On comic book realism and Daredevil’s senses

Dec 10, 2009

On comic book realism and Daredevil’s senses

Dec 10, 2009

I love it when you guys comment on my posts. Having people engage with the content I put out on this blog is rewarding in and of itself, but it’s even more fun when the comments turn into a conversation or, as is the case here, spawn entire new posts.

So, this entry is sort of a continuation of the conversation between Aaron and myself in the comment section of A history of the radar sense #6. Before getting to that, I thought I’d also reply to a related comment of Aaron’s (go Aaron!), coming out of an exchange in the comment section of “Because I can’t just kill him” – part 7. We got to talking about comic book science, and I remarked that I thought Daredevil was the most realistic superhero. Aaron was immediately, and appropriately, on my case:

@Christine: The “most believable superhero”? Let’s not get carried away. 🙂 I think someone like the Punisher is a little more believable: he’s a guy with lots of guns who keeps himself in peak physical condition and has trained extensively in martial arts and weaponry. Really, any of the depowered heroes fall into this camp, e.g., Hawkeye or Black Widow (unless you think whatever age-defying serum she took is a super-power).

I never did get back to him on that one, but here is what I’d like to say, in a nutshell: In a world where superheroes do exist, someone like Hawkeye, i.e. Clint Barton, makes little sense, within the context where he usually operates. Don’t get me wrong, I like him a lot (I guess I’ve got a soft spot for the low-powered guys), but let’s just just say he looks a little naked next to Iron Man and downright ineffective next to someone like Ms Marvel or even Spider-Man. He’s one of the reasons I’m glad Daredevil has never been an avenger, because Barton often strikes me as woefully out-powered, and Daredevil would too in the same situation. However, I will gladly admit that the Punisher is more realistic, though I’m not sure he’s technically a superhero. 😉

So, allowing for the existence of super-powers, that is making what The Physics of Superheroes author James Kakalios calls a “miracle exception,” the reason I think Daredevil ranks so high on the believability scale is that, even though he is often put in absurd situations where his senses are pushed to the max and beyond, he actually can be written in a way that stays within the laws of physics. And because of his “extremely fit but human” level of strength and physical prowess writers rarely put him into situations he shouldn’t reasonably be able to get out of. True, he did go up against the Hulk. But it did nearly kill him.

This brings me back to the basic anatomy of Daredevil’s power set, and the more recent exchange between Aaron and yours truly. While discussing Daredevil’s radar sense, the topic quickly turned to how his powers have changed over the years. Aaron suggested that that Daredevil has gradually become more powerful. I agreed, but felt that this more recent “power boost” was largely restricted to the Bendis run, and went on one of my usual rants in support of the laws of physics. The particular scene I invoked in support of my argument was the one from Trial of the Century in which Matt listens to his client cry in the basement while seated comfortably on the roof many floors above. True to form, Aaron gave me food for thought:

So, I’m guessing you’re not a fan of the infrequent occasions when DD has sat on a tall building and somehow searched all of Hell’s Kitchen until he found that particular person/thing/smell/whatever that he was searching for, eh? How else is Matt going to keep his kidnapped girlfriends alive? […] Off the top of my head, Brubaker had DD do this at least twice (kind of). Once, during the Mr. Fear story, DD sat back and listened for Fear’s metallic voice somewhere in the Kitchen. At the very end of Brubaker’s run, Master Izo found Milla by finding her scent in the city, something he claims Matt could’ve done if he had simply focused hard enough. […] It doesn’t look like our modern writers are going to be abandoning DD’s one super power any time soon.

This takes us to the present and the (long overdue) point of this post. The first thing I’d say here is that I take no issue whatsoever with his finding people by smell. I figure that if a dog can do it, Matt can do it. In fact, I think his sense of smell is generally underused and that he should be able to track people better (which I think I mentioned in a previous post). Of course, that would mean that he’d need a trail to follow, but I would much rather see him smell out the bad guys than listening for them.

I’m familiar with the old Miller scene in which DD seeks out Bullseye by listening for him from the top of a roof, and am not a fan of it (though the issue as a whole was quite good, I thought). I’m not suggesting that Bendis introduced the concept of having Matt do things he shouldn’t be able to do – and I’m also going to assume that writers have only a vague idea, at best, of what the difference would be between only “humanly impossible” (and thus explainable by giving someone special abilities) and physically impossible (i.e. things that clearly defy the laws of physics and not explainable by super-powers alone). On the other hand, most super-powered characters in the Marvel U are regularly doing things that fall into both of the chategories.

What I will say about Bendis, though, is that I felt like he wasn’t even trying sometimes, and that he would often include details that were meant to be cool, but made no sense. Another couple of examples come to mind, aside from the scene I mentioned earlier. One is when Matt wakes up to the reporters outside his door after his outing, and he comments that he can smell the saline in their eyes. Things like that seem to be included only for the reader to be impressed with his mind-blowing powers.

Another scene that comes to mind is the fairly simple one, where Matt is standing outside his apartment and, in his own words, looking for a reason not to change to Daredevil (this was also from the Out arc, I believe) and more or less scans the area for anyone looking out his window. In order to do this he would have to be aware of what everyone within a block radius is doing, simultaneously. He would have to be aware of the positions of hundreds of people and their respective location relative to both himself and any windows or doors. This ability to simply “know things” in ways that cannot easily be explained by his heightened senses was common during Bendis’s time at the helm.

It is also the case that the scene I mentioned initially (Matt hearing something through many layers of cement at the top of a building) goes quite a bit beyond hearing something at great distance in open air and/or through a single wall. Sound can travel quite far, and super-hearing would allow for something of an edge here. This makes Brubaker’s scene with Mr Fear (who was presumably relatively close by, and somewhat out in the open) a little more believable. I agree that it’s a stretch though, and this is another one of those situations where I would have preferred that Matt just use his nose.

In general, and in closing, I think the reason that blatant violations of both the laws of physics and basic common sense annoy me as much as they do when it comes to Daredevil is because we are dealing with a character that really could be written well while maintaining some amount of respect for the impossible. As with any other superhero, we accept the “miracle exception,” but it’s great when the reader doesn’t have to suspend disbelief more than necessary. Okay, Aaron (and everyone else), let’s hear it! 😉


  1. Aaron Kimel

    A preliminary remark for the sake of clarity: Christine, I’m with you 100% on realism in superheroes. Logically consistent power sets are the best way to go and all attempts to tie powers into the science of the appropriate comic universe are better than nothing. So far as that goes, I completely agree with what I take to be your main point.

    Preliminary remark #2: my ignorance as to how to put things in “quote” blocks and italicize or bold characters prevents me from making this comment look super spiffy. So, please, just pretend they’re there when appropriate. Thank you. Now, on to what will no doubt be an overly lengthy comment on my part. (In fact, let me just go ahead and apologize for how long this is going to be before I even start.)

    Let’s handle the non-DD business right off the bat. Obviously, Hawkeye can’t hold his own against Thor or Iron Man. (When I say “Hawkeye”, I do mean Clint as Hawkeye, as opposed to his Goliath days when he had traditional superpowers.) Of course, neither can Captain America in a straight-up slugfest. And I should probably point out that if you then claim that Captain America does not make sense in the context of the Avengers, you will have revealed yourself to be clinically insane. 🙂 Do I really want to defend Hawkeye qua Avenger? Not really, but I’ll play devil’s advocate and let him defend himself from the Bendis-penned New Avengers #39. Clint is speaking to Maya Lopez about her feeling out of place fighting Skrulls alongside Luke Cage’s Avengers team.

    Clint: “When I first joined the Avengers as Hawkeye, I thought: okay, it’s me and my little arrows right next to the real life god of thunder… And I’m going: what the @#$% is my exploding arrow going to do that lightning boy with the hair can’t do? But then, there’s this moment. Something happens. You could be on your own, or part of the team, when all of a sudden, you are the exact right person for the exact right moment. And you take your shot. And all of a sudden you know. You’re an Avenger.”

    Just because Clint says it certainly doesn’t make it true, of course. But, there is something to be said for the Avengers including persons of disparate power levels and skill sets to allow themselves maximum flexibility. (Bendis had Tony Stark say something to this effect in Mighty Avengers #1 when declining an all-powerhouse team lineup and choosing to go with, for example, Black Widow.) If I lived in the Marvel U and needed a super-hero by my side would I ever choose Hawkeye over Thor? I can’t really imagine doing so, but maybe there would be some sort of contest to see who’s bagged the most superheroines and Clint would totally be my go-to-guy. (Just off the top of my head, there was Black Widow, Mockingbird, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Echo, and Moonstone and I haven’t read more than a handful of classic Avengers comics.)

    And to finish off this matter, I did some more thinking on “realistic” superheroes after that previous post of mine and thought that perhaps Iron Man should come up in our conversation. Putting a soldier into a combat suit is certainly not far-fetched, though perhaps the extent of his suit’s powers are. The concept is certainly realistic though, and something somewhat like it is likely to occur in our lifetimes.

    That was a lot of writing concerning a non-Daredevil topic, but I blame Christine for opening the door. 😛

    As to finding persons by smell, the basic idea may well be sound, but the way I read Daredevil #500 – and I can’t defend this reading as the proper one – I took Izo to be using the same sort of omniscient sense that we condemn in Matt. I imagined Izo sitting atop the Empire State Building, catching a whiff of Milla, and jumping off to find her while making horrible (and hilarious) puns. Your much more restrictive reading – tracking a person via scent from a location at which that person was known to have been ala a bloodhound – reduces this problem considerably.

    I’m a little surprised you’re quasi-defending Matt finding Mr. Fear in Daredevil #105 since all we know is that Mr. Fear was meeting SOMEWHERE in Hell’s Kitchen. While that’s relatively close-by in the sense that I could drive there in a reasonable time if I’m also in the Kitchen, it may not be close-by when dealing with one’s ability to hear him speaking in a normal tone of voice. This strikes me as a thousand times worse than Matt hearing the folks debate a jury verdict in the lower floors of a building on which he is standing.

    Not that you seem to have any inclination to do so, but I believe I have found an instance of Matt’s super-senses being used in a manner neither you nor anyone of our ilk would ever defend. In Daredevil #38, the first issue of the Hector Ayala trial arc, Luke Cage and Danny Rand go intimidate some punks to find out who actually killed the cop Ayala is charged with murdering. Right as they’re starting up their interrogation, Matt calls Luke. Immediately, Matt tells Luke, “The one on the right… his heart’s about to explode.” Luke points to the man to his right and says, “You!” Matt retorts(?), “No, your other right…” and Luke Cage then points to his left and says, “You!”

    Two things leap out at me. The first, relatively trivial, is that Luke DOES identify the thug to his right and then Matt tries that “your other right” joke. That joke only works if the OTHER person confused their right from left, not if the SPEAKER confused their right from left. I place the blame for that one on Manuel Gutierrez, the artist, unless Bendis actually intended to make Matt look the fool instead of Luke Cage. It’d be funny if drawn right. As is, it’s just kind of confusing.

    The second and more important point is how the heck Matt knows this. On my first reading, I thought Matt was doing his DD thing on the fire escape and sensing through the walls what was happening inside. As it turns out, Matt is at his law offices with Foggy some indeterminate distance away!

    Apparently, Matt is able to reconstruct a room and its contents over a phone. Think about that. How sensitive are phone microphones and speakers? Maybe, Matt could tell that there are three heartbeats in the immediate presence of the phone in addition to those of Luke and Danny, though I doubt that the phone microphone would even pick up that. (If we took the signal from the phone and boosted the volume 1000 fold, would we normal folks be able to hear the heartbeats of those present? I maintain not. Sounds of sufficiently low volume simply would not be detected/recorded/noticed.) But, how would he know anything about directionality?

    A phone has one speaker. You don’t get a sense of directionality. Try having your friend speak on the left of the phone and then the right. I’m betting you can’t tell the difference because the phone doesn’t have stereo speakers and the input data probably isn’t saved in any sort of stereo format: it’s one audio track. So, Matt shouldn’t be able to tell who’s on the right and who’s on the left anyway.

    Perhaps even most amazing is Matt’s sense of timing. From his law offices, he managed to call Luke at the exact proper moment in time – just as Luke commenced with his interrogation. Not only that, but he managed to determine that the particular thug’s heart was about to explode during the time it took Luke to say, “Heroes for Hire”, the noise of which, I contend, would have all but drowned out any other sonic data accessible to Matt via phone. How many times could that guy’s heart have even beat in the time betwee Luke answering the phone and Matt speaking? Five? Matt later determines that these gents are telling the truth by listening over the phone, but at this point, that seems to be about the easiest part of this feat.

    Despite its being a stupid theory, I think the best way to explain Matt’s abilities in this issue are to maintain that he could sense, from his office, what was going on wherever Luke and Danny were. Then he could knew when to call, who was panicking most, where that person was located, etc. That’s the best explanation of what Bendis has Matt doing here. Otherwise, none of it makes sense. So, maybe finding Mr. Fear in Hell’s Kitchen is doable, but this — identifying individual heartbeats at some other random point in the city and immediately filtering all the relevant data to determine who is a useful candidate for interrogation and where that person is relative to Luke Cage — is downright ridiculous.

    All of which is to say that someone should’ve reined Bendis in, as you already said. 🙂

    Alternatively, perhaps we should all consider that WE are the ones in error, not the writers. It makes sense to us that Matt should have scientifically possible abilities, however defined, and should not simply be able to do whatever he likes. But, perhaps, that’s simply us getting the character wrong. Perhaps it’s not that the writers of Daredevil, beginning with Stan Lee, misunderstood what Matt could do. Perhaps it’s that we, as readers hoping that the book will be written a certain way, have mischaracterized Matt’s ACTUAL powers.

    If you want to follow continuity, let’s look no further than your wonderful series on Matt’s evolving radar sense and other wacky powers. Stan Lee invented the guy and Stan says he can fly rocket ships by touch. Who are we to say he’s wrong? Lee says Matt can sense evil auras. Ok. Miller says Matt can identify a cough (I think) somewhere in Manhattan. Good enough. Bendis says Matt can smell saline solution. These folks invented and popularized the character. Certain literary theories (which, in the interests of full disclosure, I don’t subscribe to) state that they CANNOT be wrong about that character’s attributes. Why doesn’t Matt use these extreme abilities all the time then? They’re hard to do, so he sticks to his more common, vague radar sense.

    I find it strange that I, personally, can’t accept Matt’s ability to find one voice in NYC, but I have no problem with Cyclops’ ability to shoot laser beams out of his eyes. The former, intuitively, should be more believable since it’s just a human ability to the nth power. The latter should be less so since, to my knowledge, nothing in nature shoots destructive laser beams out of its eyes. (If there is such a thing, PLEASE LET ME KNOW ABOUT IT.) The problem is me.

    Christine, you write that Daredevil “could be written well while maintaining some amount of respect for the impossible” without the reader having to suspend disbelief more than minimally necessary. As true as that is, maybe the writers don’t give a damn and just want to write whatever the heck they want. To say that Daredevil could be written well unfortunately does not logically imply that it should be written so.

  2. Christine

    First of all, thanks for your very long reply! Almost as importantly, thanks for making me feel less alone as a comic book science geek. 😀 Here’s another lengthy addition to the conversation:

    1) That scene with the phone and the heartbeats, and the lapses in logic? I was SO totally going to do a post about that this week and put it in the Wacky Powers category, in part because I was reminded of it when I flipped through my Bendis hardcovers a couple of days ago. I was going to include it for the exact same reasons you’re giving. Phones don’t (and this is known for a fact) pick up the kind of frequencies it would need to in order for the sound of a heartbeat to be able to pass through. It also wouldn’t be able to transmit a three-dimensional sense of the “soundscape” in that room. However, I just chalked it up to a mistake. If, as you’re suggesting, this has anything to do with Matt’s magic “I know everything” power, then that’s an even bigger source of disappointment.

    2) You’re right in that I’m quasi-defending the Mr Fear scene. I’m not outright defending it though, and was definitely annoyed by it when I saw it. I would even go so far as to admit that I was more annoyed whenever Bendis did something like that because he did it so much more often, while Brubaker had Matt appearing – as a whole – much more human. That made it easier for me to “forgive” his transgressions which were also accompanied with much more sense of there being considerable concentration involved. While concentration shouldn’t be enough to overcome the all powerful laws of science, it at least signals that the writer is aware that he’s stretching things.

    However, when it comes to deadening sound, walls beat distance hands down. With Matt sitting on the roof, he has so many layers of cement between himself and the source of the sound, that the distance to the sound source becomes a nearly irrelevant factor. I would do the math on this, but that would take up to much precious comment space. I think I’ll save it for the “Science of Daredevil” book I’ve long dreamed of writing, or at least another post.

    3) Thanks for posting the stuff about Hawkeye. I think that was a very insightful thing for Clint to say to Maya (though, speaking of Maya, don’t get me started on the poor logic behind the “can mimic things perfectly” = “can read lips perfectly” = “can therefore speak perfectly” equation when speech sounds are only about 40% visible…). I also would never question Cap’s status as an avenger. Then again, he owes his physical prowess to performance-enhancing drugs. 😉

    4) I’m going to make your day (I hope) by explaing to you why Matt hearing Mr Fear across Hell’s Kitchen upsets you more than Cyclops using his eye beam. I’m in the same situation with another one of my favorites, that is Jamie Madrox from X-Factor whose powers are so freaking impossible that there’s no point in even trying to make sense of them. You are not being inconsistent and your line of reasoning makes perfect sense. It all comes down to the “miracle exception.” We accept that Matt had his senses magically heightened, and that Scott Summers, through some unknown mechanism (and relying on some unknown energy source) can shoot beams out of his eyes. I happily go along with the Multiple Man multiplying. All of these cases, particularly the last two, are impossible in the real world, but we choose to go accept them.

    The next question becomes: “If you had these powers, what could you do with them?” This is what I think this whole discussion is essentially about, and I think that this is where realism matters. A lazy writer would say: “Well, none of this is possible anyway, so we can do whatever we want, and complaining about it is just anal.” But that gets us where exactly? Well, such a writer has just written himself into the kind of problematic corner that Joe Quesada himself pointed out when talking about Dr Strange and other characters who operate through magic (though he didn’t seem to have a problem with it when it came to One More Day). These characters are difficult to write (and for the reader to care about) because they are not rule-governed. Anything can and does happen. This may be convenient in the short run, but it threatens the integrity of the character in the long run. That’s why I also think that you and I and other “science conscious” readers are in the right to demand rules for our favorite characters. Yes, many writers quite obviously don’t care, but their carelessness has a price. It makes characters less believable and it makes for stories that are not as good as they could be.

    Going back to Cyclops, I think you would be very annoyed if he suddenly started using his eye beam in new and perplexing ways. What if he suddenly started using it as a tractor beam to lift things off the ground, as a remote control to change the channel on the TV, or as X-ray vision so that he could look through girls’ clothes? You would probably go: “He can’t do that!” And you would be right. I accept that Wolverine has a healing factor as part of his “miracle exception,” but I don’t have to accept that he could be burned to a crisp, run through a meat grinder and spread on a lawn, yet somehow miraculously recover. It doesn’t annoy me that he has a healing factor; it annoys me that his power, in its basic form, doesn’t explain his recovery.

    With Daredevil, it’s the same thing. I accept that his basic physical senses are heightened, but I don’t have to accept (or I guess I do, but I still get to complain about it ;)) that they are used in ways that don’t actually make sense. When Matt magically knows things in ways that are not easily explainable by having heightened senses (and his radar sense should by no means an easy cheat here), that’s a blow to the integrity and inherent limitations of the character. If writers defend themselves by saying that it’s all make-believe anyway and that since these characters have superpowers, no rules apply, they are completely missing the point. At the heart of it all is a basic sense of how to tell a story that makes sense with characters that need to remain intact beyond the scope of that particular story.

    Phew! Today was sort of a crap day at work, so doing this for an hour has been therapeutic. I think I’m all out of words. Zzzzzzzz.

  3. Aaron Kimel

    I suppose I simply want to suggest that both you and I are begging the question here by assuming that Matt’s magical omniscience IS NOT ONE OF HIS POWERS. IF we begin with that assumption, then Lee and Bendis and Brubaker and whomever deserve our criticisms when Matt does something that someone with mere enhanced senses could not do. But, that’s simply us assuming that we are right from the beginning.

    On the other hand, if we assume that Matt CAN use his radar sense to seek out any individual in all of NYC, then everything that has taken place in the comics makes sense and is consistent with the character (with the possible exception of why Matt doesn’t use his more impressive sensing-powers all the time).

    To say that “Matt magically knows things in ways that are not easily explainable by having heightened senses” is to say that Matt ONLY HAS heightened senses. But, of course, that’s practically the point in contention: does Matt merely have four heightened senses coalescing into something resembling sonar or does he have something above and beyond that as well? You and I are going to choose the first option because it places interesting limitations on the character and “makes sense” to us; someone like Bendis will presumably choose the second option.

    Thus, it may not be any writer or fan ignoring the inherent limitations of Matt’s powers. Rather, it may be a disagreement over what those powers are in the first place. We all agree that Matt can’t shoot laser beams out of his eyes – that’s a valid limitation. The fact that we can’t all agree over whether Matt can recreate rooms in 3d over the phone suggests that that is still an option question.

    I’m trying to think of another character over which there is such a heated disagreement over whether she does or does not possess a certain power (and the implications of that decision one way or another). The best candidate I can come up with in three minutes is Scarlet Witch, whose powers for thirty years seemed to be simply an ability to cast “magic hexes”. Bendis, naturally, made her into a near omnipotent being. (I’m clearly giving away which side I’m on when I say that Bendis MADE HER omnipotent, as opposed to recognized her omnipotence and explored its effects.)

    Lastly, your suggestion that Cyclops start changing the tv channel with his eye beams totally reminded me of that great episode of The Simpsons in which Homer becomes a gun afficianado. He uses his gun to do everything from turning off lights (by shooting them) to opening his beer can (by shooting the top off) to changing the tv channel (by shooting the tv). So, Cyclops COULD change the tv channel if he was careful enough. 🙂


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