Countdown to Marvel’s Daredevil: Blindness and heightened senses

Apr 7, 2015

Countdown to Marvel’s Daredevil: Blindness and heightened senses

Apr 7, 2015
Well, if you’ve been coming around these parts for a while, you’re probably not surprised to see me put up a “Daredevil science” post, looking specifically at what we can expect from the Netflix series. If you’re new to this site, as many of you are these days (welcome!), look under the “science” label in the menu if any of this whets your appetite for more.

Before we go on, though, I should point out that I’m basing much of my speculation on things we’ve seen in the trailers, and other clips, as well as what I’ve been able to glean from some of the reviews I gathered up the courage to actually look at. So, if you’re avoiding all spoilers, wait to read this until after you’ve watched the show

In terms of exposure, the upcoming Netflix series is the biggest thing to happen to Daredevil since his first live action outing in 2003. And while I will gladly defend that movie’s redeeming qualities – there were some – I think we’re all collectively hoping for this new opportunity to translate into the best thing to happen to Daredevil since his creation, more than fifty years ago.

One thing I wonder about, though, is what a wider viewing audience with little prior knowledge of Daredevil will make of this character. I’m referring specifically to some of the core characteristics that have always confounded non-fans. The concept of a blind superhero is not easy to wrap one’s head around.

For this post, I will adress both parts of the equation, i.e. the blindness and the heightened senses. To figure out how Daredevil works as both a superhero and a – yes, legitimately – blind person, you need to look at the totality of it all. To start with, I’ll share my thoughts on what I expect from this series in terms of the handling of Matt’s blindness. After that, I’ll move on to what we can probably expect when it comes to the more fantastical elements of Daredevil.

Legitimately blind

The notion that Matt Murdock’s blindness is somehow not “real” is very common among fans and non-fans alike. There have even been writers who clearly subscribe to some version of this idea (this panel, by Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr, from Daredevil #250, is a clear example of what I mean). I have stubbornly and vocally opposed this (mis)understanding of Matt Murdock’s unique physiology since I first came into contact with the character, and longtime readers of The Other Murdock Papers may be excused for being tired of my rants at this point. For the benefit of people new to this site and/or Daredevil, I will rehash some of my arguments here:

  • Visual impairment is not an all or nothing phenomenon

    Matt Murdock is a totally blind person who, thanks to his heightened senses, is able to function – to a great degree – as if he were not totally blind. This is absolutely, and undeniably true. From this follows that he, in order to hide his heightened senses, has to put on a bit of a show. He rarely, if ever, has any need for a white cane (the exceptions to the rule might be if his other senses are temporarily impaired for some reason). So, he has to actively pretend to need a white cane. There’s no denying that there’s a certain amount of pretense that goes into protecting the Daredevil identity.

    Where people tend to go astray, is in assuming that Daredevil’s ability to fight bad guys – and avoid out of place furniture – makes him into a close enough approximation of someone who is sighted, that his blindness is little more than a technicality. This is probably due in part to the way people associate blindness with certain blindness-related paraphernalia (such as white canes, guide dogs, braille etc) that if the need for such paraphernalia is lifted, one goes on to place Daredevil, in this case, into the sighted category.

    In reality, most people with visual impairments, spanning from milder cases of low vision and well into the legal blindness category, can see. They just don’t see very well, their visual function existing on a continuum from nearly normal vision to very little vision at all. There are clearly people who see nothing at all, or can only distinguish light from dark, but this is actually less common than I think most people assume. There are plenty of legally blind people who don’t need to use a white cane, particularly in well-lit areas, and most (legally) blind people don’t know braille, relying instead on other tools for reading print.

    In essence, not really needing a white cane, and – at least in the comics – being able to read print if needed does not make Matt Murdock fully sighted. Rather than thinking of him as a functionally sighted person who is pretending to be totally blind, it would be more accurate to think of him as someone with perhaps roughly 20/400 visual acuity, no sense of color – but hey, a 360 degree “visual” field and probably really good depth perception! – pretending to be totally blind.

  • People are generally not very good at understanding their own sensory experience

    Tying into the points I made above about people not considering the vast territory between totally blind and fully sighted, is another thing people tend to be partially unaware of: their own sensory experience. This is not only evident in the research that, over the last fifteen years or so, has shown how easy it can be to fool human attention (remember that experiment where people miss someone crossing a basketball court in a gorilla costume?), but in understanding how it is we do the things we do.

    When it comes to thinking about Daredevil, I think that many people tend to underestimate what their sense of sight really does for them, and how it provides a wide array of different kinds of information. It’s common to hear people remark that “Oh, Daredevil can “see” everything except screens and pictures,” and then conclude that this is somehow a minor point. The only problem is that this logic disregards the fact that a huge amount of the information we process through our sense of sight is, in fact, “pictorial” in nature.

    Matt Murdock’s inability to see, in any kind of traditional fashion, wouldn’t just trip him up if someone shows him a photograph or if he sits down in front of a television or computer screen, it completely cancels out any and all surface information that most of us take for granted to the point where we don’t even realize it’s a thing. What advantage over any other “regular” totally blind person would young Matt have in front of a school black board? How would he, at a glance, go into a store and know as easily as the rest of us who is a member of the sales staff, as opposed to a fellow customer? How would he know exactly where to go in a visually complex and unfamiliar environment? True, he wouldn’t run the risk of bumping into anything, but that’s not the same as having access to all the same information as the average person.

  • The consequences of even real-life disabilities depend on situation and context

    This brings me to my last point on this particular topic, which is that Matt Murdock, just like any real life person with a disability (or, for that matter, any person with particular strengths or weaknesses, which includes all of us) would be much more affected by his blindness in some situations than in others. There are tasks that he can perform better than most anyone, whether blind or sighted, thanks to his heightened senses and training. There are other tasks that could be performed at the same level as a sighted person, and yet others that are made more difficult by not having “full” vision. Then there are those situations which his heightened senses can’t cover at all. Using a white cane is part of “the act,” using a braille watch, assistive computer technology, or various special gadgets isn’t. This is all part of the complexity of the character and shouldn’t be something to shy away from.

As for what we can expect from the Netflix series, I’m actually not that concerned. I think that the show’s creators and actor Charlie Cox have probably found a good balance between Daredevil’s extraordinary powers, and his “blind spot,” so to speak.

For one, you get the distinct impression that everyone involved in this project has thought about absolutely everything. Secondly, it’s a show that is specifically aiming to make things as grounded and “realistic” as possible (more on that in the next section of this post), and having Matt appear inexplicably capable in ways that are not supported by his particular combination of blindness and heightened senses, is not going to be helpful in achieving that end result.

It also appears, from watching the trailers, that even the Daredevil fight scenes are choreographed in such a way that it quickly becomes clear that Daredevil operates a little differently. This is not to the character’s disadvantage, of course. Out in the field, he really is in his perfect element. This is where having a good general sense of awareness of your surroundings and being nearly immune to sneak attacks outweighs not being able to “see” things in color or great detail. It also looks like Daredevil will make at least occasional use of the classic comic book tactic of killing the lights and fighting his enemies in the dark, where he, unlike his foes, will remain unaffected.

There are also scenes like the one between Matt and Claire Temple, where he wakes up in her apartment. Their dialogue goes as follows:

“Where am I?”
“You’re in my apartment.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the lucky girl who pulled you out of the garbage.”
[At this point, Matt desperately feels for his mask]
“Have you seen my face?”
“Your outfit kind of sucks by the way.”
“Yeah, it’s a work in progress.”

This scene, to me, clearly – yet subtly – communicates a difference between how Matt behaves in this situation and what one would expect from a sighted vigilante. Under the circumstances, it would make more sense to start by asking Claire who she is, rather than where he is. If Daredevil could see, he would be able to size up the room in great detail within a fraction of a second. He would also realize the futility of asking his rescuer whether she’s seen his face. Granted, Matt is probably pretty out of it in this scene, but his sensory make-up is obviously intended to affect his behavior in this unfamiliar setting.

It is also clear that placing the character of Daredevil in a live action setting, running for twelve hours or more, puts a higher demand on these creators’ ability to think about the minutiae of Matt’s entire range of everyday activities, than what is usually the case in the comics. A comic book is 22 pages of story, made up of static images, with very little time to spend on things besides advancing the plot and throwing the superhero into action. The time that passes in between panels, and issues, is part of the “yada yada” that the reader simply has to infer. With the page constraints, there is precious little space to devote to scenes of Matt Murdock simply going about his day. The “cost” of including such moments drops dramatically when you move the story to a live action format, but at the same time, this forces the actor, writers, and directors etc to actually think about what that would look like, making it much harder to simply use the character’s powers as some mystery deus ex machina.

While the use of assistive and adaptive technology in the Daredevil comic has increased in frequency over the years, and in this regard I can’t praise current writer Mark Waid enough, it’s still a rare sight. I expect to see more of this in this show for the simple reason that it would be a natural component of building a more realistic world around Matt Murdock.

Legitimately “super”

What about that important other part of the equation, the sensory enhancements that make it possible for Matt Murdock, blind lawyer by day, to also be Daredevil, vigilante by night? Well, I expect to see a different take on this than what we’re used to. I get the sense, and there are indications of this from reading some of the reviews, that Daredevil will not possess a separate radar sense in this show. This may be a controversial move to some, but this too is an area where there is plenty of reason to update the original understanding of Daredevil’s senses.

It is also not a completely novel move. The 2003 movie strongly suggested that we view Matt’s hearing as the primary source of his pseudo-visual perceptions. The two runs of the comic that has greatly influenced this show – Frank Miller’s The Man Without Fear, and Brian Bendis’ run – also downplay the existence of anything outside of the ordinary set of human senses. No mystery waves emanating from Matt’s brain, just dramatically heightened senses of hearing, smell touch and taste. In reality, this would mean that the “radar sense” is essentially a highly refined ability to echolocate, honed through practice and experience, and elevated by Matt’s sense of hearing being both more sensitive and covering a greater range of sound frequencies.

Over the years, I’ve gradually come to favor this understanding of the “radar” sense. First of all, I find I more natural, and consequently more elegant. I look at it as applying the thinking behind Occam’s razor to the notion of superpowers, in that a character’s powers should never be more complicated or less “realistic” than what are strictly needed to explain the effects of those powers. If “echolocation on steroids” is sufficient to explain Daredevil’s knack for fighting crime, then it’s unnecessary to complicate things further.

So the question is: Would echolocation be sufficient? First of all, some suspension of disbelief is always going to be necessary. Even characters with no powers at all do things in the comics and in the Marvel movies that defy all logic. The very idea of a blind man developing heightened senses and fighting crime is a bit silly. At the same time, the last few years have seen quite a bit of research on the existence of echolocation in real-life blind humans. People who are expert echolocators really do display some pretty jaw-dropping abilities, and are able to discern relatively small objects. While these people tend to use active echolocation, i.e. making a sound and listening for the echoes, there is also evidence to suggest that blind people passively make use of inter-aural differences in the ambient sound field to gauge their distance relative to nearby walls.

The point is that the sense of hearing can be used to derive spatial information from the environment, and the mechanism behind this is, in my mind, enough to base a superpower on. Add to this Matt Murdock’s ability to literally hear the locations of people around him, even when they are not moving, from the sounds their bodies make naturally, and it’s easy to see why he’s impossible to hide from.

What of Matt’s other senses? Well, the sense of taste was always more of a parlor trick than a useful skill – and our actual sense of taste is closely tied to our sense of smell anyway – so I think we can safely ignore that. That leaves smell and touch.

I’ll be interested to see what they make of Daredevil’s famous nose. Smell was underutilized for decades until Frank Miller came along, and it tends to be one of those senses that are often ignored. A heightened sense of smell could be incredibly useful to a blind character, so I’d be very surprised if we don’t see this put to good use, the main challenge being communicating what Matt is smelling in a way that doesn’t require too much exposition.

When it comes to his sense of touch, I expect this to be referenced as well. It wouldn’t surprise me though, to see Matt’s long-established ability to read print done away with. First of all, it has the disadvantage of being based on printing techniques that are less common today than they were in 1964. Secondly, to people who are new to the character, and aren’t used to this somewhat flaky idea, it risks being one of those things that take away from the (relative) realism of the show. A heightened sense of touch can be imagined in ways that have a direct impact on Matt’s fighting ability, in the form of proprioception – i.e. the “inner” sense of touch that informs body awareness – but I find it hard to believe that the creators of this show find Matt’s ability to read print important enough to hang on to. There’s no shame in using braille, and this shouldn’t be an issue in 2015

Well, if you’ve made it to the end of this post, feel free to comment, if only to let me know that you made it to the very end. Thoughts – and questions! – are always welcome.


  1. Rylie

    These are pretty much my favourite posts of yours, the ones that examine the science of his abilities. I literally sit here just whispering ‘yes!’ to myself, because you hit every point that I try to make when I’m explaining to people that it’s not the same as vision. It’s just not.

    I loved that scene when he woke up, by the way. It’s adorable.

    I was a little iffy when you said that they might have done away with his radar, but I love your explanation of ‘echolocation on steroids’, as that does make a great deal of sense.
    I also think it’s a great idea to get rid of his print reading abilities.

    Ugh, you just got me excited all over again. I’d managed to work myself down to being relatively calm, and now I’m just all hyped up again.
    (As a side note, I super loved the interactions we’ve seen between Matt and Foggy so far. It’s looking to be a great friendship, which I’m pleased about.)

  2. Elizabeth

    Yes, I made it to the end! I always find your scientific posts interesting and am looking forward to seeing how they handle the character’s advantages and disadvantages in the show. Of course, I’m even more interested in how they handle Matt as a character, so was very happy to see the funnier (“7 hours”) bits on the latest previews. I was worried that it would be too dark and depressing, since drama can easily equal morose. Glad they’re not completely going that way.

    As for the scientific view, I think his radar sense could be a combination of his hearing and sense of touch. Shifts in air pressure and breezes as people breath or move around him, the warmth radiating from them, etc… could also be felt by your skin if you were super sensitive. You can feel another person standing near you even without super senses. So echolocation plus vibration could be a good way of knowing what is going on around you.

    Now that I think of it, I guess I’m commenting in response to both this and the previous fan girl post. From one fan girl to another, I am very excited about Friday’s shows and am not sure how I’ll get through work that day. I may have to peek at the first episode before my morning commute, which will mean more of a question about not being sure how I’ll GET to work. (I’ve managed to avoid squeeing so far though. I’m trying to resist at least until I get to watch the first episode. Several giggles and preview re-watching has been done however, to my husband’s amusement. Hey, he knew what he was getting into when he married me!)

  3. Mental Image

    I am, as ever, impressed with your thoroughness and clarity of thinking. Ta for an excellent post. I am always uncomfortable when writers/commentators/fans dismiss the significance of Matt’s #actualBlindess.

    I’m very intrigued by Elizabeth’s suggestion that Matt’s “radar” [sonar, echolocation] is, in part, haptic. That makes a lot of sense and has already been added to my mental picture of the character.

    Thank you for your work!

    ]| )

  4. tate

    Great read, and I’ll agree with you and others that too many times Matt’s powers have been portrayed as being better than actual sight and writers forget or ignore what being blind actually is. I’ve always been a fan of Matt’s “powers” simply being the 5 enhanced senses, and less so the idea of the radar being its own “power”. I roll my eyes especially when some writers have had him being able to turn the radar on and off like a switch. I know I’ve given Mr. Waid a lot of grief lately, but I will say I think he has a better overall grasp of Matt’s abilities and blindness than just about any other writer.

  5. Ellen Fleischer

    Excellent post!

  6. jeffro

    i think another thing that would make matts heightened senses more poowerful than one who was born blind, in that he was able to see fully for 9 years, and know what things are supposed to look like, where someone born blind doesnt have that same frame of reference. it sounded good in my head anyway but i’m not a writer and cant always articulate things like they pop up in my mind. great article

  7. Genesis Malakh

    I made it to the eeeennnd. I rather like your perspective on Matt’s abilities.


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