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.

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.