evoke the memory of a brutal dictator—rather, they show that Americans are not immune to the lure of fascism, no matter our professed love of freedom. Even in liberal New York.
Until American entry into World War II, Mussolini was never an obvious enemy of the United States. Newsweek hailed him as the “Key Man of the Mediterranean“, a month before he declared war on the U.K. and France. The New York Times found him to have, “many points in common with that of the men who inspired our own constitution—John Adams, Hamilton and Washington.” The pre-war American ambassador proclaimed, “unexpected joy is found in the leadership of a Mussolini … It is absurd to say that Italy groans under discipline. Italy chortles with it! It is victory!” The head of the American legion offered, “If ever needed, the American Legion stands ready to protect our country’s institutions and ideals as the Fascisti dealt with the destructionists who menaced Italy … Do not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” Italian-Americans were divided between support for fascism and long-held leftist traditions—but it was anti-fascist campaigners, such as Carlo Tresca, who found themselves under government surveillance, while Mussolini-friendly factions held rallies with police protection.
But this isn’t a long-forgotten quirk of the mid-20th century. Fisk and Mussolini target organized crime, promising to clean up the streets by supplanting criminal gangs with their own goons. When the white gangs fell to the law in Hell’s Kitchen, it was the handiwork of United States Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. He ran for mayor on that achievement, with speeches that could have been written by Wilson Fisk: “It’s the street tax paid to drunks and panhandlers. It’s the squeegee men shaking down the motorist waiting at a light. It’s the trash storms, the swirling mass of garbage left by peddlers and panhandlers, and open-air drug bazaars on unclean streets.” Giuliani’s election was powered by the votes of white, working-class voters—like those in Hell’s Kitchen—and he unleashed an epidemic of police violence, mostly against people of color. The violent repression failed to match the improvements in the crime rate scene under his African-American predecessor, David Dinkins. He sided with developers over the poor, and gave the equivalents of Union Allied his support against their tenants, and began a brutal crackdown on the homeless.
Giuliani was neither an avowed fascist nor a comic book villain, but he showed that the appeal of a Mussolini or a Fisk is not foreign to America. Perceptions of chaos and disorder push even latent racism to the surface, and voters may flock to a forceful white man who promises repression of the right victims. We don’t have superheroes to fight them for us, so we’ve got to stand up to our own villains.