- The Exorbitant Lightness of Bodies, or How to Look at Superheroes: Ilinx, Identification, and Spider-Man
The question that animates this essay is, quite simply, what is the relation between bodies in an audience and bodies onscreen?1 And while I will not arrive at a categorical answer here (how could you?), I am proposing to trace the contours not only of the question but also of one possible set of answers. Obviously, we might think of a whole variegated field of different kinds of responses: desire, disgust, sympathy, empathy, hatred, love, care, indifference. But we might pose this question a bit more broadly. This question, several variations of it, and the whole messy field of possible resonances, intensities, and antimonies that we may or may not have with onscreen bodies have seen two major theoretical articulations in the history of film theory and cinema studies: identification and mimesis.2 The first of these is démodé these days, while the latter is still in fashion. And so, this essay has two main aspirations. The first is to show that an untimely attention to identification really is necessary to properly address problems that have recently seemed more pressing (or at least interesting) to film scholars—to wit, embodiment and affect. The second is to show that thinking with one of these terms entails thinking with the other. [End Page 113]
The force and salience of this question arises in the context of recent theorizing about the cinema in terms of embodiment and affect: such theorizing has yet to sufficiently pose the problem of identification in particular. This body of thought frequently makes recourse to some version of identification—for example, in any number of articulations of the confusion between a body in the audience and a body onscreen3—but without making it an explicit problem. And so, my aspirations are supported by a more concrete agenda. This agenda is twofold: to articulate identification as an explicit problem for theorizing about the cinema in an idiom consonant with contemporary theories of the cinema that stress embodiment and affect and to show the importance, and indeed the necessity, of such an articulation for embodiment-oriented theorizing about the cinema. In short, we overlook crucial aspects of our embodied encounter with the cinema if we aren’t able to grasp identification as a problem.
The case at hand comes in director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (2002, 2004, and 2007). These films are what I think of as dramas of self-adjustment, a class of films that has seen its most recent and forceful iteration in a cycle of contemporary big-budget Hollywood films whose center of gravity lies in the recent bevy of comic book movies (especially but not only the second installment of the X-Men franchise, X2 [directed by Bryan Singer, 2003]). The drama in these films stems from a situation in which the protagonist’s capacity for action exceeds his ability to exert ethical control over this increased field for action. The resolution of the narrative problems of the film invariably takes the form, finally, of the protagonist coinciding with himself. I say “his” and “himself” advisedly here: these are frequently dramas of adolescent masculinity in particular and are almost exclusively about (white straight) men. These dramas of self-adjustment include the films of the Bourne franchise (directed by Doug Liman, 2002; directed by Paul Green-grass, 2004 and 2007) and the regrettable Wanted (directed Timur Bekmambetov, 2008), the bizarro-world Bond of Quantum of Solace (directed by Marc Forster, 2008), and even films such as Avatar (directed by James Cameron, 2009) and How to Train Your Dragon (directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010). The canon of these dramas of self-adjustment is large and a bit fuzzy and more often fun than interesting, but we may find interest in outliers, including Kick-Ass (directed by Matthew Vaughn, 2010), My Life on Ice (Ma vraie vie à Rouen, directed by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, 2002), and Hancock (directed by Peter Berg, 2008).
In any event, it is not the generic narrative of these films that is of interest here. At both...