Well, I could have saved this little detail for my big post about the tail end of Daredevil, season two. But, fearing that it would swell out of proportion in that context, I’m turning this into its own post. Besides, this way it also doubles as a Daredevil science post, and you guys know I can’t stay away from those!
So, what am I talking about here? Well, at the very beginning of episode eight, when Matt and Elektra are still checking out that mysterious hole in the ground, they’re surrounded by a band of ninjas. The thing with these ninjas is that they manage to elude Matt’s senses, presumably by moving so very quietly that only their weapons can be heard. There’s one (big) problem with this: It suggests that Matt can only detect objects that are themselves sources of sound which completely undercuts everything else he can do on this show. If Matt can’t detect silent objects, nothing he is able to do makes any kind of sense.
To be fair to the show’s creators, this notion that ninjas can mask themselves, to a degree at least, has some basis in Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. Though in the scene below, from Daredevil #174, by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, Matt is able to detect the ninjas, by their heartbeats and silhouettes, but they are able to do a pretty good job of sneaking up on him before he notices.
By the way, this kind of “radar as afterthought,” is interesting in itself because it highlights the differences between Matt and the average person when it comes to parsing and analyzing a scene. It’s not as if he’s walking into a lit room, it’s more like he’s hearing or smelling something first, which draws his attention to that spot, and then he picks up the shape. In working on my book (a constant work in progress…), I’ve taken to jokingly calling this phenomenon, quite common throughout most of the comic’s history, “conspicuously absent radar.”
You see plenty of hints in this direction in the Netflix show too, such as Matt failing to detect Elektra in his apartment until she brings out the weaponry, presumably because he’s not actively attending to her location, and is thus not actually “seeing her.” You might argue, and I would agree, that he should have at least picked up her scent though. (Heartbeats, on the other hand, seem to be something he actively has to choose to listen for, which actually kind of makes sense given how faint this sound would be compared to the ambient sound level in pretty much any room.) A similar thing happens in episode seven, when Karen comes over to Matt’s apartment to work on the Castle case, and Elektra hides out for at least a little while without being detected.
Getting back to my point though, when Matt does detect the shape of that someone – or something – whether right away, or after a bit of active exploration, his ability to do so must rest on an ability to detect silent objects. In the Netflix show, the 2003 Daredevil movie, Miller and Romita Jr.’s The Man Without Fear, and the Bendis/Maleev run, the explanation for how he does this boils down to his four remaining senses. In most other sources, the radar sense is described as separate from his other senses. For our purposes here, they’re pretty much analogous in that what Matt uses to “see” are echoes bouncing off of silent objects, whether we’re talking about sound echoes or an electromagnetic signal. So long as the bodies of these ninjas introduced in episode eight have solid form, they should have about the same ability to mask themselves to Matt Murdock as a lamp post would. Which is to say, none at all.
As any regular reader will know, I’m usually more prone to complain when I feel that Daredevil’s senses are taken too far, usually because something happens that I feel fails a basic “lock and key” test. If Matt’s senses, as described, are the key, this key should not be able to open metaphorical locks that are obviously a poor match for that particular key. It’s not usually the senses themselves that I find problematic or “too unrealistic” (because they would be, Daredevil is a comic book superhero), it’s the application of them to situations that seem contrived that’s the main issue. Any fan today (and I suspect even back in 1964) would find the scene from Daredevil #2, when our yellow-costumed hero manages to land a space ship in Central Park, guided by the absence of heartbeats, to be patently absurd. And for good reason. The explanation given for how Daredevil does any of the things he’s supposed to be doing is nonsensical. This spaceship scene is, of course, a very extreme case of what I’m talking about, but subtler versions of the same phenomenon are common, and tends to leave me, at least, with that same uncomfortable feeling you get from a glaring plot hole.
When we learn that Matt cannot detect ninjas because they are essentially too quiet, this opens up a sensory plot hole the size of that pit he and Elektra are exploring. It gets even worse in later episodes, when Matt learns alternative ways of detecting them through a different sound source (breath), but is still somehow able to detect – through one or several walls, mind you – what weapons (presumably silent objects) they’re carrying. This suggests that he can echolocate the presence of a silent object through at least one wall, but can’t do the same to find a human body right in front of him. What the h*** kind of “key” is this? Clearly, hearing the sounds actually generated by the bodies of his adversaries, and the sounds of their weapons gliding through the air is helpful to Matt, but this information can not be the only one available to him. If he can’t also use echoes, the entire underlying concept of how the character is supposed to work implodes.
From reading this post, you might think that this was a big issue for me in terms of my enjoyment of season two. It really wasn’t, although, as you can tell, I found it to be incredibly silly. I often suspect that in dealing with Daredevil, people assume that there’s no real way for his powers to make sense anyway, so there’s no point in trying. That, I find disappointing. Of course there is. For nearly every scene I’ve had issues with during the two seasons of Daredevil, I’m pretty sure you could easily make those issues disappear with relatively minor changes to Daredevil’s methodology in each of those scenes, and have things appear more consistent across episodes.
As for reviewers (I’ve seen a couple), who liked this revelation specifically because it shows Daredevil having an interesting weakness, I can definitely see where they’re coming from. I just think it’s preferable to showcase those “weaknesses” that actually make sense (and can be easily read between the lines), than come up with new ones that don’t. There are plenty of things Matt Murdock is effectively blind too, ninjas just shouldn’t be one of them. As the Swedish saying goes, you shouldn’t cross the bridge to fetch water. In other words, keep it simple. 😉