Being part of a marginalized group and looking for representation in pop culture can be both entertaining and incredibly frustrating. Because there are so few explicit examples, there’s lots of fun to be had devising headcanons–that is, one’s own interpretation of content never made explicit in the text.
But as much fun as that can be, it can be disheartening thinking about all your favorite (in my case) autistic characters and then realizing 90% of them were never confirmed as such. It’s even worse when the creator actively contradicts them–witness Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller’s vociferous insistence, despite earlier hints, that show protagonist Will Graham is definitely not autistic, in a manner reminiscent of how a young man from South Boston would react if you said you had sex with his mother.
When I started watching Daredevil, Marvel’s first foray into the Netflix format, I’d already heard high praise for pretty much every aspect of it, but particularly Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as Wilson Fisk, the central antagonist. Fisk had never been a particularly compelling villain to me growing up; I especially resented how the ‘90s-era Spider-Man cartoon (yes, the one so beholden to Standards & Practices that the NYPD all carried laser guns) presented him as Spider-Man’s archnemesis, like a mob boss presents the greatest possible threat to a guy whose other enemies control electricity or have metal arms. When glowering possessed fedora Frank Miller reframed him as Daredevil’s nemesis, it was a better fit, but he still never seemed like Daredevil’s dark side the way characters like Elektra and Bullseye did.
D’Onofrio’s performance changed all that. Far from the eloquent mastermind who publicly presents as a well-established philanthropist who rubs shoulders with the elite, D’Onofrio’s Fisk is a semi-recluse with a precise, choreographed daily routine who has noticeable difficulty with eye contact, and whose speech patterns are clipped and rehearsed-sounding, as though talking to people makes him deeply uncomfortable. Around Vanessa, the art dealer who wins his heart, he’s almost Ben Wyatt-esque in his endearing awkwardness. He’s the most heavily autistic-coded character I’ve seen on television since Abed Nadir. The facts that this is also a common interpretation of Robert Goren, D’Onofrio’s character on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and that D’Onofrio is likely autistic himself only add fuel to the fire.
A disabled villain is always a dicey proposition–obviously disabled people are perfectly capable of being bad people, but for years, a villain’s disability has either been used as shorthand for othering them or making them scarier (Mason Verger from Hannibal, Two-Face’s ill-defined schizoid disorder, basically every portrayal of albinism ever) or a motivation for their villainy (the Lizard, Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3). D’Onofrio’s Fisk is the exact inverse: he’s a very bad man whose apparent disability humanizes him, showing us just how vulnerable he is emotionally. It also makes him a villain who complements Daredevil, his disabled nemesis, in a way his comic counterpart never did.
The closest thing I’ve seen in an onscreen villain is Peter Dinklage’s performance as Bolivar Trask in the most recent X-Men film, whose dwarfism is never presented as a motivating factor, but parallels him with the mutants he fears. And on top of everything else, I absolutely love the idea of a villain keeping to the shadows not because he’s a secretive, Avon Barksdale-esque string-puller, but because he’s got no social skills. It’s no coincidence that, with this kind of fleshing-out, Fisk has been praised in numerous reviews as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most compelling villain since Loki (which is silly, because Loki is only “compelling” in that he kills lots of people without remorse but is sometimes sad about unrelated things, but I digress).
Disabled representation has struggled with finding a happy medium between portraying us as disturbing monsters and people whose very existence is a series of inspirational moments without the burden of a distinct personality. Both portrayals are dehumanizing, and moreover, both focus on how we affect abled people. It’s great to see strides being made lately with characters like Tyrion Lannister and Mr. Wrench from Fargo (both of whom, like Fisk, are played by actors who share their disabilities) and Fisk, in particular, gives me hope because he represents a creative process that can acknowledge disabled characters as complex, flawed and yes, evil, because that’s what people are like.
In one scene, Matt Murdock, Daredevil’s civilian alter ego, confesses to a priest that, while he feels he must kill Fisk, Fisk’s love for Vanessa prevents Murdock from seeing him as inhuman enough to do the deed. This is a tense, brilliantly-written scene on its own merits, but it also works astoundingly well as a metaphor for disabled representation. Let characters like us have their good moments, their bad moments, hell, in Fisk’s case, their murderous moments. But please, give us more of a chance to see ourselves reflected onscreen in the first place.
Zack Budryk is a Washington, D.C-based journalist who writes about healthcare, feminism, autism and pop culture. His work has appeared in Quail Bell Magazine, Ravishly, Jezebel, Inside Higher Ed and Style Weekly and he is currently working on a novel, but don’t hold that against him. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife, Raychel, who pretends out of sheer modesty that she was not the model for Ygritte, and two cats. If you don’t think Molly Solverson from “Fargo” is the best he will fight you. He blogs at autisticbobsaginowski.tumblr.com and tweets as ZackBudryk, appropriately enough.
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