It’s radar magic! (You don’t have to explain it)

Jan 13, 2011

It’s radar magic! (You don’t have to explain it)

Jan 13, 2011

Before we get to my review of Daredevil: Reborn #1 later today (see also Newsarama’s brand new interview with Andy Diggle), I’m going to treat you guys to a good old-fashioned rant. You see, when I went through all of those old Bendis issues, chasing down examples of the occasional Daredevil joke (see my previous post), it reminded me of everything I liked about the Bendis run. It also reminded me of one of the things that really bugged me about it: the occasionally hyperbolic “senses writing” and particularly Bendis’s unusually incoherent and downright odd use of the radar sense.

Yes, we’re making yet another journey into the pseudo-science of Daredevil’s senses and we’re skipping many chapters in my old series on the history of the radar sense to do so, but this topic has been begging for my attention since last week so I decided to tackle it here and now.

Ditching the radar – Well-conceived but poorly executed

It seems pretty clear, to me anyway, that it was a deliberate decision on Marvel’s part to do something about Daredevil’s radar sense around the time Bendis took over the book. It’s certainly possible that Bendis himself provided the driving force for this change, but it must at least have reached the editorial level at some point as there was a deliberate change to the character introduction on the recap page, starting with Daredevil (vol 2) #27. For the first time, there’s no mention of a radar sense:

“Attorney Matt Murdock is blind, but his other senses function with superhuman sharpness. He stalks the streets at night. A relentless avenger of justice.”

The first issue of Bendis’s run, Daredevil #26, was first published in December of 2001, fourteen months before the February 2003 release of the Daredevil movie which also featured a “radar-less” Daredevil (at least in the traditional sense, with the radar being a separate entity). Because of the time gap, I have to assume that this slight change in the comic had little to do with the movie and any effort there might have been to have the two mediums be more similar in this regard, though I may be wrong.

Either way, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m actually in favor of looking at the radar sense as more of a skill, developed out the enhanced echolocation abilities super-hearing might confer, than as a separate sense, particularly if we’re are to assume that the “radar” functions as actual radar, as opposed to just being a euphemism. Not only is the idea that Matt actually emits radio waves through his skull very “silver age,” it would be pretty useless since radio waves actually pass right through many objects that easily reflect visible light, such as wood or even people.

However, I know that some Daredevil fans are quite attached to the radar being a separate sense (whatever that sense might be), and I guess enough of those people sent angry letters to Marvel, because as of Daredevil #41, the text on the recap page reads as follows (emphasis mine):

“Attorney Matt Murdock is blind, but his other senses function with superhuman sharpness and a radar sense. With amazing fighting skills he stalks the streets at night. A relentless avenger of justice. The man without fear!

Whatever the case might be, Bendis could have gotten away with not handling things all that differently from what had been the case during, say, the Miller days, and initially it seems like he might have gotten some inspiration from Matt’s training with Stick in the Man Without Fear mini-series. In the “silent issue,” Daredevil #28, we see Matt extend his hand as if to feel the air.

Matt using his radar sense, Daredevil #28

In the parts of the script that was printed in along with this issue, published during ‘Nuff Said month, Bendis himself describes the scene as follows.


(TIME FOR ME TO STOP TAKING SHIT (the word is completely blacked out, my note) FROM PEOPLE FOR NEVER USING HIS RADAR : ) )

Okay, the radar as air you can touch with your hand is fine, I guess, if a little odd. But how does this interpretation match other instances of Matt’s radar at work later during the Bendis run? Well, I have to admit that I can’t quite make sense of it.

How is this supposed to work exactly?

In the scene below, from Daredevil #43 Matt pays a visit to Luke Cage. Now, I don’t know much Luke knows about what Matt can and can’t do and how he does it, but the description of the radar as something that can be “flicked” on and off doesn’t exactly make it sound like the organic ability to utilize his four remaining heightened senses that it’s been described as.

The other problem with this whole scene is what exactly Bendis thinks Matt can do with this “radar.” How would he use his radar to look for people doing drugs? Anywhere in the building no less. What is it this radar sense does that gives him this ability to presumably know exactly (and not solely through smelling or listening – even though that would be something of a stretch too) what every person in the building is doing? Is the radar suddenly not the crude – albeit useful – ability to sense the presence of objects relatively close by, but instead a form of transcendent knowledge for which there is little explanation?

Matt talking to Luke, from Daredevil #43

I’ve highlighted this particular scene because it strikes me as particularly questionable, but Bendis’s tendency to, in my opinion, exaggerate the type and amount of information that could be accessed via this “non-sense” (remember that this particular interpretation requires that it be based on the other four senses) was something that occurred to me on multiple occassions. I get why having metaphorical eyes in the back of one’s head is powerful, but knowing what everyone in a city block is doing simultaneously (as he does in another scene during the Out arc when determining that it’s safe to change into his Daredevil costume) strikes me as much more than that. The point of changing the interpretation of the radar sense was probably to make the character more grounded in the real world, not less so.

In Bendis’s last story arc, The Murdock Papers, the radar sense even plays into the plot of the story in a couple of ways, which makes things even more confusing. Personally, I think that The Murdock Papers was a complete mess of a story with some pretty glaring plot holes, the most important being that Elektra presumably helped gather intelligence for a set of documents that ended up never having existed (huh?). Among the things Elektra was supposedly keeping tabs on was how Daredevil’s radar sense works, see the scene below (remember that all images on this site “pop” to full scale when clicked, click again to close).

Daredevil talking to Elektra, from Daredevil #78

I have several problems with this scene:

  1. Daredevil talks about his radar as if it were some kind of military defense scheme that requires a particular procedure or password to bypass, rather than something that has a more grounded basis in human (albeit enhanced) biology.

  2. The sweeping statement that he can detect all kinds of recording devices is illogical. If he can detect a particular recording device, it’s not by virtue of it being a recording device, it’s because it makes a sound of some kind that gives away it’s location. If you can make a recording device that is close to perfectly silent, then how would he detect it? Daredevil here gives the explanation that he has “sensory radar,” but I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, especially in light of the interpretation that his other senses together form the radar sense. If he means that he can pick up radio signals because he’s got a radar, then that’s the kind of throw-back to the Stan Lee era I could have done without.

  3. While not featured in this particular scene, this story arc also sees Matt being shot by a sniper. The decision to use a sniper who can fire from a great distance is presumable based on the knowledge that this was a great enough distance in order to bypass Daredevil’s radar sense. This brings us again back to the questionable notion that the radar is very well-defined and has properties that can be mapped, tested and then bypassed. How do all these people know the extent of Matt’s senses when I find it hard to believe he’d even know for sure himself? And what about the radar sense would give anyone the idea that Matt can’t be shot from close range? Yes, I know Daredevil has been known to be able to avoid bullets, and he’s done so repeatedly throughout the history of the comic, but, as with recording devices, he doesn’t actually have a built-in gun detector. Knowing when someone is about to fire and the trajectory of the bullet has always been described as a rather complex and analytical task, based on different types of information, such as a spike in the shooter’s heartbeat. All it would take to get the better of him would be to create a sufficiently tumultuos situation.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that there was way too much “pure fucking magic” (pardon my French) in Bendis’s writing of the radar, and not enough of a sense that this is an ability grounded in how our real senses actually work. There are too many cases of Matt simply knowing stuff with little explanation of how he would actually know them. With a character like Daredevil, you have to be very careful in balancing between giving him powers that are impressive, and going too far and making him nearly omniscient with an ill-defined radar as the ultimate alibi.

Senses in over-drive

What added to this sense of Matt being more powerful than I would have liked, was also how his other senses – when looked at as separate senses – were written during the Bendis run. Take a look at the panel below – and one that I generally find to be beautifully written – and guess where exactly the writing crosses my personal line into ridiculousness. 😉

Matt waking up, from Daredevil #33

If you guessed the part where Matt smells the saline solution in the reporters’ eyes – through a brick wall no less – you’re absolutely right. I can’t even imagine why anyone would want to ruin the mood of this scene, already impressive enough (even being able to smell a croissant through a wall is pushing it, unless his building is a drafty hell hole), by suggesting that he can smell the saline solution in people’s eyes? Let us get this straight: Our bodies are mostly saline. Saline is essentially water with a particular concentration of sodium chloride. If he can even smell saline at all, it’s likely he’s smelling the saline from his own eyes before he smells anyone elses. Yes, I know I’m being picky, that it’s just a comic and that there should be some room for bending the laws of physics, but I can’t help it. It annoys the heck out of me.

My reaction to the scene below, from the last issue of Trial of the Century (Daredevil #40), is one which creates an equal, if not greater, level of annoyance. There are many, many cases where we can catch Matt hearing things that not even superhearing would allow (knowing that sounds physically can’t travel infinite distances or and that they can be annihilated by obstacles in their path), but this is one of the most extreme cases I’ve seen, simply because we’re not talking about sounds that are at least moving through open space.

Matt listening, from Daredevil #40

The problem with the scene above is not that Matt is hearing something through a wall, even a so-called soundproof one, it’s that he’s hearing entire conversations through multiple walls. I know he has superhearing and that this is a comic book, but one question every Daredevil writer should ask himself is: When does the handling of one of Daredevil’s senses stop being thought-provoking yet grounded and at what point does he essentially become Superman? In this case, he crossed the line into Superman territory about three walls ago. Then again, you’d think even the Man of Steel would be subject to the laws of physics…


I think this post probably lived up to the warning I offered at the very beginning, and turned into something of a rant. Well, sometimes it feels good to rant. I doubt that most other fans are as bothered by these and others examples as I am every time I read them, and I know Brubaker even took some heat for essentially taking Matt’s abilities down a notch after people had become used to Matt being able to magically know stuff for years under Bendis’s otherwise very competent stint as Daredevil writer.

But, I think putting a cap on what Matt can do and drawing the line at what seems reasonable for a so-called low-powered character is in the best interest of the character. I can understand why going a little crazy with the superpowers can be appealing to some writers, but something is lost in the process and makes the job of getting a character into trouble, when the story calls for it, that much harder.


  1. AP

    You are definitely not alone! All of that stuff bothers me too! Saline solution? Really?! It got to the point where it felt like he was using the magic cop out all the time. And I am soooo glad you brought up the plot points about the Murdock Papers. The Elektra thing really did my head in.

    Bendis did have some great ideas and stories in his run. I feel the first 1/2 of his run was great, but the latter half really seems to suffer in many places. I don’t know if it’s that he was busy with more books at the time or just got full of himself but something definitely changed. How he used Matt’s powers really brought his run down a few notches for me. Miller’s run is still head and shoulders above everyone else for me.

  2. Christine

    I’m so glad to hear I’m not alone in this! I always feel like a real nit-picker bringing this kind of thing up, but this was a post I’d been wanting to write for a while so I’m glad I got it out of my system.

  3. Bee Clayton

    I’ve never given much thought as to how his radar exactly works. Is it a separate sense like Spidey’s danger sense? Is it a unique ability that’s a culmination of years of honing his enhanced senses into ‘focus’?

    Don’t know. Like you’ve mentioned, sometimes writers go overboard with what he can detect, but what irks me more is when writers dismiss it outright. This is one of the few things that irked me about Brubaker’s run but Diggle was worse. No mention of it, no hint of it, just a blind man who puts on tights and fights crime. A new reader might wonder, ‘How does he do that??’

    Besides, half the fun is seeing artists’ different visual interptations of the radar. 😉


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