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Feels Good Man is a rare film that manages to be harrowing on multiple, completely different wavelengths. For “normies” (to use the lingo of the kind of people profiled by the documentary), there’s the horror of seeing the machinations of the internet’s far right in action, and being introduced to its utterly absurd vagaries and subcultures. You’re entering the land of 4chan, bizarre racist symbolism, and most pertinently, Pepe the Frog. For a certain subset of very online viewers (such as your humble critic), there’s the added mortification of already knowing how all this works. Watching this movie with such context evokes the same feeling as having to sit down and explain “Gamergate” to someone not in the know. “God, why am I already familiar with all this? What am I doing with my life?” And that’s all before they get to the Pepe cryptocurrency.
Cartoonist Matt Furie seems a pleasant fellow, so it’s deeply unfortunate that one of his creations became a preeminent symbol of modern fascism through the (only partly explicable) alchemy of the internet. He invented Pepe in 2005 for his zine Boys Club, a comic about anthropomorphic creatures living in slacker squalor. In his debut, the character urinates by pulling his pants all the way down, explaining that it “feels good man.” This apparently is what endeared him to the users of 4chan, which started Pepe along the road to becoming one of the notorious forum’s most ubiquitous memes, and eventually led to him being used in all manner of awful imagery by members of the so-called “alt-right.”
Feels Good Man chronicles this upsetting series of developments from Furie’s point of view, along with his various futile attempts to reclaim his creation for the forces of goodness and decency. Many a Frankenstein comparison has been made to this predicament, but they feel lacking; it’s more like if beloved Pogo creator Walt Kelly accidentally created a virus. (A deeply weird and stupid virus.) Furie is almost comically out of his depth in trying to save his frog child, having seemingly never heard of the Streisand effect. “Killing” Pepe in a comic did nothing to slow online fascists, and we see how a subsequent resurrection and attempt to “save” Pepe by encouraging people to draw positive representations of the character further backfired. These well-intentioned but inept responses provide an instructive microcosm of how progressive liberals have tried and failed to control social narratives during the Trump years. They don’t understand that one cannot combat stochastic, organic phenomena with engineered movements.
One also can’t fight Nazis with kindness, so Furie fortunately wises up on that front and takes to the courts to fight the misuse of Pepe where he can. Still, the soul of his character is something now forever beyond his control. Such is the nature of memes. The movie artfully illustrates this with animated sequences depicting Pepe on a sort of surreal quest, going through his own hero’s journey that parallels the conflicts over him in the real world. It’s touches like that which help make a strange, sometimes even esoteric subject comprehensible for the lay viewer.
If there’s a weakness to Feels Good Man, it’s that it might not understand its own lessons. Late in 2019, Pepe began cropping up in the Hong Kong protests. The film includes an obviously rushed coda about this development to give itself an upbeat ending, but I wouldn’t say you can reduce this issue to a “good” meme “canceling out” a “bad” meme. For one thing, it’s still not clear just how Pepe cross-pollinated to Hong Kong. Pro-Trump elements within the protests may well be the source, and if that’s the case then I don’t know if I would call this a win, even if Pepe is not invoked there the way he is in the US and Europe. After 90 minutes of demonstrating how terrifying the unpredictability of the internet can be, pulling out one example of how it can create a friendlier result doesn’t really mitigate things.