Daredevil and the physiology of Superior Spider-Man

Jan 8, 2013

Daredevil and the physiology of Superior Spider-Man

Jan 8, 2013

Daredevil has been in the news a little bit more than usual lately, due in large part to his title featuring the first ever appearance of the new Superior Spider-Man, as seen in Daredevil #21 (see below). The two will face off for real in next week’s Daredevil #22 and an unlettered preview of the event has already made the rounds on various websites. It has also generated some comments that are – believe or not – of a science nature. Sort of. Of course, I had to take a stab at trying to make sense of it all. 😉

Kirsten meets Superior Spider-Man, from Daredevil #21 by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

Kirsten vs Superior Spidey, from Daredevil #21 by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

In the post Will Daredevil be the first to discover Spider-Man’s new identity?, movie and television blog Flickering Myth suggest the following:

“Since Otto is now Spider-Man, his heartbeat is different to the one Daredevil is used to, so in theory he should become the first person in the Marvel Universe to learn of Peter’s demise and Doctor Octopus’ victory.”

The same thing has been suggested elsewhere. When the extended preview for Daredevil #22 was posted on CBR’s Robot 6, someone had this to say in the comments:

“Are you guys really that daft as to not realize that Daredevil knows because of his heartbeat? Just because its Pete’s body, that doesnt mean his heartbeat will be the same…his voice would be off a lil bit too. I hope Daredevil figures it out right away.”

At the risk of coming off as, well, daft, I would argue that not only should Daredevil be no better equipped than anyone else to figure out the nature of Spider-Man’s change of character. If he actually were able to do it the way the proponents of this theory suggest, his ability to identify people generally would really be much worse than it is.

Part of what makes Matt’s ability to recognize people through his senses of hearing (heartbeats, voices, breathsounds) and smell is that it is, to a great extent, immune to most attempts to conceal these features. He can recognize someone through a layer of perfume or cigarette smoke and he can identify a person’s heartbeat whether they just got out of bed in the morning or came straight from running a marathon. He doesn’t recognize people by how fast their heart is pumping (his lie-detecting abilities, on the other hand, are tied to the actual speed and pattern of the beating heart), but by the unique “voice” of the heart as it is molded by that particular person’s physiology.

Even though Doc Ock’s consciousness is in Peter Parker’s body, the body will not automatically change in response to being inhabited by a new personality (though it’s conceivable that whatever new habits this personality brings with it might lead to gradual changes over time). The “voice” of Peter’s heart should be the same, even underneath a potentially uncharacteristic hyped-up-on-adrenalin frequency pattern. By the same token, the vocal chords of Peter Parker’s body will remain the same. The speech pattern will be different with Doc Ock at the helm, but Matt is more likely to think: “Why is Spider-Man trying to do a Doc Ock impersonation?” than “Ah, Doc Ock has taken over Spider-Man’s body!” If it were easy for people to override the paramaters set by the physical body, in terms of voice quality, body sounds and body chemistry, fooling Daredevil’s senses would be much easier as well.

The most relevant real-world comparison to the Doc Ock situation is probably Dissociative Identity Disorder (also known as Multiple Personality Disorder). While DID remains controversial to this day, it has been suggested by some that each personality may represent a discrete physiological state. However, even in that kind of scenario – and the available evidence is inconclusive – we’re likely talking about the kind of differences that come from different emotional states (where personality A may be fearful and defensive and personality B an adrenalin-driven adventure junkie). At the end of the day, the so-called alters are still inhabiting the same body.

Since the Daredevil #22 preview is unlettered – though we can probably expect a lettered version on Friday – there’s no way of knowing whether Mark Waid has decided for Daredevil to start suspecting a body switch/demon possession scenario (hey, it is the Marvel Universe and there was that Shadowland situation…), but this should be for reasons obvious to everyone who knows Spider-Man: The guy looks/smells/sounds like Spidey, but he’s acting out of character. One way you could have Daredevil’s senses play a major role in deciphering the truth is if he were to catch the good doctor in a lie. Other than that, his new body should give very little away that wouldn’t also be clear to other people through changes in body language, mannerisms and behavior.

Does that make sense? Do you disagree? If so, plead your case in the comments! 😉


  1. David Dunn

    I’d never disagree with you. You’re a genius. Only Batman would know straight away.

  2. Bee Clayton

    I agree with you Christine. I don’t see how a new personality would alter a heartbeat to the degree that DD would notice (and even then, he might think ‘Peter’ was in some medical distress, not the victim of a villain’s plot)

    Unless, of course, Matt breaks out his aura-sense. Maybe he will sense the evil, negative aura of Ock surrounding Peter’s body. 😉

  3. Christine

    @David Dunn: Aw, thanks! You’d be surprised by how rarely I get to hear I’m a genius. 😉

    @Bee Clayton: Oh yes, that old “aura of villainy” detector. 😀

  4. Brook

    To play, er, Devil’s advocate: might Doc Ock’s consciousness in Peter Parker’s body force a near-constant state of lying, which Daredevil would detect as such? At the very least, would he not have to lie to pretend to have hung out with Daredevil on many occasions? I admit that I don’t know the details of the transformation into Superior Spider-Man. This may all be dealt with in the final issues of Amazing Spider-Man.

  5. Elizabeth

    I’m annoyed by the whole Doc Ock plot-line so would be quite happy if DD called him on it immediately and had the Avengers switch him back so we could go back to the status quo. (I guess I’m getting to be a grump in my old age. I still haven’t forgiven them for the Mephisto plot twist. I miss Peter and Mary Jane as a married couple. The idea of Doc Ock getting cozy with her creeps me out. Haven’t read the last few Spidey comics yet though so am not sure exactly how they’re handling that.)

    As for the general conversation, the Multiple Personality Disorder comparison is intriguing. Haven’t there been situations in real life where the same person had a completely different accent (sometimes whole language) depending on which personality is in play? Wouldn’t it be possible that the brain would trigger different hormones based on the different personality as well? That would make him smell different. (Not to mention that they probably have a different diet, thus the change over time you mentioned.) Wasn’t that why he didn’t recognize Mary and Typhoid Mary as the same person? Or was it just her pheromone power that made men fall in love with her that was to blame?

  6. Rebekah

    I’m with you, Christine. If it’s Peter’s body, much of the physiology would be the same (unless, as Elizabeth pointed out, a dietary change altered it). Of course, I’m betting Doc Ock isn’t nearly as good at banter as Peter, and Matt’s lie-detector routine would easily expose the impostor if he thought to use it.

    The DID/MPD parallel is interesting, but based on my limited experience with the disorder (my adopted sibling was diagnosed with it, and later institutionalized as a result), I don’t think it would create enough of a physiological change to tip Matt off. People who knew my sibling could spot the personality shift when it happened, but it had more to do with facial expression and bearing–things that are hard to get a bead on when Spider-Man’s flipping all over the landscape, and hard to pick out when Spidey already does so many impressions. There was no major vocal shift when my sibling made the change, although the vocabulary changed a little.

    I think Matt’s best bet is to either smell something hinky or catch Doc Ock in a lie. I look forward to seeing how it shakes out … and here’s hoping Otto Octavius loves stinky cheese …

  7. Bill

    I think physiologically your arguments make sense, but this is a unique situation. We really don’t know if brain swapping can create a detectable change in someone’s physiology. Doc Ock may be naturally more anxious or something else down that line of thought. As you said Matt may also be able to detect a difference in terms of body language, mannerisms, and behavior. However, I think those things will scream at him in way they would not to someone who doesn’t have Matt’s power set, not to mention his longtime friendship with Spider-Man. We make fun of the aura thing, but I think it’s reasonable that Matt know something is just off.

    By the way the panel you posted from DD #21 threw me when I first saw it. I just thought it was Peter being funny (I was unaware of the “shift”).

  8. M

    You’re right, of course.

    I can see them going this way, though. It’s not like comics always make sense when it comes to science-y things.

  9. Rebekah

    Love it. “That can’t be Spider-Man–he’s shutting up too much!” That is EXACTLY the right reaction.


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