some random observations on the narrative impulses of Avengers fan fiction, part 2

Avengers fanfic on Archive of our Own, as of April 2013, constitutes around 24 000 fics. I discussed some of the broader narrative themes in the preceding post; here, I’m interested specifically in the relationship fics, rather than those which simply explore the team’s interactions in a non-romantic sense. My own anecdotal sense of the ship spread from my own reading – that it’s very Tony/Steve and Clint/Phil heavy – is very much backed up by a rough statistical survey. The table below is based on tag counts, which are not always exact owing to the wild and wonderful tagging habits of fanfic writers, but is probably a fairly representative snapshot of AOW’s major Avengers ships as at 26th April 2013, counting any ships with 200 or more fics in the category.

Steve/Tony 5553 Clint/Natasha 2492
Clint/Phil 3059 Tony/Pepper 1906
Thor/Loki 2444 Thor/Jane 1005
Tony/Loki 1706 Steve/Darcy 338
Tony/Bruce 1253 Steve/Natasha 210
Steve/Bucky 779 Natasha/Bruce 221
Bruce/Clint 438 Bruce/Darcy 217
Natasha/Pepper 304 Clint/Darcy 365
Tony/Clint 268 Darcy/Loki 316
Steve/Loki 258 Natasha/Bucky 274
Clint/Loki 231
Steve/Phil 225
Steve/Thor 200
TOTAL 16718   7344

Steve/Tony as the largest pairing by far is probably inevitable, especially given the heavy weighting towards slash in the corpus as a whole. These are interesting characters, both with their own films behind them to round out character development, and they exemplify the classic fanfic (or general romance) tendency to read antagonism as sexual tension. In the film they very much vie for dominance of the Avengers team, their clash predicated on their absolute difference: Tony is a futurist and an iconoclastic loose cannon, Steve is an anachonism and a conformist and team player. Tony’s abilities are intellectual, Steve’s are presented as largely physical. Tony is a dissolute playboy whose cynicism and sexual experience are contrasted to Steve’s clean-cut morality, idealism and essential innocence. (In terms of sexual representation the innocence/experience binary drives a very large number of fics; it also possibly accounts for the subset of Steve/Darcy, given that Darcy’s verbal wit and association with popular culture in canon provide a natural foil to Steve’s outdatedness). In addition, the Tony/Steve film depiction works in tension with the canonical comic-book material, in which they are close friends and joint leaders of the team: Whedon’s film effectively works to negotiate an inevitable opposition given the movieverse characterisations, but in so doing it starts to restore to some extent the comic canon.

The Hawkeye/Agent Coulson focus is a lot less obvious (and I have to state for the record that the ship nickname, “Bowtie”, amuses me intensely). Both Clint and Phil are peripheral characters to the narrative; while Coulson has had some build-up in bit-part appearances in earlier films, Hawkeye not only appears in The Avengers more or less for the first time (his cameo in Thor hardly counts), but he spends a large portion of the film out of character, a cipher under Loki’s control. Perhaps it is this essential blandness which makes the ship so popular: Clint’s absence of agency, and Coulson’s bland pen-pusher persona, are the perfect blank slate onto which fic writers can project their own desires. Both characters combine that surface neutrality with extreme competence, exemplifying the fandom fascination with power and agency – Hawkeye more obviously in his archer persona, but Coulson by implication or by extension outside the text, as in this Marvel One-Shot. Coulson is a fascinating character in his own right, given power and impetus not just in the actor’s depiction of him, but in the fan reaction and adoption of him, which have overwritten his canon fate with sufficient conviction that he will return, not just for Phase 2 films, but in his own TV series.  In his SuperNanny persona, wrangling these disparate personalities, he is a beguilingly competent Everyman, an intrusion into the canon narrative of the fan writer’s own viewpoint.

Thor/Loki is perhaps inevitable, given the intensity and angst of the brothers’ canon relationship as much as the traditional fanfic fascination with incest as a symbolic motif for intimacy and connection. It is interesting that it outweighs the canon pairing of Thor/Jane by a factor of two to one: Jane clearly has her own following, but the incidence of Thor/Jane fics gains some of its weight from the pairing as an unexamined background in many fics whose focus is another relationship entirely. Tony/Pepper (“Pepperony“) shows a similar tendency, although to a lesser extent;  Tony/Steve or Tony/Loki pairings will often start with a Tony/Pepper status quo which is thereafter disrupted and replaced by the writer’s non-canon preference, but again, Pepperony has its own fan supporters.

Ships based on similarity rather than difference are also implicated in some of the pairings above, particularly Tony/Clint (sass, at least with comics canon Clint) and Steve/Thor (a confluence of blonde muscle). Steve/Phil becomes inevitable given the film’s establishment of Phil’s fanboy adoration of Captain America, an element which speaks directly and deliberately to the notion of fan investment and serves as a point of recognition for many of these writers. I must confess to not reading much Tony/Loki, which I find profoundly disturbing in terms of gender politics; the natural fit between the two inheres obviously in their similar trickster personas, quick-thinking and fundamentally iconoclastic, but I am more than somewhat worried about a young female writership which seems consistently to wish to redeem a mass-murdering psychopath as a suitable boyfriend figure. The most endearing similarity-ship, though, is undoubtedly Science Bros, Tony and Bruce bonding over the bunsen burner in the approved genius-scientist fashion; again, the elements of the ship are clearly present in canon not just in their obvious affinity, but in Tony’s understanding of the pressures which drive Bruce and the Hulk, and his function as a shield to Banner’s problems with military authority .

The other popular het pairing, Natasha/Clint, is also interesting: the attraction here is, I think, not so much the inherent sexiness of two black-clad and super-competent spy/assassin types, but the film’s assumption of a whole emotional past between them, simultaneously tantalising and generative. Again, the comic chronology substantiates this to a very great extent, since it’s a perfectly legitimate pairing in comics canon; it will be interesting to see what the second Captain America film makes of the other major comics canon relationship, Natasha/Bucky. The Red Room and the Winter Soldier backstories pair inevitably with Hawkeye’s experience of mind control under Loki, creating a shared history of damage which adds considerable intensity and emotional resonance to their interactions.

This is clearly an incomplete account, and pairings I haven’t touched on here offer their own logics and appeal; I hope this is sufficient, however, to demonstrate the far from random nature of a fan-fic reinterpretation, the extent to which canon elements must drive and inform the new narrative. Avengers is, as I said earlier, particularly ripe for this because it remains so character-driven despite its big-budget action identity, offering fanfic writers an irresistibly attractive confluence of opportunities and inspirations.

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