Beyond the radar – some under-used Daredevil skills

by Oct 3, 2009Commentary, Daredevil Science9 comments

Regular readers have probably figured out by now that I’m not crazy about Daredevil’s powers being used to perform tricks that defy all logic (there’s an entire series devoted to Wacky Powers) or when they are pushed too far in general. I also take issue with Matt being portrayed as “too sighted,” because I feel very strongly that the heightened senses and radar combo can’t possibly perform all functions of normal vision.

But as far as I see it, there’s another side to this. There are many things for which his heightened senses could be used, that we rarely see. I suspect it has to do with many writers being stuck in a “normal-sensed” mind-set where they exaggerate Daredevil’s pseudo-visual abilities on the one hand while failing to fully utilize his other senses on the other. Matt Murdock isn’t wired like everyone else, which adds to making him interesting. But if you don’t really get across just how different that makes him, you risk missing some interesting stuff. Instead of trying to convince the reader that his abilities make him “see” better than a sighted person (which is nonsense if you ask me), how about looking at what they really would be good for. Well, I decided to give it a go. What you’ll see here is just a brief list, so further suggestions are encouraged in the comment section.

The best nose radiation can buy

Matt’s sense of smell is, hands down, his most under-used sense, which is understandable. Humans are among the most visually-oriented species on the planet, but our sense of smell pretty much sucks. This makes it hard for us to relate to animals who live much more in smelling-hearing mode than we do (such as cats and dogs).

If you look at Silver Age Daredevil, there is very little mention of him smelling anything. The origin lets us know that he can recognize any woman by her perfume, or any man by his hair tonic, but this doesn’t strike me as being either impressive or even out of the ordinary. In fact, even with the obvious task of recognizing people, it’s been his hearing and its ability to pick up on and recognize heartbeats, that’s taken over the otherwise visual task. As mentioned in a previous post (see Hearing heartbeats), the ability to hear heartbeats is not that crazy, and there’s even some evidence to suggest that heart signals can be used as so-called biomarkers, thus providing a basis for telling people apart. However, it still makes more sense for Matt to use his sense of smell to recognize someone. Individual scents are highly distinct, and no two people smell the same.

But with the arrival of Frank Miller, the sense of smell was finally pushed to some degree of prominence, and Miller used this and Matt’s other senses to great effect to paint a picture of a world wholly different from ours…

Panel from Daredevil #168, with script and art by Frank Miller

Panel from Daredevil #168, with script and art by Frank Miller

This marked the beginning of the cordite-smelling hero with a nose for dark and gritty. As an aside, Daredevil still seems to be smelling cordite everywhere, even though they stopped manufacturing the stuff many years ago. 😉 So, what else could you be doing with the nose of a blood hound?

  • Tracking

    Normally, this is Wolverine territory, but Daredevil’s tracking ability should be just as good. This could be used for finding missing people, wayward villains or where Foggy hid the donuts.

  • A glimpse into the recent past

    Scent has the ability to take us back in time, not only metaphorically because it’s tied to memory (as beautifully illustrated by Brubaker in the Devil Takes a Ride arc), but also because we literally carry around pieces of it, for a while at least. We can all tell when someone’s back from taking a smoke, but imagine if you could smell a familiar place on a person or determine who they’ve been with. Matt should be able to do this, yet I’ve rarely seen this kind of information used in Daredevil.

  • What’s in your system?

    Considering how much time Matt spends hanging around the outskirts of society, there’s rarely any mention of him smelling drugs, on or in someone. He should be great at picking up on drug dealers, and also be able to tell what kind of medication someone is on. Speaking of which, certain types of diseases also carry signature scents. We’ve all heard of those dogs that can smell cancer, right?

Hearing everything

I don’t know who would actually want super-hearing. Sure, it seems convenient, particularly if you’re blind, but a little bit of silence is absolutely golden. From how the character has been portrayed, you get the sense that he’s not actually in any constant physical pain because of his enhanced hearing, but the hyper-sensitivity does threaten to throw him off at any moment, and having a form of constant tinnitus must be something of a psychological burden. And we wonder why he’s always so on edge… 😉

Either way, the hearing heartbeats thing is pretty impressive (and makes him impossible to hide from), and also tells us that Matt is very susceptible to low-frequency sounds. As annoying as this would undeniably be – low-frequency sounds are hard to shut out – there are some pretty interesting things you’d be able to do with it. The first one on the list might not be that relevant to most thing going on in the comic, but is still pretty cool:

  • “It’s about to rain, I can feel it”

    That was supposed to be a quote from the Daredevil movie, in case you’re wondering, though I probably don’t have it exactly right from memory. Somewhat surprisingly, Matt really should be able to predict when a storm is coming. While I’m at it, I’m going to throw in earthquakes too. Violent weather and moving tectonic plates give rise to infra-sound, that is sound at frequencies that are too low for humans to hear. Some animals can hear, or in other ways sense, infra-sound and one theory of why animals might act strange when something’s “in the air” is that they’re picking up on these physical signs. Matt might be expected to do the same. Except they don’t have very many earthquakes in New York, do they?

  • Signs of life

    Human activity, at least of the modern variety, is characterized by machinery, from the gentle hum of a laptop (though may I just say that I love how silent my new MacBook is – love it!), to the loud buzz of a refrigerator or an electrical generator. These humming and buzzing sounds are also of the low-frequency (though audible) variety that travel long distances, don’t lose much punch when passing through walls and leave plenty of room for improvement compared to real-life crappy hearing. So, combine this abililty with the under-used tracking ability, and send Matt off to find a secret military base or something.

  • Best lover ever

    Daredevil isn’t a MAX title, so we’re probably never going to see him actually getting it on, but I just realized a while back that one of the benefits of being able to hear someone’s heart-beat, and smelling every pheromone they send out, would be that you could get 100% in sync with someone between the sheets. This would be very useful, and he would always know when the woman is faking it. This isn’t necessary from a superhero perspective, but with all the downsides to his physiology, he’s gotta be allowed a little fun, don’t you think?”

In closing

I’m going to cut the list short right here, because this post is long enough as it is. It could go on though, and I’m sure there are tons of things that I haven’t thought of. Do you guys have any examples of things that Daredevil should be able to do that no writer has thought to include yet? And I’m talking about plausible things here, he’s already done all the crazy stuff. 😉

I will see you back here tomorrow when we’ll talk about Milla, one of the more controversial characters in recent Daredevil history. Take care!


  1. Darediva

    I guess this could explain another reason Matt moved back from San Francisco? All that techtonic shifting going on in California?

    It would be relatively easy for DD to find meth labs or pot smokers. The war on drugs has taken a bit of a back seat to bigger problems in the Kitchen. DD could be cruising through the city and probably pick up on dozens of illicit labs. Maybe he should start carrying a cell phone and drop a message to CrimeStoppers about where these places are, and not waste his time busting them himself. 😉

    Even in my reality, tinnitus really sucks. I can’t imagine having ultra-hearing, because sometimes this ringing makes me want to scream. ULF sounds carry so far. Hearing the cacophony of the big city would grate on anyone’s nerves. Small wonder DD is wound so tightly.

    Good post, Chris, as usual. DD could be pretty much on the level of Batman in the detective department, I’ve always thought. Just don’t ask him to cut the red wire to stop the ultimate destruction of the world.

  2. PikkuPiru

    Great post, ! I’ve always wondered why theses abilities were never used as they could … ok, i’ve never had the chance to read the whole Daredevil comics, but …

    You speak about how much pain it would be to endure so much sounds … but don’t say anything about how horrible it would be to live in such a big city, surrounded by all kinds of people – so many don’t think that a regular shower is good also for others -, garbage, cars and whatever, toxic waste … with a crazy enhanced nose. Sure he’s used to it, but hey, even with a nose not really working half of the time like mine i can’t stand living in a city for too long. It’s just too much awful scents. I think if he really had this nose, he’d be forced to stand far away from any people whenever they open their mouth, and think about those alleys full of garbage, smelling like pee and i don’t know what, where he always ends grabbing the bad guy … wow, really, you’re right, no wonder why he’s so on edge …

    anyway, i love your blog (huh, site, now ?), i read it whenever i can. Your eye on the character is so good, you should be taken as a consultant 😛 ! The comic would be seriously improved !

  3. Christine

    Thank you very much for your kind words! Now, write Marvel and tell them that. 😉
    The reason I tend to think of superhearing as being worse than a heightened sense of smell is that 1) hearing (too) loud sounds is physically painful, whereas smelling something generally is not, and 2) that people get used to smells more quickly. Standing in an alley filled with urine and garbage is no picnic, but if you stand there for half an hour, your nose gradually gets used to it. I guess I just see the heightened sense of smell as something that would be easier to adapt to over time, but that is my own personal interpretation.

  4. PikkuPiru

    hey, you’re right. I didn’t think far enough about it 🙂
    ok, now, let’s find Marvel’s mail box …

  5. Duane Thomas

    “As an aside, Daredevil still seems to be smelling cordite everywhere, even though they stopped manufacturing the stuff many years ago.”

    Interesting. You’re one of the few people I’ve ever met who knows that. When I watched Collateral and the detective in the alleys said, “I can still smell the cordite,” I could only think, “I sincerely doubt that.” lol.

    The range of things that you can do with your sense of smell is extraordinary even when we consider what a person with a sense of smell toward the high end of what we’d class as “normal human” can accomplish. For instance I once had a girlfriend who had an extraordinary sense of smell. When someone was walking up behind her, granted the wind was right, she could tell they were there when they were still 20 feet away, simply because she’d smell them. Not only that, she could tell if they were male or female without even looking. She told me, “It’s kind of hard to explain, but women smell sweeter than men. Whereas men smell kind of bitter.”

  6. Shanti

    “Either way, the hearing heartbeats thing is pretty impressive (and makes him impossible to hide from),”
    Ah, this remind me of one crossover fanfic on when Matt get hired by Angel who doesn’t have heartbeat.

    Speaking of heightened smell sensitivity, there are some people who can’t get use to it. It’s called sensory defensiveness.

  7. aladdinsane68

    Sorry about this but,How about farts.Does he smell them coming?! hahaha.Just a little levity there.

  8. StrangeFan

    I’ve always wondered if Matts increased sense of touch makes him enjoy the fun between the sheets more 😉

  9. Duane Thomas

    Kind of gives new meaning to the term “sensual”.


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