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The Dissolving Panopticon: Surveillance Culture and Liquid Modernity in Spider-Man Media

Dave Stanley

Over the last two decades, across three film franchises, portrayals of Spider-Man have unwittingly charted fluctuations in American cultural attitudes toward surveillance. Michel Foucault’s panoptical theory and Zygmaunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity” can be productively combined to structure examinations of modern surveillance. The emergence of progressively more “liquid,” mobile and digital, surveillance technologies has coincided with the continuing cultural shocks initiated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As technological devices become increasingly ubiquitous, and as data-collection becomes increasingly invisible, cultural concerns regarding both continue to diminish. By looking at the increasing engagement with technology that the Spider-Man films portray, a trajectory can be marked from the initial trilogy of films by Sam Rami to Spider-Man’s introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Keywords: Spider-Man, surveillance, panopticon, modernity, superhero

Dave Stanley is a media critic, scholar, and graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee within the Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies Program. He also teaches for the English Department at UWM. He is interested in film, video games, comics, anime, and pop culture. His critical interests are focused on the intersections digital and economic expansion within popular culture, utilizing a variety of critical lens from Disability Studies, Media Studies, Film Studies, and Cultural Anthropology.