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VOD Review: Feels Good Man

September 4, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The year 2016 was a very strange time to be on the internet. That’s the thought I kept having while watching Feels Good Man, director Arthur Jones’ documentary about Pepe the Frog, a comic strip character that somehow played a role in getting Donald Trump elected president.

Pepe was created by cartoonist Matt Furie, and started out as a carefree college frog who liked to pull his pants all the way down to go pee. To briefly recap the history, people shared the image on 4chan, turning Pepe into an icon for slacker life and his statement of “feels good man” into a popular saying on the message board.

Then so-called “normies” discovered Pepe and started sharing pictures on Instagram and other social media platforms. Feeling like their symbol was being stolen from them, 4chan users responded in kind by tapping into their usual edgelord humour and making Pepe the subject of increasingly extreme memes.

In one such example, a Hitler moustache was added above Pepe’s froggy lips, and “feels good man” somehow got changed to “kill the jews,” turning him into a symbol that was weaponized by white supremacists and the alt-right. This helped propel Pepe into becoming a central figure in the so-called Great Meme War of 2016, which in turn helped get one Donald J. Trump, seen as the king of all internet trolls, elected President of the United States.

The singularity happened when Trump himself retweeted a meme of him as Pepe, sending him down a path of being “memed” into the White House and emboldening internet trolls who felt like they suddenly had a voice. And Furie, a mild-mannered guy whose work isn’t really political, watched helplessly as his character became co-opted, unable to stop the wayward evolution of his creation, until he started taking legal action and suing for copyright.

The overarching question of the film becomes, how do you put the genie back in the bottle? Can Furie ever really reclaim this character that has been taken from him? Who controls the copyright on an image that has now been reproduced and shared millions of times? The film goes deep into the nitty gritty of recent internet history, but Jones assembles it in an entertaining way, including some short animated interludes that bring Pepe to life, making it easily accessible for viewers who are less web-literate.

The film offers an engaging overview of how Pepe went from an innocent meme to being designated as a hate symbol by the anti-defamation league, but it also functions as somewhat of a redemption story for the cartoon frog. Jones closely follows Furie as he tries desperately to take back the character he created and reclaim him as a force for good. This happened somewhat unexpectedly when Pepe started being used by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as a symbol for freedom, in an inspiring example of how characters can take on different meanings in different cultures.

We are still very much in uncharted territory in terms of how fast information and images spread on the internet, and the film does a good job of highlighting how social media is being used to push sweeping real world changes. The film gets even stranger when it touches on the concept of Pepe Cash, an obscure cryptocurrency that is used to buy rare Pepe memes at auctions. Even a decade or two ago, when memes were still an obscure concept thought up by Richard Dawkins and far from common parlance, all of this would have been inconceivable. But it all happened, and we are still living through it.

The film serves as an entertaining and often sobering retelling of Furie’s story and, by extension, Pepe’s, with a compelling character arc that finds him rising, falling, and rising again. But it’s also a fantastic portrait of recent internet history and how online meme culture has spilled out into the real world. All I can say is that being on the internet in 2016 was very weird indeed, and this documentary does a good job of capturing that.

Feels Good Man is now available for rent and purchase on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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