The silent ninja conundrum

by | Jul 31, 2017 | Daredevil Science, Featured, Wacky Powers | 12 comments

Well, I could have saved this little detail for my big post about the tail end of Daredevil, season two. But, fearing that it would swell out of proportion in that context, I’m turning this into its own post. Besides, this way it also doubles as a Daredevil science post, and you guys know I can’t stay away from those!

So, what am I talking about here? Well, at the very beginning of episode eight, when Matt and Elektra are still checking out that mysterious hole in the ground, they’re surrounded by a band of ninjas. The thing with these ninjas is that they manage to elude Matt’s senses, presumably by moving so very quietly that only their weapons can be heard. There’s one (big) problem with this: It suggests that Matt can only detect objects that are themselves sources of sound which completely undercuts everything else he can do on this show. If Matt can’t detect silent objects, nothing he is able to do makes any kind of sense.

To be fair to the show’s creators, this notion that ninjas can mask themselves, to a degree at least, has some basis in Frank Miller’s Daredevil run. Though in the scene below, from Daredevil #174, by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, Matt is able to detect the ninjas, by their heartbeats and silhouettes, but they are able to do a pretty good job of sneaking up on him before he notices.

NInjas come to Matt's apartment. He barely notices them in time. As seen in Daredevil #174 (vol 1), by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

By the way, this kind of “radar as afterthought,” is interesting in itself because it highlights the differences between Matt and the average person when it comes to parsing and analyzing a scene. It’s not as if he’s walking into a lit room, it’s more like he’s hearing or smelling something first, which draws his attention to that spot, and then he picks up the shape. In working on my book (a constant work in progress…), I’ve taken to jokingly calling this phenomenon, quite common throughout most of the comic’s history, “conspicuously absent radar.”

You see plenty of hints in this direction in the Netflix show too, such as Matt failing to detect Elektra in his apartment until she brings out the weaponry, presumably because he’s not actively attending to her location, and is thus not actually “seeing her.” You might argue, and I would agree, that he should have at least picked up her scent though. (Heartbeats, on the other hand, seem to be something he actively has to choose to listen for, which actually kind of makes sense given how faint this sound would be compared to the ambient sound level in pretty much any room.) A similar thing happens in episode seven, when Karen comes over to Matt’s apartment to work on the Castle case, and Elektra hides out for at least a little while without being detected.

Getting back to my point though, when Matt does detect the shape of that someone – or something – whether right away, or after a bit of active exploration, his ability to do so must rest on an ability to detect silent objects. In the Netflix show, the 2003 Daredevil movie, Miller and Romita Jr.’s The Man Without Fear, and the Bendis/Maleev run, the explanation for how he does this boils down to his four remaining senses. In most other sources, the radar sense is described as separate from his other senses. For our purposes here, they’re pretty much analogous in that what Matt uses to “see” are echoes bouncing off of silent objects, whether we’re talking about sound echoes or an electromagnetic signal. So long as the bodies of these ninjas introduced in episode eight have solid form, they should have about the same ability to mask themselves to Matt Murdock as a lamp post would. Which is to say, none at all.

Matt and Elektra fighting ninjas, as seen in Marvel's Daredevil season two, episode eight.

As any regular reader will know, I’m usually more prone to complain when I feel that Daredevil’s senses are taken too far, usually because something happens that I feel fails a basic “lock and key” test. If Matt’s senses, as described, are the key, this key should not be able to open metaphorical locks that are obviously a poor match for that particular key. It’s not usually the senses themselves that I find problematic or “too unrealistic” (because they would be, Daredevil is a comic book superhero), it’s the application of them to situations that seem contrived that’s the main issue. Any fan today (and I suspect even back in 1964) would find the scene from Daredevil #2, when our yellow-costumed hero manages to land a space ship in Central Park, guided by the absence of heartbeats, to be patently absurd. And for good reason. The explanation given for how Daredevil does any of the things he’s supposed to be doing is nonsensical. This spaceship scene is, of course, a very extreme case of what I’m talking about, but subtler versions of the same phenomenon are common, and tends to leave me, at least, with that same uncomfortable feeling you get from a glaring plot hole.

When we learn that Matt cannot detect ninjas because they are essentially too quiet, this opens up a sensory plot hole the size of that pit he and Elektra are exploring. It gets even worse in later episodes, when Matt learns alternative ways of detecting them through a different sound source (breath), but is still somehow able to detect – through one or several walls, mind you – what weapons (presumably silent objects) they’re carrying. This suggests that he can echolocate the presence of a silent object through at least one wall, but can’t do the same to find a human body right in front of him. What the h*** kind of “key” is this? Clearly, hearing the sounds actually generated by the bodies of his adversaries, and the sounds of their weapons gliding through the air is helpful to Matt, but this information can not be the only one available to him. If he can’t also use echoes, the entire underlying concept of how the character is supposed to work implodes.

From reading this post, you might think that this was a big issue for me in terms of my enjoyment of season two. It really wasn’t, although, as you can tell, I found it to be incredibly silly. I often suspect that in dealing with Daredevil, people assume that there’s no real way for his powers to make sense anyway, so there’s no point in trying. That, I find disappointing. Of course there is. For nearly every scene I’ve had issues with during the two seasons of Daredevil, I’m pretty sure you could easily make those issues disappear with relatively minor changes to Daredevil’s methodology in each of those scenes, and have things appear more consistent across episodes.

As for reviewers (I’ve seen a couple), who liked this revelation specifically because it shows Daredevil having an interesting weakness, I can definitely see where they’re coming from. I just think it’s preferable to showcase those “weaknesses” that actually make sense (and can be easily read between the lines), than come up with new ones that don’t. There are plenty of things Matt Murdock is effectively blind too, ninjas just shouldn’t be one of them. As the Swedish saying goes, you shouldn’t cross the bridge to fetch water. In other words, keep it simple. 😉


  1. Bill

    I tend to agree. The application of super senses is inconsistent. Having said that, the way ninjas are presented is also inconsistent. I might suggest that creators are doing this on purpose. DD perceives most rank and file folks in consistent and predictable ways. The ninjas are not consistent or predictable, at the very least their physiology is somehow changed (they’ve given us a glimpse of this). Dare I suggest their “mystical abilities” give the creators free reign to be inconsistent, after all some of these people can come back from the dead. In the comic they are often described as subhuman (the Snakeroot were even desiccated) even described as trading their souls (not sure how that would/should effect Matt). Just a thought.

  2. Christine Hanefalk


    “Dare I suggest their “mystical abilities” give the creators free reign to be inconsistent, after all some of these people can come back from the dead.”

    I’d be totally fine with this (I actually thought about mentioning it in the post), but in that case, Matt would have to say that he can’t sense them and doesn’t understand why. Here he pretty much says that it’s because he can’t hear the usual sounds. I’d take mysticism over that any day. 😉

  3. Tate

    Yes. They should have just come out and said it was ninja mysticism. Would have been better than what was portrayed.

    Back in Season One they nailed it I thought with Nobu. He was being still and masking his heartbeat and body temperature through “ninja magic”, but once Matt really started focusing and sensing the room around him he realized Nobu was there. They took it to absurdity in Season Two, but like you it wasn’t a huge issue to me, more of an irritation.

  4. Christine Hanefalk

    @Tate: I actually thought about Nobu here too. I mean, he’s a higher order of ninja in that he’s a leader, and should thus be even better able to mask himself. Sometimes, it’s like they’re not even trying, which is a bit frustrating. And I’m saying that about a show that, overall, is very very solid. But keeping Matt’s senses (and the ninjas’ abilities) consistent shouldn’t be this hard. They should just hire me already, ha ha. 😉

  5. Donald

    Yes, it makes absolutely no sense. The “they’re invisible because they mask their heartbeats” implies that the only way Matt perceives people is by hearing their heartbeats, and that he needs to be told how to pick up on other sensory input… and clearly, I don’t need to explain how silly that is. Logically, Matt should not be able to stand five feet from Elektra and not know she’s there. He should not be getting his butt kicked by a crowd of ninjas and not be able to find them. People are loud and smelly and impact space in all kinds of obvious ways, so regardless of the status of your heartbeat, and no matter how sneaky you are, unless you’re not actually corporeally present, Matt is going to know you’re there.

    The only likely explanation is magic. In the comics, the Hand have all kinds of powers beyond raising the dead, and these occasionally (depending on the writer) extend to an ability to supernaturally cloak themselves. Given their telepathic and other mental abilities, they may do this by impacting the minds of those who would otherwise perceive them. This allows them to hide, to a certain degree, from Matt, who has not been trained to break through this type of cloaking. It’s possible that the Hand ninjas in the show also have this cloaking ability, and I think that is what Elektra is referring to when she says the ninjas are “trained to hide themselves”, training that Elektra clearly has as well, considering how she’s able to appear in Matt’s apartment without him noticing she’s there until she speaks up. It would even explain why Matt’s “listen to someone’s heartbeat to see if they’re lying” ability fails when it comes to any lies that come out of Elektra’s mouth.

  6. Christine Hanefalk

    @Donald: I agree with you and the others that this should have been a mystical thing (one of the few times I’m rooting for much of anything mystical…).

    When it comes to Elektra and her lying, I was actually quite surprised that Matt mentions that her heartbeat was “always loud and clear” or something like that (don’t remember exactly or what episode), and that she also says to him, “listen to my heartbeat, if you have to,” when convincing him that she really fell in love with him. The reason these stood out to me is because, as you touch on in your comment, Elektra in the comics was well-known for her ability to lie Matt. In the show, he seems to be able to get a read on her as he would any other. When it comes to Elektra in this show, a big part of me suspects that Matt really doesn’t want the truth a lot of the time, and so decides to not actively dig around for sensory clues.

    Whether she’s doing something to actively hide from Matt in his apartment, I can’t say but it would certainly make sense. For me, the weirdest part of that encounter is that he 1) doesn’t smell her, and 2) doesn’t hear her (and there would be other ways, besides heartbeats, such as breathing and people’s rather noisy intestinal system), not that he doesn’t “see” her shape.

  7. Mike Murdock

    At the time, I didn’t really think of this much. I guess I just thought of movies where Katanas make a distinctive ringing sound when being unsheathed. It’s basically that sound here. It makes no sense to constantly ring like that, but I didn’t question it because of that cultural convention. But it is a bit silly.

    Then again, it’s in the line of silly things like him detecting nails in the first season.

  8. Nora

    What bothers me most about the silent ninja conundrum is that Matt did not even try to echolocate them.

  9. Daniel

    First, let me say how nice it is to see strips form the comic in your posts again 🙂 This is something that I never really thought about because, like others, I usually have a higher tolerance for suspension of disbelief when it come to ninjas. You bring up good points though. I think it would have been better if it was more consistent with Nobu, in that it is harder to detect ninjas then normal people but not just through breath. I do think a lot of the times Matt’s radar is used secondary to his other senses. In Bendis’ run and in the show Matt uses the sensory input from his other senses to form a kind of mental picture that is his radar. So if the ninjas are masking their sound and maybe even their smell it would be harder for Matt to pick them up then normal people due to less sensory input. But with a little extra concentration he should be able to pick up their echoes and sounds. Although the moment with the breath was a cool moment, it should have come a lot sooner and in a different sensory form; i.e. echoes.

    Honestly I still had a bigger problem with the literal giant “plot” hole in the ground that was never explained and the general lack of actual plot around the Hand’s motivations and actions. Still hoping we get more closer in the Defenders.

    As for Elektra. I like to think that she can, to an extent, hide her lies form Matt. She may have a “loud and strong” heartbeat, but if she can effectively suppress changes in her heartrates and perspiration she may be able to occasionally bluff Matt in the same way a person can throw off a polygraph. But in some instances, like when she confessed she did fall in love with Matt, she may be to emotional to effectively lie to Matt. That and I do think there might be a degree of Matt just not wanting to hear the truth. Also, Elektra is very good at telling the truth, but not the whole truth and being very misleading.

    When Elektra first shows up I think Matt is so focused on his first kiss with Karen that he misses the obvious. He is literally wrapped up in his own thoughts and emotions. Something that happens a lot in the comics. Also, I don’t think Elektra threw a knife at Matt, Matt finally noticed the sensory cues and instinctively grabbed a knife from the kitchen counter when he noticed someone in the apartment. Then Elektra spoke and he realized who it was. You also have to keep in mind it hade been a long time since they had “seen” each other. But is probably should have been longer the timeline is a little messed up too, but I guess that is another post.

  10. geb

    Legitimate gripe here. They stumbled and keep slipping when skating around this aspect of Matt’s sensing. As mentioned, it’s really just a teaspoon of water but they keep drowning in this one (or slipping over it with their skates on because it’s just about frozen over by now). I agree with all possible rationale for the whys here and the mystical methods included in the higher than average assasin’s trainninng of ninja especially stand out here although, my natural and first reasoning irritatingly emerges as oversigting (again).

    “Magoo” becomes all evermoreso fitting a nickname when situations like this one described exemplify the similarities of the MO between the two characters regarding their insane escape artistry tactics.. meaning when Matt’s sensless, oops, I mean senses, and this one in particular when stretched or depleted, are written unaccordingly.

  11. Ben

    Have to agree with Daniel. The lack of sensing Elektra in his apartment must have had to do with the rain and his first kiss with Karen. His mind wasn’t really looking out for someone in his apartment. He was enjoying this brief moment of happiness he had (he really doesn’t have many of those in his life).

    Though I will agree, there have been inconsistencies in other hearing aspects with the ninjas… But I just figure it as a comic show and he has to have a flaw/learn something over a course of time. Really hope we get some clarification on this and the Black Sky thing in The Defenders… Who was the kid in the shipping crate? Can there be more than one Black Sky?

  12. Lee

    So glad I found others that noticed these problems as I thought I was the only one. In my opinion I think they are dropping the ball on Daredevil and not just with his radar sense. Just like others here, I want to like the show cause I love Daredevil but I’m not going to bend backwards to invent explanations of why the writers are screwing up (i.e. ninja mysticism). We already know that the show is reluctant to embrace mysticism because they ran away from it in Iron Fist. And then they went on to ruin the Hand with Iron Fist and the Defenders. In terms of Daredevil, the more I think about the writers “world on fire” analogy for his radar sense the more I dislike it. His radar sense lets him “see” the world in general black and white shapes. Not on fire. And his world view is not “a world in calamity”. It’s in the belief of justice, rule of law, and Catholic morality. Matt Murdock (and Daredevil) is a very calm guy driven by a sense of doing the right thing. And his black and white radar sense mirrors this view of what’s right and wrong. Another thing that bothers me is that Daredevil should rarely be getting hit in fights. He’s a human punching bag in this series. I don’t think the writers fully understand the character and aren’t fully embracing him. Nobody wants an overpowered radar sense but the one they have given us is silly and doesn’t make sense. I’m beginning to think that in season one Foggy was only holding up one finger when he discovered Matt was Daredevil and thought he could see. And that finger was for the audience. I blame Jeph Loeb. I don’t think they’ll get Punisher right either. But I do think they did a good job getting the Kingpin right in season two. Just my two cents.


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