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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"We're Still Friends Right?" Fanfictional Trauma and Captain America: Civil War

"Forty million readers follow the Gumps. ... If I could prove it I would say there are exactly 16,847,915 3/4 people writing to Sidney Smith, care of the Chicago Tribune, with suggestions as to what he should do with the Gumps next. And inasmuch as most of us take the Gumps seriously and expect to have our suggestions followed, the problem of these suggestions is a real one, after all."
--William Fleming French, describing an example of the problem of fannish engagement for newspaper comic The Gumps, quoted in Jared Gardner's Projections
There are really only two places you can have the villain of one major franchise sing a song from another major franchise. One of those places is in fanfiction.

But hold that thought while we talk about this image from Age of Ultron and what it can tell us about Captain America: Civil War.

The beginning of the end credits of Age of Ultron (and what a world we live in that I can type a phrase like that) features a CGI-rendered monument, one that would be impossible to construct feasibly in real space. It's a gigantic marble testament to the badassery of the fight with the eponymous Ultron. The monument is to the film's own content, and the final shot that we get of it, a tableau of the whole sort of object in its vastness, has "A Joss Whedon Film" plastered over top of it.

This is beautifully outrageous.

There's something absurdly grandiose about the gesture given its context. The creation of the film of course was deeply contentious and Joss Whedon whose name is displayed so prominently functionally ragequit the MCU due to meddling with whatever his Artistic Vision was. But we have in the end this monument to Whedon's titanic vision of the epic superhero fight where the Avengers come together to defeat the overwhelming villainous force.

This is fascinating not only because of its weird interaction with the troubled production history of the film but because it runs completely contrary to the actual ending of the movie itself. By the end of the film, most of the original Avengers are gone, the group having fractured due to the tensions of the film. And this vision is even more undermined by the fact that the new established status quo at the end of Age of Ultron is immediately fractured at the beginning of Civil War.

And yet, this monument is absolutely the central image of The Avengers.

Now, if you follow me on Tumblr you know that I've been trading ideas back and forth with Elizabeth Sandifer (you can hear a podcast that she and I made ostensibly about her new book Neoreaction a Basilisk here--it features a lot of discussion of the comics world dicking over Alan Moore). Liz, during her adventures in academia, produced an analysis of Superheroes that seems pretty relevant to our understanding of this monument. According to her analysis, while we tend to think of superhero narratives as being characterized by power fantasies, instead we should think of superheroes as formed by a traumatic event, a trauma that is reiterated throughout comics by way of serial narrative and continuity.

Spiderman for example has the two traumas of being bitten by the radioactive spider and, more importantly, the death of Uncle Ben. In a serial narrative, the need to establish continuity and remind readers of central story points means that these traumatic events recur repeatedly throughout Spiderman's comics. Moreover, Liz argues that the stories that have lasted as new traumas--as important in continuity to the point where they too are reiterated--structurally mirror the central trauma that creates the superhero, such as, for Spiderman, the death of Gwen Stacy, or for Batman the recurring death of a loved one in fundamentally senseless acts of brutality (his parents, Robin, Barbara Gordon, &c.). These are central because they reiterate the trauma, though not through direct restatement but through a kind of typology.

I think we can do something really interesting with Age of Ultron and Civil War if we look at the meta-hero that we call The Avengers as having its own sort of traumatic creation story. If we look at The Avengers as an entity and ask, "what is the central image here representing a kind of traumatic creation," or "what makes someone an Avenger, part of the body of The Avengers," I think the answer has to be the famous panning shot in the first Avengers movie, a shot that narratively represents the previously divided heroes coming together to fight against overwhelming odds. The shot is characterized by the gathering of figures in a circle fighting back to back against an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable entity. This seems to be the central image of the Avengers, a group whose very name represents being always too late to defend, a group forged in a crucible of hopeless odds.

If we are looking at this image as representing a traumatic origin story, then we can see how the continuity established for the MCU reiterates this constantly. We have basically point for point a return of this shot in Age of Ultron, with the addition of Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision, implying that these new characters have been reforged into another part of the meta-entity The Avengers.

The final shot then of this statue represents the traumatic incident turned to stone, turned into a lasting monument that drives the story. We don't see them at their moment of victory, we see them at their moment of fighting beside each other against impossible odds, the characteristic that defines their identity.

Civil War has a very similar shot, except it's weirdly--perversely--multiplied. In this film, we have two separate groups of Avengers shown as forged together by the overwhelming and insurmountable foe of... the other Avengers.

This is a good example of what makes Civil War work interestingly as a fanfiction object. Civil War is taking the tropes of The Avengers, particularly its visual iconography, and then manipulating those tropes in very interesting ways. We have the traumatic incident here but it's been turned into not a moment of definitive coming together but scission--the molecular body of the Avengers splitting cataclysmically into two different entities. If the iconography answers the question of "what makes an Avenger," suddenly our understanding of that answer is called into question by virtue of the fact that we now have two entities that could be effectively described as The Avengers, defined by their opposition to each other.

This is the kind of engagement Civil War has with its material. It's interested in taking the established material of the MCU and seeing it collide together and fall apart. It's much more interested in this than politics--despite it being named after a coming that was absolutely born of Bush-era US politics, the film is basically uninterested in exploring the political questions raised to any extent because it's more interested in the way the politics can move them towards the real interest here: superheroes punching each other and feeling bad about it.

I've written before about the political and thematic elements of Iron Man III, and you could certainly do similar things with The Winter Soldier, but I don't think you can get coherent results from Civil War along these lines because it's primarily interested in a particular scenario of interpersonal disaster rather than a kind of broader political meditation. I mean, look, we're starting with the voice of reason being an actual Superhero King, this is well outside the realm of coherent politics. Hell, they spent the last two seasons of Agents of SHIELD trying to set shit up with the Inhumans being the analog to the Mutants in the original Civil War comics, subject to the Mutant Registration Act, and then never brought them up in the film even once. This is not something you do if your primary concern is the politics of the situation.

Instead, the film is interested in reiterating traumas as ways to pick apart the heroes and engage with them on a kind of raw affective level. This is a film, after all, that begins with one of Tony Stark's central traumatic experiences: the sudden loss of his parents. And the climax of the film hinges upon a reiteration of that trauma. We see this mirrored in countless ways throughout the film as characters fail spectacularly to grapple with their emotional issues, and similar traumas bounce between characters (T'challa loses his father to a terrorist attack and this is his inciting trauma, but it is counterbalanced by seeing The Avengers tear each other apart; Tony's trauma of realizing the cost of his weapons manufacturing is reiterated again and again in the deaths of civilians; Cap's trauma of losing Bucky mirrors his own triumphant creation followed by the assassination of his creator, but Bucky's transformation in the Winter Soldier is a perverse mirror of Cap's own creation, and so on and so on).

There's a whole realm of fiction outside of serial comics where this kind of process can be observed: fanfiction. In fact I'd say that this is well established as a story mode that fanfic can explore quite well, the canonized form of "let's see these people's relationships implode dramatically due to their canonical traumas"--traumas that are typically rehearsed within the fanfic. Note how many Evangelion fanfics feature the initial refusal by Shinji to get in the fucking robot, and the disastrous first fight with Sachiel. Note how many Homestuck fanfics reiterate in different contexts the deaths of a fourth of the cast during Murderstuck. The interest in these stories is finding new ways to reiterate and explore a central kind of affective dynamic with the characters. This isn't to say that fanfic can't be political, or that fanfic can't exist in a kind of complex contiguous setting like the one the MCU ostensibly had, but there's certainly a tradition of just taking characters and throwing them at each other (the best known versions of those characters, typically) until everything is ruined forever.

Let's consider this image:

Now, I'm actually not really sure whether this is a deliberate promotion or something a fan created. Frankly, I've had a hell of a time tracking down the image to its source. I'm actually not that concerned, though, because I think the fact that I'm having trouble making that determination speaks very much to Civil War's priorities and the priorities of both its creators and its viewers. The interest here is in the way these characters bounce off of each other and the emotional rollercoaster ride that this exploration of interpersonal strife and (we hope, going to the film) hurt/comfort dynamics sends us on. This isn't the sole way of engaging with the MCU but I think there's certainly some portion of the viewership interested in the film in these terms.

In that sense, while this film has been pushed as the audience being on either Team Cap or Team Iron Man, I think as viewers we are ultimately primarily on Team Zemo. As are the writers. And the reason for this is because we want the same fundamental thing as Zemo: we want superpeople to punch each other and then feel bad about it. We might come away with a political opinion on either side, but the real fascination is with the soap opera antics of these people failing to interact with each other on basically any level. And the film absolutely delivers.

This is the kind of thing that can only exist in serial narrative and fanfiction in that it's entirely dependent upon our sense of these characters preceding our viewing of the film and allowing us to just enjoy them bouncing violently off each other. The characters that get the most well realized sort of backgrounds are either new characters who need to have their arcs and places in the film established effectively, or those who need to have a reiteration of their traumatic creation stories for the sake of the reminders of continuity (even if those traumas are strategically reworked--others have noted for example that Tony Stark seems to develop a particular connection with his mother in time for that trauma to be revisited).
We also receive versions of the characters, both in Age of Ultron and in Civil War, that represent a kind of variation on a platonic ideal rather than a chronologically developed character as such. Tony Stark has had his character development rolled back with every single film except Iron Man III, which has acted in the MCU as the new behavioral baseline (i.e. the developments of I and II have stuck, but his move away from his Iron Man identity in III is too radical a shift and therefore in Age of Ultron and Civil War he is artificially reverted back to his character in Iron Man III). As fanfiction of the MCU, it makes sense to rely upon a version of the character that offers the most internal conflict and interesting potential for growth and development. As part of the shared universe the MCU, however, this fanfictional concern requires a reset of the character back to a traumatized state that can be best worked with, potentially frustrating the everloving fuck out of people who, like readers of the Gumps, want to see the plot move forward in a meaningful way according to their sense of meaningful narrative choices. 

Similarly, Steve in Age of Ultron exists as sort of this abstract ideal of what Joss Whedon thinks a character named Captain America would be like, even if that character shares few characteristics with his namesake in other films. In fact, Joss Whedon seems constitutionally incapable of understanding what makes Captain America compelling, unlike the Russos and their writers Christopher Marcus and Steven McFeely. This team seems to have a solid understanding of what they want to do with Cap, whereas Joss Whedon's understanding extends to "Lawful Good" and "Old" and not much far beyond those touchstones. Which, like some of the other issues already touched upon with Age of Ultron, can be frustrating for other fan writers interested in a deeper level understanding of Steve.

The effective OCs here--Vision, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, Black Panther and Spiderman--are fleshed out enough for the canon characters to bounce off of. This has varied results. Clint, in Age of Ultron, is given this family that no one's ever heard of on a farm in the middle of nowhere, which opens space up for Natasha and Bruce Banner to have a relationship invented for the film, and that is sort of a canonized tool of fanfiction writers everywhere: the development of an OC in order to take care of one member of the more popular ship. The primary problem there is that the new OCs exist transparently to solve a particular problem.

And people familiar with fanfiction absolutely noticed, as essayofthoughts helpfully pointed out to me:

Yep, that's a mock Archive Of Our Own entry for Age of Ultron. Here, the ostensibly canonical text is being treated explicitly as not just fanfiction but BAD fanfiction, brought down to the same level as any other fan work. Notably, though, Age of Ultron, as we've seen, isn't fundamentally different from Civil War because one is like fanfic and the other is not. No, they are different because Civil War is BETTER FANFIC than Age of Ultron. In particular, it's better able to take the elements of the traumatic origin story of both The Avengers as an entity and the individual characters and bat these elements off of one another to produce an engaging experience... even if that means existing only uncomfortably with Age of Ultron's canon characterization.

And this pulling down of the films from the lofty heights of Authorial Fiat into the realm of being just another admittedly very expensive fanfiction also pulls together, I think, why it's worth considering the interaction of serial narrative, fanfiction, and the way that these films engage with existing material in an affectively-centered way that treats politics and theme as more backdrop than anything else.

Remember my opening statement? There's only two places where you can have a supervillain like Ultron sing a song from a totally unrelated children's film.

One of those places is in fanfiction.

The other is when a single entity has dictatorial control over vast swaths of our cultural heritage.

I think we can get enjoyment from viewing Civil War as affectively centered hurt/comfort fanfiction, but it's worth remembering that it's fanfiction written for a megacorporation by cishet white dudes and it has all the limitations of cishet white dude fanfic, with the backing of an absurdly powerful entity. What we have in Civil War and Age of Ultron is the guy on fanfic dot net going "no M/M, death to yaoi!" So, basically, the Neon Genesis Evangelion fanfiction community, I guess. Like, we have an entire culture that pathologises forms of fan engagement that are simultaneously very common, and utterly reviled. There's a reason that Vice, in their utterly execrable article on Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, position this fic as not a fic where Harry and Draco fuck, and that reason is because of misogyny and homophobia.

So what we've got with the MCU, based on the writers and directors they hire (such as the writer for Doctor Strange, a movie that's staggeringly racist in its casting, who derisively mocked critics as "social justice warriors") is a bunch of fanfic writers from a vanishingly narrow and restricted demographic known to write fanfic with particular hangups and failstates.

It's this kind of thing that leads to The Kiss in Civil War, a kiss that by now is, I think, reasonably infamous. Apparently, the agent from The Winter Soldier is Peggy Carter's niece (??) and midway through the movie these two characters who may or may not have even interacted much in the intervening time between the two films, who interact in this film on levels either purely professional or tied to the death of Peggy Carter, kiss, randomly, and we get a shot of two of Steve's possible boyfriends nodding and grinning because aww yeah get that Compulsory Heterosexuality.

This exists, like Clint Barton's family, to swerve the story away from the ships the fanfic authors don't support. I think it's obvious to anyone who's spent any time in fan communities because it's such a longstanding trope. I mean not to belabor this point but this is why I spent so many damn words emphasizing that Shinji Ikari is bi as fuck (and also, for the record, a trans autistic girl, I have decided this to be the case). Cishet white male fanfic writers seem to have a compulsion to distance themselves from the stigma of female and queer fandom practices, to elevate their own work by denigrating the wider field.

The issue with Civil War's use of this trope is that this film which treats politics as merely a backdrop to interpersonal drama, and shoehorns in arbitrary heterosexuality in order to avoid the terrible slash, is not a fanfic on the internet but a film produced by a corporation that owns the entirety of Marvel, the entirety of Star Wars, Mickey Mouse, and a huge swaths of the canonized body of children's cinema. This is not fanfic in the crucial sense that there is a profound power imbalance between fanfic authors and the huge media corporations that are producing fanficlike serial narratives--industries that seem to largely be untouchable, unlike other fan authors who can be criticized much more directly, or fandom discourses which can be shifted.

Civil War is best watched as a kind of fanfic. The decision to take the central image, that monumental image of the Avengers' creation trauma, and warp and change it in interesting ways, is delightful and entertaining, and if we are interested in exploring why Civil War succeeds emotionally, succeeds in entertaining, looking at it through this lens reveals much. But Civil War can only ever be a narrative produced by cishet white male authors in the context of a huge serial franchise for an even more massive corporate entity. It is limited both in a positive sense in that it is interested in developing a particular set of ideas in relationship to someone else's source material, and in the negative sense that it is restrained by a set of representational and political hangups.

Am I suggesting that the problem with the MCU is that it is now degrading itself into becoming fanfiction?

Absolutely not.

The fundamental problem the MCU is facing as its serial narrative becomes overwhelmed by continuity traumas and fanfictional story choices is that its business model makes its creators produce sub-par fanfiction.

And as far as fans expect their suggestions to be followed--and their needs to be met!--this problem is a real one, after all.

Dubious Forms: The Homestuck Epilogues As Fanfiction

The Homestuck Epilogues position themselves as fanfiction, exploding the typical author/fan binary. But can fandom navigate this new exploded world?

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