A Primer on Daredevil’s Sensory Abilities
In case you have been asleep for the last 50 years and didn’t recognize that fellow in the red and black, here is a quick primer on Marvel’s advocate for disabled superheroes in the Marvel Universe, Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (or a driver’s license)!
Daredevil is a fictional superhero appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. Daredevil was created by writer-editor Stan Lee and artist Bill Everett, with an unspecified amount of input from Jack Kirby. The character first appeared in Daredevil #1 (April 1964).
Daredevil’s origin story relates that while living in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City, Matt Murdock is blinded by a radioactive substance that falls from an oncoming vehicle while pushing a man to safety from the oncoming truck. While he no longer can see, the radioactive exposure heightens his remaining senses beyond normal human ability and gives him a “radar sense”.
His father, a boxer named Jack Murdock, supports him as he grows up, though Jack is later killed by gangsters after refusing to throw a fight. After donning a yellow and dark red costume (later all dark red), Matt seeks out revenge against his father’s killers as the superhero Daredevil, fighting against his many enemies, including Bullseye and Kingpin. He also becomes a lawyer. Daredevil is also commonly known by such epithets as the Man Without Fear and the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.
Frank Miller’s influential tenure on the title in the early 1980s cemented the character as a popular and influential part of the Marvel Universe. Daredevil has since appeared in various forms of media including several animated series, video games and merchandise, and the 2003 feature-length film Daredevil, where he was portrayed by Ben Affleck. Charlie Cox portrays Daredevil in Marvel’s Daredevil, a live-action television series on Netflix that premiered on April 10, 2015, and is set to reprise his role in The Defenders, as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. — Wikipedia: Daredevil (Marvel Comics Character)
Where most primers break down is trying to successfully describe Matt Murdock’s pretty amazing metahuman abilities. And to me, this is where the fun begins.
The Answer Archive usually has at least three or four different questions on Daredevil’s powers. They include:
- Is Matt Murdock visually blind? Does he have any capacity for sight at all?
- Can Daredevil detect any aspect of color with his metahuman senses?
- Does Daredevil experience any severe disadvantages due to his blindness?
- More recently: How true to the comics are DD’s powers in the Netflix series?
Does Daredevil experience any disadvantages due to his blindness?
You mean besides enjoying photography, reading billboard advertising, using telescopes, effectively using cameras, enjoying playing Fruit Ninja on his smartphone, driving (in his secret identity) and the myriad of other things blind people have to contend with? He is no more disadvantaged than any other blind person who manages to enjoy a life without the benefits of sight. People do it every day.
- While Daredevil’s enhanced senses give him certain types of awareness not available to the sighted person including, 360 degree awareness, extremely precise touch, taste, smell and hearing, his primary sense (and for all humans who CAN see, it IS our primary sense) being gone, is still a handicap even for all of his powers.
- Yes, he can read newsprint with his fingers and can even detect the heat of LEDs on the screen, but the easy use of most modern technology sighted people take for granted, Matt Murdock can only use at the very periphery IF a second sense can be forced into doing tasks it’s ill-suited for.
I heard Daredevil can read a newspaper with his fingertips. Can he distinguish colors as well?
While his sense of touch has been trained to read the slight differences of print on paper, He cannot discern color.
- He could, if a writer were really creative, try and task one of his other senses to compensate for his lack of color sense. He might be able to determine color if he can distinguish the dye used either by taste or smell, since natural dyes often have distinctive scents and or chemical signatures.
- If Daredevil were to spend the time it takes to learn and memorize the scent of particular dyes or chemical coloring, then perhaps he could have an idea of a particular color. But color is for the most part an absolute visual designation system.
Daredevil’s blindness makes both his vocation (attorney) and his avocation (superheroing) challenging on both ends of the spectrum. At work he has to pretend he is blind. He must tap his way around and affect the posture, demeanor and behavior of a visually impaired individual even though his enhanced senses more than make up for any issues he would have getting around.
- Doing the hero thing can be challenging because if he wants to follow someone, while they might ignore him for being a blind man, it can also limit places he might end up without a very good explanation.
- During investigations, he cannot process visual clues that would be easily noticed by someone who could see, so his detective work is hampered.
- On the upside, with his other senses he is the equivalent of a walking crime lab using his hearing, sense of touch, sense of smell and sense of taste to discern information in the moment that might require hours to utilize if he were forced to use technology.
- Daredevil has also had the misfortune of finding himself actually blinded when his radar sense was disabled due to exposure to chemicals, extreme fatigue or environmental conditions.
- His other senses can be blinded by loud perfume, multiple assailants, heavy rain, or even technology designed to interrupt his senses like sonic weaponry or chaff (which affects his radar sense).
Over the decades his enhanced senses have also had to contend with a secondary sense whose explanations have varied widely. This ability was called his “radar sense.” Seemingly part sonar, part radar, like echolocation except when it wasn’t, this particular power has varied in description from an amalgam of his remaining senses providing more discrete information than his eyes might have, to a unique and separate sense, capable of revealing more information than any of his senses, even if they were combined.
3. How true to the comics are DD’s powers in the Netflix series?
Daredevil’s enhanced senses are being depicted in the Netflix series Daredevil as both a fusion of his four remaining senses and as a limited but discrete “radar sense” which appears to Matt Murdock as “a world on fire.” This is as consistent as the inconsistent depictions of his powers tend to be. Overall, the show has maintained an internal integrity in their representations of his powers and abilities.
Different writers depict Daredevil’s enhanced senses different. Overall, early depictions by Stan Lee and Gene Colan (for example, see below) were limited in how they described Daredevil’s powers.
- His senses of hearing is hyper-acute, having both a greater range of hearing, infra and ultrasonic awareness, the ability to discriminate sounds both at range and up close.
- He is able to differentiate and recognize individuals by their heatbeat and movement alone. He is able to discriminate well enough to follow the ticking of a wristwatch down a crowded street.
- His hearing allows him to recognize the signs of physiological distress when a person is lying. It can also function as a sonar sense giving him a form of ecolocation and 360 degree awareness.
- His sense of taste and smell (really two senses integrated into one) are far beyond the human range, he can even taste odor-transmitting air molecules and draw information from them like serpents can do.
- He can differentiate the chemical makeup of common foods and chemicals. He can detect scent information in a fashion similar to a bloodhound, even being able to track by scent alone. His ability to track by scent is comparable to Wolverine’s.
- His sense of touch is super-acute as well. Its depictions vary widely depending on the writers. In addition to reading braille, he can feel the deformations in newsprint or books and read regular writing as well by running his fingers across the page.
- His awareness of touch, allows him to detect movement of air and this aids him in his hand-to-hand fighting style, it also makes him very aware of how his opponents fight, giving him a form of reflexive fighting making even very skilled opponents less able to counter his techniques.
It is the depiction of the vaunted and often contradictory “radar sense” where writers have the most difficulties because early depictions of it were understandably unclear.
- Some depictions present it as a series of overlapping shapes whose range and distances are acutely known to him via the amalgam of his super-senses. He cannot read street signs for example, unless he is touching them, so he must gather information about every place he is in via this limited topographical depiction.
- At other times, his “radar sense” seems to function as a discrete sense in addition to his other senses, giving him a sense of depth and some degree of acuity. Marvel has for the most part described his “radar sense” as a discrete sense, even when writers and artists choose to either depict it as a subset of his other super-senses rather than a individual sense itself.
One of Daredevil’s more recent writers, Mark Waid, was interviewed and his impressions were as follows:
“He also has, on top of [his other heightened senses], what they call radar sense — a sort of second sight if you will. He can’t see faces, he can’t see details, but essentially it’s a form of radar that travels 360 degrees and kind of gives him a vague, almost outline, sense to the things that are around him at all times. It sounds a lot more helpful than it is, it’s really just a sort of aid to make sure he, as he crusades and fights crime, knows where the edge of the buildings are and where the oncoming cars are coming from, but that’s his shtick, that’s his power-set.”
- This leads me to assume that Mark Waid does see the radar sense as a separate sense that may or may not be actual radar. The above explanation is followed, later in the interview, by:
“What he sees around him is sort of a jumble of shapes and fuzzy outlines, just enough to sort of get a sense of the lay of the room around him, but he can’t really tell a table from a chair from a person. He can’t really tell, unless things are very still and he is able to concentrate a great deal, who’s who in a room, just by their silhouettes. It’s really just a matter of silhouettes.”
The Netflix Daredevil’s superhuman components show Matt Murdock using both his heightened senses and his superhuman awareness in the “world on fire” as a visually stylistic depiction similar to many artists during their varying tenures on the comic.
It is essentially correct and a relatively good way of showing how his senses COULD look to a person with sight. It is a stylistic impression and does not give us the complete awareness he is shown to have with it. We don’t see more of the “world on fire” effect likely due to budgeting concerns.
If you’re curious about other inconsistencies and variant depictions of Daredevil’s “radar sense” head over to brilliant treatment on Daredevil’s radar sense over the years at: The Other Murdock Papers; A history of the Radar Sense — Part I and Part II.
Keeping to my promise of science without crawly things, the Answer-Man does muse scientifically but only when asked politely and with a bribe of his favorite European scones and the right Tupelo honey. If you like what you’ve read consider following him on Twitter and supporting his writings on Patreon.