Seeing a World on Fire: Point of View as Superpower in Marvel’s ‘Daredevil’

Daredevil banner[This post contains spoilers for Daredevil.]

Daredevil faces a unique problem: the show centers around an extraordinary individual who is distinguished primarily by the way he perceives the world. In addition to Matt’s physical abilities, the titular lawyer turned vigilante is rendered extraordinary by his incredible perceptual powers, that he is able to see the world despite having been blinded as a child, and to see it in extraordinary ways. Displays of a superhero’s special abilities are an essential part of the pleasure of watching them on screen, and superhero TV shows and movies often dedicate a great deal of time to showing us what their central characters are capable of. While abilities like superhuman strength or speed lend themselves to these kinds of outward displays, being able to see differently does not.

One of the most common editing figures in narrative cinema is the alternation between a shot of someone looking at something out of frame and a shot from that person’s point of view of what they are seeing.

Point of view shots (POVs) are so incredibly prevalent because they can do a series of different things while acting under the guise of focusing on the type of character action and interaction that tends to drive narrative cinema. Most importantly, the look is a convenient way of making sure we understand the relationship between spaces shown in different shots over a cut, since it tells us that the space revealed in the shot of the character looking and the space in the shot of what is seen must be close to one another. Having a character look at something is also a seamless way of letting us see it too, so that we can be given access to any information we may need to know to follow the narrative.

In his book Point of View in the Cinema, Edward Branigan outlines the basic elements of POV constructions: shot A shows us a character looking out of frame from a particular point in space; shot B more or less takes up that point in space and shows us what the character was looking at. We assume that the character is aware of whatever the second shot reveals, that it’s in an adjacent space, and that little to no time has passed between the shots.

As David Bordwell argues, this “seems like a complicated way of stating the obvious,” but by looking more closely at each element Branigan shows that they can be manipulated to create different effects. A director could create suspense, for example, by offering a shot of a character looking, but withholding the shot of what they see. The reverse technique – giving us the shot of what’s seen but not who sees it – can cause a similar sense of unease. Jaws underwater POVThink of how Spielberg uses a series of underwater POVs of unsuspecting swimmers to create a sense of unseen menace in Jaws by not letting us see what’s looking at them until much later in the film. We may know that we’re seeing from the perspective of the titular shark, but because we don’t see shot A, we’re left only with the idea of an omnipresent yet unseen hunter.

Bordwell offers an example from Halloween in which John Carpenter gives us a shot of potential Michael Meyers victim Laurie looking out of Halloweena window followed by a shot of the masked killer standing silently between sheets waving in the wind on washlines below. Carpenter cuts back to a slightly distressed Laurie, but when he then returns us to the washlines Michael has vanished. By playing with our assumption of temporal continuity between the shots, Carpenter “gives Michael the ability to come and go in a ghostly fashion,” but “without obviously violating realism or directly showing that Michael has supernatural powers,” so that we are left with an uncanny sense of doubt (Did he just walk away? Did he disappear? Did Laurie actually see him to begin with?) but are still “prepared to believe” that Michael is the Boogyman by the end of the film.

While shot B seems to be taken from the position occupied by the character we saw looking in shot A, and may give us a series of other hints that it is meant to show us what that character is seeing – from the sound of their breathing on the soundtrack to something as simple as having someone say “Look at this” – shot B usually only approximates that character’s perspective, and the notion that the shot is a subjective view is created primarily by the relationship between the two shots. Sometimes some sort of stylistic device will be used to suggest that shot B shows us not only what a character sees, but how they are seeing it: the image might blur or sway to indicate drunkenness; overexposure could suggest the after effects of a blinding explosion; a shaky hand-held shot could be used to depict a character’s view while running.

Shots that render a character’s optical point of view in this way, however, are relatively rare because they depend, as Stephen Heath argues, on a “narratively motivated aberration of vision” that the audience can easily recognize. While there are some obvious differences between the way we perceive the world and the way the camera captures it, shots that aren’t marked in this way can be taken to represent normal perception, and a great deal of cinematic storytelling is managed through these far less conspicuous alternations between shots of characters looking and unmarked shots of what they’re looking at.

But in Daredevil these semi-subjective views are not enough to fully suggest what Matt perceives because his perceptual abilities do not conform to the ordinary form of seeing that the camera typically indicates. Robbed of the use of his eyes, Matt constructs an impression of the world around him using his other senses, so that his perception can’t be easily aligned with what the camera shows us.

Daredevil can’t simply offer us shot B and ask us to accept what it shows as what Matt “sees” because his perception doesn’t conform to ordinary cinematic vision. The easy equation between what the camera sees and what the character sees can’t be made because an ordinary shot shows us both too little – since Matt’s abilities give him access to information the camera can’t see – and too much – since those abilities don’t extend to the minute visual detail the camera captures.

His eyes regularly obscured either by dark sunglasses or Daredevil’s mask, Matt could rarely even be shown to seem to be looking. Any POV would therefore be complicated by the fact that Matt is not capable of the type of vision and awareness that for Branigan is central to the POV structure, which he argues requires that a “character must be ‘aware’ and ‘looking’ in a normal way.” Matt is preternaturally aware, but he can’t be “looking” in any way that could be described as normal, and it is precisely this ability to see in abnormal ways that marks him as a superhero.

Daredevil world on fireThe show offers us only one optical POV that allows us to see from Matt’s perspective. In episode five, Claire, aware that Matt is blind but that he can somehow still perceive the world in incredible detail, pushes him to describe what he sees. Matt explains how the combined fragments of information from all his other senses (from the sound of people’s heart beats to minute changes in temperature) combine to create a sort of “impressionistic painting” of the world. When Claire, who had been turned away from Matt and the camera, turns around so that they are facing each other and asks what that painting looks like, what Matt actually sees, the show falls into a basic POV structure. As Matt answers that he sees a “world on fire” the camera captures him in a medium close-up to the left of the frame and then cuts to an image of Claire’s face roughly outlined against a dark background in strands of orange and red fire slightly to the right.

The sequence gives us the two shots Branigan describes as making up a prototypical POV and a number of cues to indicate that what we are seeing is what Matt sees, but there is no look. Matt’s eyes don’t glance out of frame toward Claire, but are directed slightly down, concentrating, but not focused in a clear eyeline.

Throughout the series the elements of Branigan’s prototype POV are similarly modified so that the show can suggest Matt’s perspective, even in the absence of the glance that usually structures the relationship between the shots.

But in order to do so, the series has to introduce an interesting variation on the subjectivity of optical POVs.

Despite the fact that we are given access to Matt’s optical POV on only the one occasion, the series consistently relies on stylistic devices to mark the image as what Matt sees, but in doing so it doesn’t suggest that what the camera shows is entirely how he sees the world, because that camera still can only present us information using the one sense that we know Matt is incapable of using – the camera can only let us see. The series develops a different type of marked semi-subjective shot that deviates from the normal perception the camera usually presents us with, but without fully adopting the extraordinary vision of Matt’s “impressionistic painting,” so that the POV becomes a way of depicting his perceptual abilities without the necessity of allowing us to fully share them.

One of the most common ways the series adopts something of Matt’s POV is by narrowing in on the key perceptual data he uses to construct an impression of what’s around him, either by picking out that part of the frame in an extreme close-up, or through an occlusion of the image that blurs everything else, leaving only what Matt is preoccupied with clearly visible, often combining the two effects in the same shot.

The show establishes this pattern in the first episode when Matt and Foggy visit Karen at the police station. Daredevil episode 1 karenWhen she tearfully asks the two attorneys to believe that she isn’t responsible for the murder she is being held for, the show cuts to a close-up of Matt’s face (shot A) with the edges of the image slightly blurred. Matt’s blindness, and the sunglasses he wears to conceal it, prevent the establishment of any eyeline, but the show is still able to strongly indicate where he is looking by capturing Karen reflected in his lenses. This allows the show to set up a strong directional link across the shot of Matt and the following shot of Karen without the need for a structuring glance from Matt.

When the show then cuts to that medium close-up of Karen the image is again blurred at its edges so that it seems to focus in on her face. Only the extreme foreground at the far right of frame is in clear focus, capturing the side of Matt’s face, his ear prominently visible. With the help of cues on the soundtrack – Karen’s voice is the only thing that can be heard and is reproduced with a slight echo, as if Matt is hearing more than what we could – the show is able to strongly suggest that we are seeing something of what Matt perceives even as it indicates that he only actually hears it. The show then cuts to a longer, unblurred shot of Matt more closely corresponding to normal perception, before returning to the blurred close-up as Matt reassures Karen that he believes her. Although we don’t yet understand how, the quick insertion of the more “objective” shot of Matt before returning to the semi-subjective close-up suggests that his perceptual abilities are what led him to discern that Karen was telling the truth.

That we aren’t entirely sharing Matt’s perspective, however, is reinforced by the fact that the blurring and changes on the soundtrack occur in both the shots of Karen and the shots of Matt “looking” at her. This premature subjectivizing of the image occurs throughout the series, most notably in the scene in which we are given access to Matt’s world on fire. In the shot of him that comes just before the show switches to his optical POV, the image blurs as he focuses on Claire’s face. Because it comes before the only shot that gives us what Matt actually sees, the show is able to suggest that the blurring serves more as an indicator that Matt is using his abilities than as an attempt to visually render them on screen.

Like in the scene in the police station in episode one, Matt is often included in the frame even as the show cuts to what he is ostensibly perceiving. While in typical POVs shot B shifts to the character’s position in space established in shot A, the place it takes up is often not the exact spot the character occupied, and that character will often remain visible on the screen, with the camera most commonly shooting over their shoulder. Including the character in the frame limits the possibility of suggesting shot B is taken from the character’s viewpoint and therefore their exact perspective, but because of Matt’s abilities, Daredevil can allow him to appear in the frame while maintaining a higher degree of subjectivity than would be possible with any other character.

Because Matt primarily uses his hearing to perceive the world, and not his sight, he is often framed in profile so that one of his ears is prominent in the image. Rather than shooting from over his shoulder, the show often takes a position either directly behind or directly beside his head when he is included in shot B, so that the importance of his sense of hearing in observing and interpreting the world around him is stressed. The typical over-the-shoulder composition is therefore often replaced by an over-the-ear composition.

In episode 3, for example, when Matt and Foggy are awaiting the verdict in the murder case they have just finished trying, the show introduces a series of variations on the typical POV structure leading up to Matt’s correct prediction that the jury is hung.

As the judge reads the note from the jury, the show Daredevil courtroom 1cuts to a close-up of Matt sitting at the edge of the left side of the frame in slight profile. As Wesley enters the gallery and takes his seat, the camera swings around to the right and Matt’s head follows as the sound of the watch Fisk’s lieutenant always wears is amplified on the soundtrack. The watch had been established earlier in the episode as a sort of auditory tag, alerting Matt to Wesley’s presence whenever they are in the same space. But instead of cutting to another shot of Wesley to indicate that Matt has noticed his entrance, the camera racks focus to give us shot B, so that Wesley becomes the focus of the shot but Matt remains visible, though out of focus, in the foreground, as Wesley obligingly lifts his left wrist (with the watch clearly visible) up to his face.

The show then cuts to a shot of Matt sitting with Foggy and their client at the defense’s table, and while the image itself remains unmarked, the ticking Daredevil courtroom 2of the watch continues to dominate the soundtrack as Matt shifts in his seat, seemingly trying to pinpoint something else in the room, until a heartbeat begins to tick along with, and then supplant the watch. The show then cuts to a shot of the jury, which is blurred so that only one member is clearly visible. The stress evident on that juror’s face, which the blurring of the shot focuses in on as her heartbeat thumps louder on the soundtrack, tells us that something is wrong, and that Matt, whose face remains just visible on the left side of frame, has noticed. When he announces that the jury is hung just before the judge delivers the news, we know that he’s right and hasn’t inferred that the jury has been interfered with due to Wesley’s presence alone because we’ve seen some of the observations that led to that conclusion beyond Wesley’s presence.

Matt’s ability to narrow in on important details, to isolate the sensory fragments he needs to understand what’s happening around him, also allows the show to seamlessly introduce a common variation in POV structures. As Branigan argues, the camera will often be placed “somewhat closer” to the object being looked at in shot B “than the character’s actual position” in shot A. It’s something of a cheat, deviating from what the character could actually see, but it gives the “audience a better view” of whatever is being looked at.

Because Matt doesn’t use his eyes to perceive the world, however, the shots that show us what he senses aren’t subject to those kinds of limitations on possible distance from the observer. His senses are acute enough that he can render practically anything close enough to get the best “view.” The close proximity of the shots serves as a visual corollary of his ability to isolate important fragments of information from the mass of stimuli around him, so that shortening the distance between Matt and what he senses no longer seems like cheating a character’s possible perspective in order to give the audience a better view of what it needs to see, but rather becomes a crucial device for depicting the expanded perception Matt is capable of.

A great deal of the semi-subjective shots of what Matt perceives are accompanied by some sort of cue on the soundtrack, like the amplification of important sounds in a sort of auditory close-up alongside a similar narrowing down of the image. But the soundtrack is often used to reinforce the suggestion that we are sharing something of Matt’s perception even when there is no shot of what he senses paired with those auditory cues. The soundtrack serves to reveal what Matt senses in place of shot B, providing us with a point of audition rather than a point of view. When Matt discovers that Claire has been kidnapped by the Russians in episode four, for example, he rushes to the window of her empty apartment and leans out into the open air. The show alternates between a shot of his back from inside the apartment and one from outside the window.

Daredevil Claire with RussiansAs Matt slowly regains his composure, the show settles on the view from outside, tracking in to his face as various noises from the city begin to take over the soundtrack. In order to emphasize that Matt is using his hearing to search for Claire among these varied noises, the show then cuts back to the shot of his back, again narrowing in on him as he narrows in on the sounds of the Russians. It then cuts to an extreme close-up of the back of his head, panning from one ear to the other as the soundtrack resolves on two Russian-speaking male voices. An extreme close-up of the left side of Matt’s face follows, with the image throbbing in and out of focus as those voices become clearer.

The show cuts to a shot of two men forcing someone into the trunk of a taxi, and then back to Matt quickly exiting the apartment, before returning to the taxi as it speeds away. The taxi is clearly what Matt is perceiving, and the shot of the car serves as something akin to a shot B, but it is only for our benefit, since we need to actually see the vehicle even if Matt can’t. We are therefore given something of a doubled shot B, since it is actually the sounds of Claire’s capturers that make up Matt’s perception, even though we can see the men and the taxi and are therefore possessed of more information than he is.

Like his ability to hear Claire being taken away even though he is nowhere near her, because Matt’s senses allow him to perceive things over incredible distances, the show is also able to introduce another variation that violates one of basic assumptions we usually make when we see POV constructions. Due to Matt’s extraordinary senses, the space shown in shot A isn’t always immediately adjacent to the space in shot B, because, as opposed to normal vision, the fragments Matt uses to see the world can be perceived over much larger distances and through walls and other obstructions which would prevent them from being connected by a simple glance, since it many cases it would be impossible to see the space in shot B from the location established in shot A.

In episode five, for example, Matt goes to the police Daredevil interogationstation where a Russian with vital information has just been taken for interrogation. He settles down on a bench out in the lobby of the station and the camera frames him straight on, slowly tracking in as Matt shifts his head back and forth. In response, the soundtrack again starts to amplify and isolate certain sounds from the general din of the station. The show then cuts to another over-the-ear shot, a slightly blurred extreme close-up from behind Matt’s head as he narrows in on the voices in the interrogation room. It then cuts to the previous straight on shot of Matt’s face, which has now taken on the blurring around the edges associated with his perceptual powers kicking in, before taking us into the interrogation room.

The show alternates between unmarked shots of the interrogation and slightly blurred shots of Matt, with the dialogue continuing over both, but with a slight echo when the camera is on Matt. The alternations between the two spaces and two types of shots picks up in speed as the Russian reveals Fisks’s name, and in response detectives Hoffman and Blake stage an assault from the suspect which permits them to use deadly force against him. When Blake fires on the unarmed Russian the blurring that dominated the shots of Matt suddenly disappears as the gunshot rings out – a sound that can be palpably heard without the need for Matt’s abilities.

The shots from inside the interrogation room serve as the second half of the POV structure even though it would be impossible for anyone to actually see the room from the entrance to the station. The alternation between the blurred shots of Matt and the clear shots from the room indicate that Matt’s abilities nonetheless allow him to tell what’s going on at that distance, giving us access to the interrogation even as we stay close to his perspective.

The show also layers more conventional cues to indicate that we are sharing something of Matt’s perspective on top of the blurred images and manipulations on the soundtrack more unique to the show. In episode twelve, for example, Matt stands on a street corner waiting for signs of one of Madame Gao’s drug runners so he can track her operation back to its source.

Daredevil drug runnerThe sequence begins with a series of shots that close in on Matt’s face as he begins to isolate the sounds around him. There is a brief montage that alternates between close-ups of what Matt hears and shots of him hearing, taken over his ear so that the source of the sound appears in the background, with Matt’s head, often in profile, in the extreme foreground. When the runner finally arrives she’s framed in a final over-the-ear shot as she walks straight toward the camera and past Matt, standing with his back to camera with his head slightly turned so that his ear is prominent just to the right of center frame.

As Matt beings to pursue the runner, the show alternates between a more typical A and B shot construction: a shot of Matt walking toward the camera, which backs away in front of him as he moves forward, is followed by a shot taken from Matt’s position of the runner’s back walking away from the camera which in turn follows behind her. As Branigan argues, the “subjective tracking shot is a common device,” employing cues from camera movement to strengthen the impression of a character’s view point, but here it serves as an addendum to the cues already established in the show. The shot of the runner is characteristically blurred to indicate Matt’s perspective, so that she remains in focus while everything around her fades because it’s of little consequence to her pursuer. But the movement of the respective shots also serves to reinforce that we are sharing something of what Matt perceives through the speed of the camera, which matches his steady walking pace.

While the show is able to give us access to something of what Matt perceives through all these visual and auditory cues, we are constantly aware that because we can fully see the world around him we may be entitled to details he can’t perceive. By occasionally varying the order of the shots, however, the show can use the knowledge of this perceptual disparity to its advantage.

The show will sometimes offer us shot B before shot A, so that we see what Matt perceives before the shot of him perceiving it. This reordering is often used in those moments when there is an immediate threat to Matt that he hasn’t yet noticed, but which we are aware of because the camera has made it clearly visible.

Daredevil Episode 1In episode one, for example, when Daredevil is fighting the human-traffickers at the docks, their leader comes to after taking a hit from the vigilante and produces a gun. The camera captures him cocking the pistol and aiming it from the right out of frame to the left, slightly in slow motion, and the soundtrack is reduced to just the sound of that action. The noise from the gun carries over the cut to a shot of Daredevil in medium close at the left of center frame, initially facing away from the camera, and thus from the threat from the gunman, as he turns his head back toward the right. The shot of the gun gives us the typical narrowing in on the most important detail that we often get throughout the series, but because it precedes the shot of Daredevil, the reordering creates a moment of suspense: Does he know the gun is there? Will he react in time?

Daredevil warehouseAt other times we are offered a standard alternation between shot A and shot B constructions, but the latter doesn’t reveal what Matt perceives because it is not yet visible and can therefore only be observed by him. In episode nine, for example, Daredevil breaks into a warehouse where he expects to find Fisk. Initially the building appears to be empty, but the vigilante suddenly seems to sense something. A subjectively blurred extreme close-up over-the-ear shot of the side of his head throbs in and out of focus between Daredevil in the foreground and an empty doorway in the background.

In a series of increasingly distant shots, Daredevil walks toward the doorway and then pauses, the camera framing him in medium long to the right of the image facing toward the left. “I didn’t come here for you,” he announces, and the show cuts to a shot of the doorway, the camera slowly moving closer to the opening, which remains entirely empty. We know someone must be there from Daredevil’s line, and we expect him to be revealed in the ensuing shot, but he remains unseen. That Nobu is there is soon confirmed when he answers from out of frame and then jumps down from the ceiling into the doorway to confront Daredevil, but by delaying his revelation, by offering the space in which he will appear prematurely, the show is able to both create suspense, and to once again suggest that Matt can perceive more than what can be seen, but without the need for any stylistic cues on the image or soundtracks.

Variations on the basic elements of POV editing aren’t the only ways Daredevil depicts its titular hero’s abilities. But the apparently simple alternation between shots of a character looking and shots of what they are looking at provides the show with a versatile repertoire of stylistic options for displaying his extraordinary perceptual abilities, even if that repertoire is founded on the one ability he doesn’t have.


References:

David Bordwell, “Three nights of a dreamer,” November 5, 2007, http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2007/11/05/three-nights-of-a-dreamer/

Edward Branigan, Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film (New York: Mouton, 1984).

Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (London: Macmillan, 1981).

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