ustas_fish (just_ustas) wrote,
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“Are You Even Really Blind?”

The “World on Fire” Concept and Visual Language in the Daredevil Show

For the most part, the Daredevil show does a very nice job with the sensory aspects of Matt’s life. The audio mixing in particular deserves a huge round of applause, for creating layers of auditory complexity befitting a show featuring a character with superhuman hearing. His sense of taste is even mentioned, if briefly, when it is barely used at all in the comics. However, the show falls flat in regards to Matt’s radar sense— which, as we mentioned in this post, is never openly acknowledged. Instead, we are given the amorphous, poorly-developed “world on fire” concept which, along with various characters’ tendencies to use visual language when discussing Matt’s abilities, leads to some potentially misleading messages for viewers not previously familiar with Daredevil.


In theory, there’s nothing wrong with the “world on fire” concept. It’s a valiant attempt to allow the viewer into Matt’s head, in order to provide some sense of just how strange, chaotic, and intense his experience of the world is. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Matt as a character, and as nerds who spend way too much time trying to imagine how Matt would perceive various aspects of daily life, we fully support every effort to show us his point-of-view. It’s vital for understanding who he is and how much sensory input he has to manage in order to even function. Having hypersenses is wild and crazy, and if the “world on fire” does one thing right, it’s in being appropriately vivid and chaotic.

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[Dammit, Foggy.]

However, within the context of the show, the “world on fire” presents a huge problem. Matt is shown doing things on a regular basis that can only be explained by either radar sense or sight. And as we’ve already discussed, the radar sense is conspicuously absent, hidden so deeply within Matt’s discussions of his powers that only someone who already knew it was there would have any chance of finding it. How is someone completely new to Daredevil expected to interpret him tossing his cane in the trash and then parkouring over the rooftops in Episode 12? (Which is one of our favorite scenes, just for the record.) All this viewer would have for reference are lines like those in Episode 10 (”Nelson V Murdock”), where Matt grudgingly admits to Foggy that he can see “in a manner of speaking”, and a brief glimpse of the “world on fire”, which doesn’t explain nearly as much as it needs to.

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[Dammit, Claire.]

The scene at the beginning of Episode 5 in which Matt gives Claire a crash course on his superpowers starts off as excellent, and then quickly heads downhill when Matt, of all people (come on, Matt) starts whipping out the visual terminology. This isn’t actually a problem in its own right. Matt is fully aware of how abstract his perceptions are, so his description of his sensory landscape as an “impressionistic painting” can be seen as his attempt to use terms that Claire might have a chance of understanding. That in itself is fine and in-character, and is a logic that can be applied to all of his visual references (including the line from Episode 10 mentioned above). However, this has to be inferred by an informed viewer. There’s nothing in the show itself that makes it clear that Matt is being metaphorical, and is trying to translate his experiences into terms his sighted and non-powered friends can relate to.

The issue is exacerbated when Claire comes back with, “Okay, but what does that look like? What do you actually see?” Even this is fine, and there’s a long history in the comics of people assuming that Matt, given his abilities, must have some degree of vision. It’s a reasonable assumption, and Claire isn’t the only person in the show to make it. The real problem lies in the fact that Matt does not correct her. Obviously, he doesn’t “actually see” anything. He had his eyeballs fried by radioactive waste. There is no vision whatsoever going on there. But nowhere in this exchange is this made clear.

Which brings us to the “world on fire” effect itself, and some very misleading cinematography.

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Before we are treated to the “world on fire”, the camera takes a moment to focus on Matt’s face. There are a lot of ways they could have filmed this, to show that we are now transitioning to Matt’s perspective, and plenty of those  could have involved not making it seem as though he was looking at something. As it is, the camera angle and his intent expression seem to imply, to the uninformed viewer, that he’s actually looking at Claire. This suggestion is especially strong since it directly follows a visual language-strewn description of how he perceives the world.

The “world on fire” itself is a whole other story. Our primary praise for it is the fact that it is shifting and complex, and the fact that it doesn’t include many small details. This is great, and recalls a variety of representations of Matt’s perspective from the comics. In particular, we were reminded of this depiction of Matt’s analysis of a man by Bill Sienkiewicz from Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #7 (written by Brian Michael Bendis):

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This isn’t an ideal depiction of Matt’s combined senses, however, and neither is the “world on fire”. For one thing, the “world on fire” scene is entirely devoid of audio (heartbeat, breathing, all the various sounds the human body makes as it functions, traffic noises from outside, people moving in other apartments, the refrigerator humming, the building creaking, all kinds of hypersonics and noises beyond the normal human range of hearing, etc. etc. etc… ad infinitum). This is weird, because the show is generally very good at depicting Matt’s auditory world. They even worked heartbeats into the theme music. And of course, it’s an element that is much easier to include in live action than it is in a comic. Why would this vital aspect of Matt’s point-of-view be missing? Is it possible that the “world on fire” effect is really supposed to just be a stand-in for Matt’s radar sense? But nothing in the preceding conversation indicates this. It’s presented as Matt’s whole world— the “impressionistic painting” of sensory input that he described to Claire.

Another big problem is color. Obviously, Matt has no way of perceiving color (at least, not outside of Stan Lee’s run). So why is his impression of Claire depicted in vivid orange and yellow (beyond the fact that it looks like fire, and that’s the name of the episode)?

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We’re assuming that this partly comes from the comics. Very few colorists settle for black-and-white interpretations of Matt’s radar sense. Most infuse it with color, to make it stand out from the page. The above panel is a fairly recent example, from Daredevil vol. 3 #16 (written by Mark Waid, art by Chris Samnee, colors by Javier Rodriguez). This pink cross-hatched style was conceived by Javier Rodriguez and Paolo Rivera (the first penciller on Mark Waid’s run) when the title soft-rebooted in 2011, and is characteristic of the past four years of the comic, but previous colorists have opted for reddish hues as well. Not only is red a thematic DD color, but warm colors also indicate intensity. The overpowering nature of Matt’s sensory world comes through in the vividness of the artwork. The implicit understanding is that this isn’t actually what Matt is perceiving. It’s a visual representation of a non-visual concept, and this is clear within the context of the comics.

It’s quite possible that the Netflix show was trying to carry on this tradition by adding color to their own version. The colors they use are certainly intense, and if they were trying to use them to represent the power of Matt’s senses, we give them an A for effort. But part of the problem comes from the fact that this is live action, where it’s hard to imply that colors aren’t actually colors. And there’s also the placement of these colors— Claire is clearly backlit by sunlight coming through the window, for instance. Yes, Matt would be able to perceive that in the form of heat, but the fact remains that it looks like sunlight, and it’s bright enough to seem unavoidably visual.

We could continue to pick apart every detail of the “world on fire”, but really, we’ve said what we think is most important. It’s a noble effort at allowing the viewer to experience the world from Matt’s unique and fascinating perspective, but due to the fact that it’s never fully explained (it would have been a nice thing, maybe, for Stick to bring up during the training flashbacks), looks exceedingly visual, and is discussed using visual language, all it does is run the risk of misrepresenting Matt’s abilities. We assume that most attentive viewers who watch the show closely would get the message that Matt is completely blind, but it’s easy to understand how someone might think that he wasn’t. And for a high-profile piece of Daredevil media, intending to introduce the awesomeness of Matt Murdock to the world at large, that’s pretty tragic.

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UPDATE:

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Claire: “I’ve seen a man… a blind man who can see, because his other senses are so amplified.”

(From Luke Cage Season 1, Episode 5)

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You’re dead to us, Claire.

https://daresplaining.tumblr.com/post/130564365523/are-you-even-really-blind
Tags: daredevil
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