Faking it with Matt Murdock

Aug 8, 2011

Faking it with Matt Murdock

Aug 8, 2011

A very important part of the superhero sub-genre is the division between the costumed persona and his or her civilian alter ego. The superhero business often takes place behind a mask to protect the hero’s anonymity and, when out of costume, said hero often has to go to great lengths or develop elaborate schemes to protect his secret. This will often entail lying to friends and family, something which, in turn, tends to cause a great deal of anguish for our self-appointed crime fighters.

All of this is true of Matt Murdock as well. However, in the case of Daredevil, there’s an additional layer of deceit at play that I must admit bothered me occasionally when I was new to the character. Some of you may have thought about this as well while others will certainly think I’m over-analyzing things, but I think it’s clear to most people that Matt has to go to much greater lengths to conceal his powers than someone like Peter Parker.

To take the example of Spider-Man, we can be relatively certain that he considers just walking down the street like any non-powered person to be just as natural as hanging from a wall. He’s not denying his true nature simply by not displaying a skill given to him by his powers. In the case of Matt Murdock, it’s very different. In order to keep his powers (and his secret life) hidden from others he has to act, move and do things in ways that will at times be just as bad as telling an outright lie. He has to pretend to be a non-powered blind person when he’s really not. Whereas Peter Parker can hide his powers passively, Matt Murdock has to do so actively.

Karen walks Matt to court, from Daredevil #4, by Stan Lee and Joe Orlando

Whether or not you’ve given this much thought in the past, I think we all can agree that it doesn’t exactly do much to paint Matt as a sincere person. You could argue that he’s deceiving people around him for a higher cause, but how far can you really take that idea? In Matt’s case, it’s also the case that he would have had to lie for years before even coming up with the idea to put his abilities to use. Is doing what Matt does really acceptable from a moral standpoint?

Shortly after I started thinking about this issue (troubled as I was by the fact that I really wanted to like this character for whom living a lie came so easily), I came to the conclusion that arguments can be made for why Matt’s behavior is justified, and I’ve been able to enjoy my Daredevil without worrying about this pesky little detail ever since.

The right to privacy

First of all, before even getting to the part about what Matt has to do to hide his powers, let’s look at this from a broader perspective. Should you be obligated to tell people around you that you have supernatural abilities? Or, to compare this to something we might find in the real world: Should you have to tell people that you’ve been trained to kill someone with a single stroke by a secret government agency and that your whole body could technically be considered a deadly weapon? Well, so long as you don’t intend to use this knowledge to kill your next-door neighbor, it really is nobody’s business but your own.

Most would agree that people do have a right to privacy, and there are few things more private than a person’s own body. Only when, say, a disease you carry presents a serious public health hazard do other people’s rights take precedence over your right to not disclose this information. You don’t have to carry a sign around your neck alerting everyone to the sexually transmitted disease you picked up the month before, but you’re strongly urged (or possibly even required) to reveal this information to those you risk passing it on to.

While Matt is a skilled fighter, he’s not required to make this public knowledge, nor is he obligated to share with total strangers that he has the ability to hear people’s heartbeats or smell what they had for dinner last night. Judging by what we can piece together from canon, he apparently made the decision early on to not share these special abilities with other people. Why? Well, one guess could be that he might have feared further poking and prodding by doctors, in which case laying low, even around his father, would have made a lot of sense.

Between a rock and a hard place

If you’re Matt Murdock and you know that you have been endowed with certain abilites that lie outside normal human capacity, but which you’ve chosen to conceal, there are really only two options available to you. You can either pretend that you don’t have them, or you can try to use these abilities to pass yourself off as a sighted person without powers. Why? Because the reality is that Matt represents such an odd mix of enhancements and deficits that the true nature of his physique would be revealed if he were to come clean with exactly what he can and can’t do. He simply can’t act, react and behave in the way that would be most natural to him without disclosing his special abilities, which we’ve already decided that he’s not morally obligated to do, and which he obviously doesn’t feel comfortable doing.

When it comes to deciding to either pretend he doesn’t have powers or to pass for non-powered but sighted, it’s interesting to note that since first donning the Daredevil costume, Matt seems to have compromised by creating two ways of being. In the world where Daredevil operates, it’s possible for him to act as if he were sighted since his lack of vision is rarely a problem when he’s going about the predominantly physical task of policing the underworld.

In Matt Murdock’s world however – both that of the young boy and the grown man – doing so would be nearly impossible (and not only because everyone would obviously know about his accident). Despite his heightened senses, the idea that Matt could have made it through high school, college and law school, followed by his professional career, while pretending to be able to see things he clearly cannot, is simply too far-fetched. Not only would he be doing himself a disservice academically, people would easily be able to tell that something was off. And, he would have to subject himself to unnecessary stress, being constantly in the dark (literally and metaphorically) about what information he might be missing. As Frank Miller puts it in Daredevil #191:

“The secret identity can be a relief, Bullseye. When I’m Murdock, I don’t have to use my amplified senses to pretend I’m not blind.”

Matt goes to visit Chuckie in Daredevil #191 by Frank Miller, quoted above

As Daredevil, faking sightedness is fully attainable and a logical decision. In the more (visually) complex world that exists away from the dark alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen, such as decision risks putting Matt at a serious disadvantage, though I’d argue that it couldn’t be done at all, at least not consistently for any real amount of time. After all, it’s easier to pretend that you know less than you do, than it is to try to fake knowing more and risk coming off as a fool.

A matter of degree

So if concealing his heightened senses is a valid personal choice and the only way to do this in a wide range of situations is to simply act as if he doesn’t have them, then just how much would he have to supress his natural instincts?

The most obvious example of Matt going out of his way to not reveal his secret is, of course, his use of a white cane. In fact, aside from not being able to drive (which is much less of a deal in a place like New York City than it would be in most other places in America), his level of mobility is not at all affected by his blindness. On the contrary, the 360 degrees nature of the radar sense combined with his level of physical fitness makes him much better able to navigate even extreme physical environments than any average human. Based on comic book history, the only things known to affect this ability are very noisy or otherwise chaotic environments as well as physical injury and disease (you might remember scenes like the one below from the 2007 Daredevil Annual, by Ed Brubaker, Ande Parks and Leandro Fernandez, in which Matt suffered from a bad case of the flu).

Panel from the Daredevil Annual (2007), by Ed Brubaker, Ande Parks and Leandro Fernandez

So, if Matt’s walking to work near a busy construction site the morning after having his head banged against a brick wall, he might feel some comfort in having the extra protection, but this is certainly the exception rather than the norm. For most intents and purposes, the cane is a prop.

Having said that, there is no reason for this part of the Murdock charade to take on the “magooesque” proportions it often did during the early years. More often than not, he’s playing the part of a skilled non-powered blind person in environments with which he would be intimately familiar – such as the areas in and around his home, the office and the court house etc. People would expect him to be able get around easily, and no Academy Award-level acting performance would be needed to convince anyone that he’s anything other than ordinary. The simple mechanics of moving the cane back and forth would be so well-rehearsed that he wouldn’t consciously have to think about it. It’s an act, but probably not one that is particularly challenging to pull off.

When it comes to other things, the lines between necessity, preference and pretense start to blur. As current Daredevil artist Paolo Rivera put it in an interview he and Mark Waid did with CBR:

“Vision is such an important part of human life that it dominates every aspect of how we conduct ourselves, from the tilt of a neck to the arrangement of furniture. When I draw either Matt or Daredevil, I want his distinctive “point of view” to be apparent merely from his body language. On one level, Matt’s blindness is an act — an interesting aspect of his personality by itself — but on another level, he really should conduct himself differently than any other superhero.”

This is spot on. While conducting himself like a non-powered blind person wouldn’t come completely naturally to Matt, neither would acting just like his sighted peers, whether within or outside the “superhero community.” Humans, like all primates, are highly visually oriented. Relative to most other mammals, vision is the most acute of our senses and it accounts for the vast majority of our sensory input. In this sense, Daredevil is a completely different animal.

Panel from Daredevil #301, by D.G. Chichester and M.C. Wyman

“My head swivels up at the voice, partly for appearances, partly reflex from when I could still see.”

Despite the assertion by many fans and creators alike that “Daredevil can see better than all of us,” for this to be even remotely true, we’d have to completely redefine the meaning of the word. Without color vision and consequently without any sense of fine detail, the pseudo-vision provided by the radar sense would still be Matt’s weakest sense, especially when you take into consideration his others senses being dramatically heightened. For instance, Matt would exhibit a much greater than average need (and desire) to touch things, a fact that is often on display in the Daredevil comic. The same thing goes for an increased reliance on scent and sound, and for this reason Matt probably would go about doing a long list of things about the same as any other blind person; the main difference being that he would be much better at it.

In closing

Like I said at the start of this post, I doubt that most fans have given this issue as much thought as I did when I first made my acquaintance with the character (I think the mere existence of this website is a sure sign I spend way too much time thinking about all things Daredevil). Nor do I suspect that the extent of Matt’s deceit is as disturbing to most fans as it was to me. For those of you who have spent any amount of time thinking about this, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this issue.

If being a lying super-powered bastard is comparable to illegal parking, then doing what Peter Parker does is like lingering a bit too long in a drop off zone. In Matt’s case it’s more like parking in the handicapped spot, something that is just… well, it’s much, much worse. However, I’ve found that the more you really think about it, the more you come to realize that while we don’t have to forgive Matt for coming up with an imaginary twin, faking his own death or being something of a jerk a lot of the time, we can forgive him for not telling the world the whole truth about what he can do.

Matt’s decision to pass himself off as a non-powered blind person is not so much a lie as an exaggeration, one he engages in because his only other choice, if he wants to keep key aspects of his physiology private, is to attempt the vastly more challenging task of denying his blindness. I guess when it comes down to it, this omission of the truth is hardly the most unsightly skeleton in his closet. 😉


  1. Steve

    Christine, you make a lot of interesting and compelling points, but as Uncle Ben told young Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.” In Matt’s case, that responsibility was to protect his friends and loved ones from harm by “pretending” to be a “normal” blind man. Now let’s look at people close to Matt who know he’s Daredevil, but AREN’T superheros or villains: Foggy, Ben Urich, Milla (altho one assumes she’s gone for a good while), Dakota…has Matt’s responsibility to make sure they stay safe from harm decreased or increased by them knowing his secret? I’d say it’s increased. So was he — and they — better off when he was deceiving them? A tough moral dilemma, I think.

  2. Robert

    The fact that Matt Murdock is extremely flawed is probably the main reason I love the character. Matt is not an honest person. Like Miller pointed out in his intro to The Man Without Fear, every time Matt goes out as DD he’s breaking the promise to his father and his oath as a lawyer.

  3. Bee Clayton

    To be a successful lawyer, I would think one would have to be quite good at either lying or bending the truth. 😉

    I’ve never been all that bothered by Matt’s seemingly lying about his true abilities to everyday people. What I find more impressive is that as DD, he’s managed to convince everyone that he can ‘see’, to the point that whenever it comes up that he may be DD, everyone automatically assumes he is faking being blind! Wonderful irony that suits Matt’s particular type of humor.

    But I wonder, how often, as DD, does he has to remind himself to ‘look’ at his opponents as a sighted hero would do?

    Either way, it’s a unique feature to the character which I like.

  4. R.M. Hendershot

    Great post. You’re not the only one who’s thought about this, either.

    The moment that brought the problem home to me was a bit in Christopher Golden’s Daredevil novel “Predator’s Smile.” Daredevil goes to Josie’s for the umpteenth time to get information out of a snitch, and Josie yells at him as soon as he walks in the door–because she’s posted a “No Super Heroes Allowed” sign outside, and she thinks he’s ignoring it. Matt, of course, registered the sign as a flat piece of cardboard, and didn’t touch it to read it because he didn’t think it was important, so he missed the information.

    Since he does seem to need to touch print to read it (and accounts vary on how well he deals with computer screens), I think he’d have a lot of trouble passing himself off as sighted in everyday life. He’d be unable to read classroom signs or instructions on the blackboard in school. Street signs would be a problem, especially the ones that are too high for his fingers to reach, and anything laminated or relying on color distinction would be illegible. I remember wondering as a kid how he ever managed to do things like drive a stolen taxi–wouldn’t the windshield block his radar? (Then again, I STILL don’t know how he can stand to punch people.) That’s to say nothing of people pointing at lines in a law book. And then there’s the social stigma of someone who has to use a finger to read–that would be a business killer for an attorney.

    As a person with naturally poor eyesight but better-than-average senses of hearing and smell (not hyper, just sensitive!), I’ve always enjoyed watching Matt try to navigate the world’s assumptions. I think he handles the situation as fairly as anyone could under the circumstances.

  5. Donna

    This topic fascinates me more than any other DD topic so far. Its weird because while I get a lot of what’s being said a part of me realizes I do not yet totally appreciate or understand it fully.

    But that being said -NOW I understand why some said they cringed in season one of Netflix Daredevil series when Claire said, “You’re blind but you see so much.”

  6. Genesis Malakh

    As much as I thought about this even before I got super-hardcore into Daredevil, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, lately. I feel like my views on it more or less coincide with yours, and having met many of the “he pretends to be blind,” “he can see better than…” guys myself, it’s refreshing to read this perspective written in such an analytical manner without being too long-winded like, um… me.

  7. Nora

    I completely agree that faking non-powered blindness is the only viable option for Matt if he wants to lead a normal life without ending up in a laboratory and being Daredevil is probably an outlet. Always having to downplay one’s abilities must be very taxing at times.
    But what I find very interesting if his perception is to completely different, so is his behavioral environment (the external cues that trigger behavioral responses) So he should have acquired some unusual behaviors, for example to avoid uncomfortable stimuli others can’t even percieve. How does he decide which perceptions are within the expected limits and which perceptions he has to hide? I don’t buy the constant metaanalysis (“my radar sense tells me….”). His perceptions are his reality, regardless from which sensory channel they come. It must be very difficult to estimate which part of his reality are congurent with the perception of a non-powered blind person (which he fakes to be as civilian Matt Murdock) versus a sighted person (which he fakes to be as Daredevil).

  8. geb

    here i go again, in spite of what you say above regarding the possibility of and including entertaining the fear that our hero may not only wind up in a laboratory under observation but just may take us all with along with him for the ride if we delve too deep into what makes MM tick..

    it appears to pose quite a problem (for the writers too).. at the very least, a major inconvenience to have to play the great pretender on a regular but sporadically scheduled basis..

    if i may share a possible breath of relaxation that sort of alleviates my deadend curiosity regarding these type of problems..

    i consider the chance that at the time of his radioactive exposure, then again most during his period of trauma but, also just as importantly, through the extended processes of metamorphosis/coping/healing/, he may have passed degrees, through each and all stage/es, of such extreme disorientation, isolation, incapacitation (physical for sure but especially mental), and we may only wonder what other form of trials, so well beyond the realm of human acceptance that just the mere fact of him exiting and standing was in itself the initial spark that lit the healing fire spreading toward his recuperation (and in a big way)..

    (gosh what a long sentence.. it does not seem so runon when i’m writing in the box.. but when i hit the post button.. goodgod.. sorry))

    the therapy was due to just that.. the extremity of the beginning of his life’s turning point was the actual inoculation, the vaccine that enabled his system to pull through.. i mean to say.. or hypothesize, rather..

    hair of the dog (during and after, maybe) that bit him type of deal.. “you’ve got to lose, to know how to win” smith type of philosophy..

    the most simple example that i can think of to give is the difference that we all immediately feel when we exit and step from inside to outdoors.. i imagine that perhaps the network of his senses (however it may presumably operate) would be stemming from aforementioned (or even more basic) feeling and has become so simply second nature so as to encompass subconsciously far more condensed mechanisms (as in most advanced microchips) for dealing with situations both usual and uncommon..

    wonder what would ari say?

  9. geb

    I have searched and discovered that many, many fans of mwf comic are (very) disappointment with the 2003 film.

    I get sort of down when I read the various reasons that people are discouraged with this film.

    Some are very capable rhetorics.. presenting arguments that for all intents and purposes are very well presented.

    my memory harks back to when reading critics, or so cited, attempting to pinpoint what exactly it it is that makes the music of the DAN of STEEL so extraordinary. so many reviewers give all of their capacity and then some.. (loquaciousness) to the end of a portrayal of donald and walter as two of the foremost cynical and in tune sarcastic synthetes ever..

    I, even being from the old country, knew that when they (Steely Dan) were scalping stereotypes through their lyrics it was that they were most definitely directing their sarcasm at certain sectors.. but there it stopped .. exactly what and exactly at whom they were channeling the “hey you” was subconsciously evident but it never overrode the beautiful music that they were simultaneously and oh so most ever so capable of delivering

    this is most important.. that the white-noise goes in one ear and out the other… no harm done.. the average people do not get hung up on “living the song” so to speak.. no .. what we hear is the pleasant music.. which is what all true artist know and strive for the bulk of their work’s direction.. toward pleasing the human ear.. and relaxing the mind…

    does this comparison have a bearing?

    below so that it gets untrying


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *