I’ve decided to start this new chapter in the life of The Other Murdock Papers, by tackling a topic I’ve been meaning to address since 2015, when the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil came out. I’m talking about the short-lived special effect known as the “world on fire.”
The effect appeared for the first and last time in the fifth episode of the first season, which also carries its name: World On Fire. I’ve briefly talked about my issues with the world on fire in other contexts, most recently on the “exploring the senses” episode of the #TalkDaredevil podcast. However, I’ve never gone into detail about why I’m not a fan of this particular interpretation of Matt’s “pseudo-visual” abilities.
Don’t take it literally
And let’s start there, with the word “interpretation.” Because, I think it’s important to keep in mind that every single artistic take on Daredevil’s radar sense (and beyond) in every comic book, and live-action appearance have been attempts to translate Matt’s inner world into something that we can comprehend. The natural constraints of telling a story in two-dimensional color means that we can never get a real sense of what “seeing” in colorless three dimensions is really like.
Considering the challenges various artistic takes on Daredevil’s “radar” sense come up against, a case could be made for never showing it at all. If we’re talking about the show, I would argue that such a choice would have been preferable to the world on fire effect. Especially since, from the way it’s described, you really do get the sense that we, the viewers, are meant to take this literally. I would love to know how an otherwise exceptionally ambitious creative team arrived at this particular choice.
However, I also truly believe there are good ways to portray Daredevil’s “radar,” as long as you still keep in mind that it can never be literally what Matt “sees.” In my opinion, the focus of any such attempt should be to not include any information that is strictly visual. Instead, creators should think long and hard about what features of the world that we typically access through vision, can in fact be accessed through our other senses. Those features should realistically be the only one Matt Murdock has any knowledge of.
The trouble with color
The most obvious example of something that is strictly visual is color. Contrary to what you might suspect, color only really makes sense as a perceptual phenomenon associated with vision. It’s more appropriate to think of color as “something the brain does with light of a certain wavelength, after correcting for ambient light” than as something objectively real.
That is not to say that colors are arbitrary, or don’t correspond to real properties that objects have, because they do. The reason a red apple appears red to us is because the molecular properties of its skin are such that it disproportionately reflects the wavelengths of light striking it that our brain designates as “red,” and disproportionately absorbs the other wavelengths. This is real. The redness of red, however, is in our brains.
Consequently, one of the major issues I have with the “world on fire” is how heavily it leans into the idea of color. By the words Matt uses to describe the sensation, and the images on the screen, the idea really seems to be that what Matt “sees” are various shades of reds, yellows and oranges. This very deliberate color choice brings up the issue of what exactly the colors are supposed to mean.
In the comics, artists have frequently used different shades or colors to represent a sort of object versus background perspective for Matt’s radar sense, as in the example below from Daredevil #123 (vol 1), by Bob Brown and Tony Isabella. This, to me, is perfectly fine. Nothing about this image suggests that we are supposed to treat the color selection as significant in any way, and it serves simply to illustrate an ability to detect the shapes of objects in space.
With the world on fire effect, however, the color choice is not arbitrary (hence the use of the word “fire” to describe it). Oddly enough, the various shades of color certainly seem to be. It’s not simply a matter of brighter shades of yellow corresponding to those part of an object that is closer to Matt, and the darker shades corresponding to those that are farther away, or vice versa. If so, that would actually make some amount of sense.
Sure, there is the near black of the background, but it isn’t restricted to the background. Nor are the brighter shades restricted to the foreground. Rather, the shades seem to more closely match the contrasting areas of light and dark as they would be understood by someone with sight. It can convey the appearance of an eye with a visible iris and pupil, and distinguish Claire’s skin and shirt as being different colors.
Except, that’s not exactly it either, is it? There is a lot of inexplicable randomness going on here. Just like fire, the colors shift, and there are mysterious flames and flashes of light. What are they? This brings me to my next point.
Perception is not random
In the real world, we expect there to be reasonably stable relationships between the physical world and our own perceptions. There are predictable contingencies that exist between the stimuli we can detect and how we experience them through our senses.
If we hear a tone corresponding to middle C, it’s because such a sound is being generated somewhere within earshot of us. If it’s not and we hear it anyway, we’d have to boil it down to a very specific case of tinnitus or an auditory hallucination, neither of which are helpful in deciphering the world around us.
It would be inaccurate to say that a normally functional brain is merely a passive receiver of sensory input, as higher-order cognitive process do affect how and what we perceive. However, our brains don’t typically go around applying auto-tune, “world of fire” style, to the sounds we hear.
If the “flaminess” (I’m making that a word) of the world on fire is not Matt reading Claire’s aura, it shouldn’t be something that’s just in his head. It needs to correspond to a real-world stimulus of some kind.
Are the flames meant to be heat?
Something mentioned by Matt in this scene, that he senses “blankets of temperature variation,” suggests that one stimulus that might be intended to count, at least in part, toward the world on fire effect is heat. I touched on this in the #TalkDaredevil episode I linked to above, but let me restate what I said there: This simply does not work.
Would it be possible to record the heat emanating from objects? Absolutely. This is what falls under the heading of thermal imaging. With the help of modern technology it is possible to make use of the infrared light that all objects emit (as long as they have a temperature above absolute zero, which they all do) to create an image that we can see. This is done by detecting photons in the (invisible to humans) infrared portion of the spectrum and artificially rendering this output in colors we can see, like the cat in the image below.
But here’s the rub: This is nothing like the process our bodies use to detect hot and cold. Temperature-sensitive receptors in the skin react to temperature changes in the skin itself. A heightened ability to detect changes in hot and cold does not logically extend into the realm of “seeing” hot objects as if the skin were a large retina populated by photoreceptors that, unlike the actual photoreceptors in our eyes, can detect infrared light.
The way we sense hot and cold has been optimized for detecting the relative temperature of the objects we touch, and to sense the general temperature in our immediate surroundings in a way that aids in thermoregulation of our bodies.
To really underscore what I’m talking about: Suggesting that Matt can sense the temperature of distant objects, and get a an impression of their shape this way, makes about as much sense as him literally being able to see with his skin.
Unfortunately, the television show suggested more than once that Matt makes use of remote heat sensing.
In the episode Stick, young Matt talks about the woman walking by them, and the heat of her face. Later in the season, when thinking back to his encounter with Nobu, Matt chastises himself for not having noticed Nobu’s presence, including his heat.
This notion has also recently reared its misguided little head in the comics. The specific example that comes to mind is one I will have reason to return to, but it’s worth noting that this particular take on heat-sensing is indeed new. It used to be that Daredevil could merely make judgement calls about things he touched, as in this kind of zany scene involving a pen.
You could certainly make the case that remote heat sensing is something Daredevil should be able to do because he’s a superhero and this is comics. But, you would then have to imagine this as Matt having an entirely new sense that is rare in nature, and as mentioned, does not follow naturally from the concept of heightened senses. Among the very few animal species on the planet who can spot remote heat sources like this are some pit vipers, and even they do it through a specialized organ.
But what about stepping into a room where there’s a fire? Or if someone is approaching you with a blow torch? Or when you’re sitting by the window and can feel the heat from the sun? Well, these are all cases of intense heat sources that are hot enough to actually heat your skin. That’s what you’re feeling. You cannot, however, heat-sense a hot cup of coffee that’s two feet away from you, because it is not hot enough or close enough to make a measurable difference to the temperature near the skin where you’re sitting.
Is there nothing to like about the world on fire?
To be fair, there are a couple of redeeming features of this effect that I do want to mention:
1. At least it’s not very sharp
As we all know, Daredevil’s radar sense is often oversold (“he can see better than all of us”). I’ve always made the point that, regardless of what we imagine the “radar” to be, it makes little sense for it to be nearly as good as vision at doing what vision normally does.
The world, as it appears to those of us who see well, is remarkably detailed. To an extent, this is an illusion as only the most central part of our visual field can actually give us the fine resolution we need for reading or threading a needly. But, by looking around, and sampling the world around us, we at least have impression that it’s all perfectly sharp and in full color, and we can easily bring any part of it we want to look at into immediate focus.
There is no version of the radar sense that gives Matt any indication of color, and it is also usually understood as only being good for sensing objects in his immediate vicinity. In addition to this, I would also argue that its resolution should be considerably poorer than what you would get from proper vision.
Both sound waves and electromagnetic waves in the microwave portion of the spectrum (where you find many radar applications) have longer wavelengths than visible light, and are thus less able to resolve fine details. Add to this the many other complications we could think of, and it simply makes very little sense to suggest that Matt, to the extent that he can “see” at all, can see well.
The world on fire effect at least doesn’t try to sell us on some ultra sharp idea of what Matt can “see.” So, it does have that going for it, at least.
2. There is a point to its ephemeral quality
I’ve already complained about the “flaminess” of the world on fire, and how it doesn’t make sense that we can’t figure out what the shifting light and dark areas are supposed to correspond to in the real world. I’m not going back on that here. However, if we do imagine that Matt’s ability to sense silent objects rests on echoes and ambient sound (which I prefer), it does make sense to acknowledge that the sound sources that “illuminate” (or “sonify”) the objects he can sense are not necessarily stationary.
An echo might be cast by the sound of a car driving by, another by the hum of the refrigerator, and the impression of both would change slightly by Matt simply moving his own head relative to whatever sound sources are around. It’s different from the constant rich illumination we are used to when thinking about vision. This was actually one aspect I thought the Daredevil (2003) movie had much better success with (see below).
At the end of the day, I think we can chalk up the missteps of the “world on fire” to what I have jokingly christened the Instagram Filter Fallacy. It’s clear that the digital effects specialists have taken footage and, through a series of steps, have made it look quite different from the original. Colors have been taken out, other colors put back in, along with various random effects that create flames and variations in light.
The problem with this kind of approach is that it’s destined for failure, because it can’t entirely escape the original image, which is bound to be one that abides by the logic and parameters of vision.
What should the creators have done instead? A much better way to go about this would have been to attach small dots to Claire’s face, as well as the walls and other objects, and then build a 3D-model that only stores the distance between the imagined observer (Matt), and each dot. With this in place, various shades of gray (or some other color, this part would be arbitrary) could have been assigned based only on this distance.
This would give you an entirely depth-based form of perception. Such an approach would still only be an interpretation, to go back to what I said at the beginning of this post. But, it would be much more illustrative and more focused on the spatial aspects of the sensory experience.
Do the points I’ve made here make sense to you as a reader? If not, do let me know in the comments! I want to make sure I’m explaining this in a way that most people can understand.