some random observations on the narrative impulses of Avengers fan fiction, part 1

Any new and madly popular film or TV text causes outbreaks of fan fiction, and the Marvel movieverse is no exception. The release of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) has been particularly fascinating, however, because the nature of the film, which really ticks all the fanfic boxes, and in particular the slash-related ones:

  • a big-budget blockbuster with enormous marketing presence;
  • superheroes, with the concomitant action and heroic elements and resulting high-stakes tension to the narrative, which becomes a pressure-cooker for interaction, intimacy and mutual dependence;
  • a fantastic paradigm blurring science fiction and the magical, and allowing for strong imaginative investment and powerful use of symbol;
  • an ensemble focus, with the film resting thematically on co-operation between disparate personalities;
  • a character-driven script, with some very strong and distinctive characterisations;
  • a pre-existing fanbase in the comics and Joss Whedon fandoms;
  • a build-up of fan investment over the development of a multiple-film series;
  • a plethora of canon texts not just in the multiple Marvel Phase 1 films (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America) but in the whole history of the Avengers across several decades of Marvel comic book versions and animated film and TV adaptations;
  • a tendency to re-invention in the comics universe anyway (let’s face it, some of the odder Marvel comic runs are basically fan fiction in themselves. “What if Sgt. Fury had fought World War 2 in outer space?” Good grief.);
  • a male-dominated character spread (and the usual Hollywood tendency to an extremely good-looking cast);
  • a contemporary setting familiar to writers, and with pre-existing tendencies towards humour and pop cultural reference (because Joss Whedon).

The film thus seems to provide an almost perfect paradigm (exaggerated in some ways to the point of parody) of the kinds of things fan fiction does in almost any context – and, in particular, the kinds of things slash fan fiction is interested in.

Avengers is a large and active fandom featuring, in my sense of it, a generally older demographic of writers and a higher quality of work than something like Lord of the Rings, possibly because the modern setting is familiar to writers, and because Tolkien’s high-fantasy elevated tone is more difficult to reproduce. This makes it an interesting body of work to examine for narrative trends, although I cannot claim that this is any attempt at a comprehensive study. These particular reflections have been arrived at by the not entirely scientific process of reading about two-thirds of the fics on the first twenty pages of the “Avengers (Marvel) – all media types” section of Archive Of Our Own, sorted in descending order of kudos.

Explorations with setting and plot have some common threads: a large proportion of fics place the Avengers either in the Avengers Tower (modelled on Stark Tower in the films, and foreshadowed by the lone “A” remaining on the building after the Chitauri battle) or in the mansion featured in many of the comic versions. This is inevitable given the relationship-focus of much fanfic, and the opportunity to explore interactions in a shared environment, and many of these fics are sophisticated character pieces as well as operating in many cases as domestic comedy. The science fiction/magical elements which coexist in the Marvel canon also enable many of the common fan motifs which shadow and intensify the drive towards intimacy, so telepathy, time travel, disembodiment, de-aging, curses and that perennial favourite, sex pollen, are recurring features. In addition, many fics exhibit a savvy awareness of contemporary media culture and the interaction of the superheroes with tabloid and other media versions of their activities, which allows in some cases sophisticated play with enforced intimacy motifs, romance-genre expectation, and a self-conscious association between slash and social justice.

The modern setting of the film is particularly enabling of crossover and alternate-universe versions, which once again foreground relationship development within the ensemble – there seems to be a recurring theme of “unpowered Avengers working in coffee-shops“, for example. AU high school or college versions also abound, an inevitability given not only the traditional age demographic of fanfic writers, but Marvel’s own tendency to re-invent its superheroes as younger versions even in canon. (See the Young Avengers and the Iron Man Armoured Adventures animated TV series, which is basically a high school AU).

As I say, slash predominates here, and not only because of the male/female ratio of the Avengers themselves. Heroic action is traditionally a male-dominated narrative, and the joyous homoeroticism of slash re-interpretations actively resists the film’s conformity to the heteronormative tenets of mainstream media. I am struck by the relatively high incidence of the Alpha/Omega subset of slash fic in the Avengers fanworks, which exaggerates and dramatises the masculinity of the film at the same time as it superimposes a hyperbolic sense of gender polarities onto the film’s male relationships. (Warning: if you click on that link out of mild interest, be advised that this stuff is at the seriously weird and dodgy-gender-political end of fan fiction, which is saying a lot).

Tag analysis (slightly misleading because of multiple-ship fictions and the inability of a tag to distinguish between central and background ships) suggests that slash ships in the Avengers fandom outnumber het ones slightly more than two to one. This certainly reflects the gender balance of the film universe’s main characters, but the pairings are not always the ones which leap obviously to the eye. I will undertake some more extensive analysis of specific ships and their popularity in the second part of this post.

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