Superheroes Round 2: Daredevil
Matt Murdock, due to a childhood accident, is blinded by a bunch of hazardous chemicals. But, they also give him awesome sonar superpowers. Driven by his father’s death at the hands of the kingpin of the New York mob, as an adult Murdock fights injustice two ways: first, as a lawyer, working for the innocent and downtrodden, and second, as the fearsome Daredevil, going against those that the law won’t.
But of course, there are some issues with this…
How good is your hearing?
Daredevil navigates using sonar. Most of what he does is passive sonar — that is, using sources of sound other than himself, and interpreting their reflections (echoes) to “see.” Sometimes he does the active version, doing something like ringing a pipe to produce a useful sound, and listening for the echoes. Real-world ships and submarines will use both flavors. Though the military does use active sonar, passive in particular has military applications. After all, that way, they can’t hear you looking at them. There are also halfway approaches that may be used, such as a submarine being a quiet receiver and buoys providing the active “ping”. Non-watery applications include seismology (and watching for people setting off nukes).
Regardless, the distance to an object is estimated by how long it takes the sound to get from its source, to the object, to you. This becomes more challenging when there are multiple objects, with different reflectivities and sound speeds … and with background noise. This would become very difficult to disentangle, even for someone with very good hearing. There are some hand-held sonar devices for divers, but they’re active. Since you’re only looking for your own “ping,” that makes the disentangling from other sounds easier.
Actual animals that use echolocation (bats and dolphins, for instance), use the active sonar variant for this reason. This is actually pretty complicated, even as summarized by Wikipedia. Suffice it to say, these animals have evolved specifically for the task — brain structures, ears, and methods of vocalization. Real blind humans who use echolocation use exclusively active sonar, making clicks with the mouth, or tapping or clapping, and listening for the echoes. Passive sonar using noises produced by other objects, the way most of Daredevil’s activity is portrayed, doesn’t really work.
Aside from distance, there’s also the question of determining the direction to the sound. This is why seismology networks rely on more than just one or two sensors. If you have four or more, you can use triangulation to determine the distance and direction to a sound. A human comes equipped with only two receivers. As a consequence, when you estimate the distance to the source of a sound, you get two distances, essentially giving you two spheres where the sound could be coming from, according to each ear alone. Where you think the sound is coming from is the intersection of these two sphere… a circle. This problem of not being able to find a sound’s exact origin is generally solved with additional information — knowledge of how the source is moving, or if you see a person talking. Nonetheless, you’ve probably had the experience of thinking a noise from behind you was coming from somewhere other than the actual source.
Daredevil should have this problem, too, unless he’s grown extra ears somewhere. This could be partially mitigated by moving around a bit, or turning his head, to effectively provide more “receiver” data points. In the case of active sonar, if you send your “ping” mostly in one direction, that also helps with figuring out the direction. Daredevil doesn’t appear to do the former, and, as stated earlier, only rarely uses the active form.
There’s a final issue with Daredevil’s hearing in general: it’s just too good. The same problem shows up with Superman’s super-hearing. In reality, at a large distance from, say, a woman getting shot, the noise is not only dampened by the familiar drop in volume with the square of distance. Given damping from intervening objects and noise that is way, way louder than the signal, the interesting sound is effectively drowned out.
The main part of all this that is reasonable is the fact that Daredevil does actually get overwhelmed when there’s enough noise introduced by outside sources. This includes explosions and standing right next to church bells being rung by one of the villains. Speaking of whom…
Bullseye is the evil assassin who shows up and, oddly enough, tries to kill people. What’s more odd is that he throws… anything. He kills people with such things as playing cards and pencils. (Like the pencil trick from The Dark Knight. Except with throwing.) And paperclips.
Now, you can kill somebody with pretty much anything, so long as it’s going fast enough at a sensitive enough spot. Of course, it can be kind of hard for a human to throw some things hard enough, like a playing card — air resistance will tend to slow it down and throw off your aim, even if you could throw it hard enough in the first place. Pencils and so forth are similarly problematic. They’re just not designed for killing people. In fact, it seems pretty pointless to kill people with improvised weapons when Bullseye is clearly able to obtain more appropriate and effective implements (e.g., throwing stars) at other points in the story.
Then again, Bullseye is the dumb villain who wants a costume to show off how awesome he is relative to Daredevil, so maybe he’s not that bright. Speaking of villainy…
Who’s the villain here, anyway?
This leads to a more worrisome issue. Bullseye kills people. Kingpin, the other big villain, orders other people killed, but isn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty. Daredevil? Also kills people. Early in the film, he’s the defense lawyer for a women who’s been raped. Due to corruption in the police department and string-pulling by Kingpin, the rapist gets off scot-free. In costume, Daredevil goes after him. In the process, he beats up a bunch of other people in a bar (who are surely not all guilty; one bartender clearly disapproves of the rapist), causes a lot of damage, and eventually kills the rapist in the subway. By pushing him into the path of an oncoming train.
This puts Daredevil into the vicious anti-hero category at best. It’s a little bit disturbing to realize that the guy you’re supposed to be rooting for is tearing up people who weren’t involved in the crime at all. This is alluded to in the film, at a point where Daredevil tries to convince himself “I’m not the bad guy” after freaking out a kid by beating up somebody right in front of him. It falls a bit flat, though, given how mean Daredevil is. (Perhaps we should ask the same question about the faceless mooks many heroes can beat up without moral hazard, but we’ll leave that for another time.)
Crimefighting Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be
One thing that Daredevil does illustrate well in the following scene is the bloody and bodily consequences of the superhero gig. Daredevil is shown cleaning up afterwards, tired, sore, scarred, injured, and possibly addicted to opiate painkillers. That’s what happens when the guys you beat up try to beat you back. It’s why boxers and football players (for example) often have lingering health issues after retirement.
Aside from the nonexistence of superpowers, such accumulated injuries, combined with the dim view most authorities (and people) would take of Daredevil’s vengeful style, is probably why we don’t have too many lone vigilantes. What would Murdock’s doctors have done when they saw what had happened to his body?