“Don’t Like, Don’t Read” An Analysis of Convergence Culture and Fan Works in The Avengers Fandom
When The Avengers (Whedon, 2012) hit the screens, it was a triumph of years’ worth of intertextual storytelling. As an adaptation, The Avengers film is uniquely suited for study under Henry Jenkins’ convergence culture theory. This essay, however, is less interested in the intertextuality of the MCU itself, and more interested in how fan creators use that intertextuality to create transformative works. Quickly, fan works inspired by the film spread across different Internet forums. Fan works exist on the borders of hypertext, paratext, and adaptation. Fan creators, many of which are women and queer folk, are uniquely creative and qualified engagers of convergence culture. To understand how these fan creators fit into Jenkins’ theory, it is important to understand how adaptation played a part in inspiring fan creators, and how fan sites such as AO3 and Tumblr have been spaces for women and queer folk to engage with fandom since their inception. Finally, a close investigation into the practices and language of fan creators will reveal that women and queer Avengers fans exemplify the utopic ideals of convergence culture.
Adaptation is rich ground for Jenkins’ utopic ideals of convergence culture. The Avengers uses decades of transmedia storytelling within the Marvel comics as a solid launch point to create a film tailored for seasoned fans of the comics. A fan himself, Joss Whedon made a film for the fans (Taylor 187). Yet, at the same time, Whedon carefully crafted a film that is also accessible to newcomers. To understand how superhero adaptations fall into Jenkins’ definition of cultural convergence, it is important to understand how Avengers pays homage to Marvel comic history, while also being inviting to newcomers, therefore opening the doors for women and queer folk to adapt the canon material into fan works.
On page 13 of The Avengers #2, in a panel that shows Dr. Pym in his lab, there is a footnote at bottom of the page that reads “Note: For the thrilling origin of Giant-Man, see Tales to Astonish #49” (Lee,1963). These footnotes are one of the most obvious indicators there is a much bigger world within the Marvel comics, a bigger world that took time, effort, and comic literacy in which to be fully immersed. To understand Giant-Man’s origins, you had to have read “Tales to Astonish” #49, and if you did not, the footnote implies that you should. Although the serialized nature of comics is rewarding for long-term fans as they “derive an exploitable pleasure from their expert knowledge of intricate swathes of historical continuity,” this intertextuality is less rewarding for newcomers to the Avengers (Taylor, 183). Although the Avengers film takes some inspiration from the 1963 Avengers series, the film is a closer adaptation of the 2002 series The Ultimates. The Ultimates was a “revisionist” retelling of the formation of the Avengers: an alternate universe that featured familiar characters with altered histories/characterization that undertook “major continuity revisions – i.e., retcons – that retroactively excise (by editorial fiat) years of contradictorily compounding story events” (Taylor, 183). The Ultimates was not only rewarding for comic fans that had been dedicated to the serialized intertextuality for years, but also for newcomers who did not have experience with the long history of “Earth 615” (183). Whedon’s Avengers operates the same way. The references to the comics and to the previous films are rewarding for the fans who have been reading for years or watching since Iron Man (Favreau, 2008), but do not necessarily isolate the new fans who come to the film with little knowledge of Marvel or the MCU. Although comics have seen more female readership in the past decade, the superhero graphic novel fandom is predominately male (Hanley, 221). Therefore, the fans who have been isolated from fan knowledge of superheroes are most likely women and queer folk. The balance of self-referential material, and easy immersion, could explain why so many women and queer fans became involved in the Avengers film fandom.
Ultimates may be a reboot, but it still relied heavily on the well-known iconography of its heroes. Even in a clean slate universe, these heroes function as archetypes. Throughout the issues, there are several instances where entire pages are filled by the heroes posing with their icons. For instance, on page 24 of issue 4, Captain America, Iron Man, Giant-Man, and the Wasp take a moment to look right at the reader and pose heroically as Captain utters a one-liner (Millar, 24). These full-page poses tend to happen right before a major battle. They function as a sort of roll call for the current team up (as the players change throughout the issues, depending on who is available to fight), as well as a glorification of their iconography. These instances of iconography are another way to immerse new readers as they are symbols of each hero’s archetype: Iron Man and his suit are emblematic of his status as billionaire tech wizard, just as Captain America’s shield symbolizes his role as American super soldier. Whedon’s film performs the same glorification of poses and iconography to please both long-term fans familiar with these symbols, as well as to ease new fans into this world using archetypes. Using archetypes is an easy way for newcomers to get to know the characters skills and their basic personality traits. There are also several “team up” shots throughout the film that mirror the full-page panel shots from The Ultimates. For instance, during the climax of the film, the Avengers stand together in New York City, taking a moment to pose despite the destruction waging around them. Black Widow cocks her gun, Hawkeye loads his arrow, Hulk roars, Thor brandishes his hammer, Captain America hefts his shield, and Iron Man hovers mid-air. The audience sees each pose and each piece of iconography in full detail as the camera performs a 360 shot around them. In a way, this shot exemplifies media specificity in comic book films; unlike the comic, which is a still image from one angle, the camera can move around the subjects, seeing in detail each pose.
Despite the reliance on archetypes, the film still gives the characters room to grow as people; but, the growth is rooted in their archetypes. For instance, Steve Rogers starts to question his role as loyal soldier when he discovers SHIELD has been using the Tesseract to create weapons. In the climax of the film, however, Captain America shows he is still the symbol of American militarization when the cops take his orders after seeing him dispatch the Chitauri with ease. Therefore, the character development never detracts from their archetypal roles, a strategy that humanizes them without straying too far from their stereotype. The balance of archetypal imagery with just enough character development to ensure they are not flat is exemplified in the second stinger scene at the end of the film. The shawarma scene is a kind of anti-team-up-pose, and the opposite of the earlier 360 shot. This time, the camera is static in a long shot, and the characters are not posing but rather sitting at a table together eating. This shot shows them in their alter-egos, as people, rather than as archetypes. It is these glimpses of humanity, of the alter-ego, that made The Avengers such a rich sandbox for fan creators to play in. Their archetypes are not blank page templates for total projection, per se, but they do allow for personal identification from fans. Whedon’s insistence on iconography, as well as glimmers of character growth, invited fan engagement, specifically female and queer engagement. Fans who were not as familiar with the content could easily become familiar because of the reliance on archetypes, and from there become attached to the characters’ alter-egos through carefully crafted character development.
The Avengers is an excellent example of Jenkins’ utopic vision of a convergence culture. Convergence culture represents a “shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” (Jenkins, 3). Fans are using media literacy “to use different media technologies to bring the flow of media more fully under their control and to interact with other consumers” therefore gaining agency over the media they consume (Jenkins, 18). Jenkins envisions a new form of spectatorship that is empowered through grassroots approaches to transmedia storytelling. He also examines the strength of community building through a “collective intelligence” that pulls together fans combined knowledge and experiences to form a cohesive and accepted mastery over the canon (Jenkins, 27). Although the film may be accessible to new fans, it is still rewarding for long-time MCU and Marvel comics fans through the self-referential “easter eggs.” Audiences are encouraged to investigate these references to the comic’s canon, spot references to earlier films, and find clues about upcoming films. The superhero genre is “ripe for transmedia adaptation as they serve as consistent prototypes with a remarkable degree of narrative malleability” so it is little wonder that fan works emerged after the film was released (Taylor, 191). Although convergence culture is rewarding for fans of the canon, it is equally, if not more so, exemplified in the women and queer folk creating fan works inspired by The Avengers. Before going into examples of convergence culture at play in the Avengers fandom, it is necessary to summarize how fanfiction websites such as AO3 and fandom-heavy websites like Tumblr are women and queer-led, and therefore uniquely women and queer spaces in a male-dominated fandom.
Since the fanfiction fanzines of the 1970s to the beginning of the Internet, fanfiction has been dominated by women (Jenkins, 87; Driscoll and Gregg, 573). There are several theories for why women tend to be attracted to fanfiction. The simplest and likeliest answer is that most media are written by men and for men, so women feel they are not represented in the fiction they consume (Floegal, 790). Women writers are therefore drawn to reading and creating content that has been “rewritten in order to make it more responsive to their needs” by “appropriating it and reappropriating it” (Jenkins, 86, 87). Reading and writing fanfiction gives women more agency than canon works do. By clicking certain tags on websites such as AO3 (“tags” refer to genres, characters, “ships” [romantic relationships], etc.) readers can curate their reading experience. Writers can transform canon worlds to fit their needs, ideals, pleasures, and most importantly their imaginations and therefore “become active participants in the construction and circulation of textual meaning” (Jenkins, 24). Just as fanfiction has always been women-led, fanfiction has also always explored queer themes. In the fandom, queer romances are referred to as slash fiction which “refers to the convention of employing a stroke or “slash” to signify a same-sex relationship between two characters” (Jenkins, 192). Cultural studies and fan studies theorists have been trying to understand why so many women write slash, and the consensus seems to be that “fanfiction writers reorient cis/heteronormative content to create information worlds that challenge common discourse and compensate for a dearth of queer topics found among other resources” (Floegal, 785).
The Avengers fanfiction fandom is very queer. The most “shipped” couples post-Avengers were either Stony (Tony/Steve) or Frost Iron (Tony/Loki)–although it should be mentioned that Stucky (Steve/Bucky) became the most popular MCU ship post Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo & Russo, 2014). The popularity of Stony and Frost Iron can be explained by the glimmers of character development in The Avengers. Although Tony and Steve clash because of their archetypes (the billionaire playboy vs the All-American soldier), they also reconcile because of their humanity. Whedon’s use of archetypes sets up the tension between the characters, but it is the alter-egos that fans are inspired to write about. The same can be said for Iron Frost. Arguably, Tony Stark and Loki are the most complex characters in the film, and the characters that have the most in common, so it is little wonder people saw chemistry between these characters. Fanfiction writers are not just interested in romance, though: they are interested in exploring the psychologies of the characters, as well as the complex interpersonal issues between the characters. In Henry Jenkins’ Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten he mentions a study that suggested that when it comes to absorbing fiction “men focused primarily on narrative organization and authorial content while women devoted more energy to reconstructing the textual world and understanding the characters” (Jenkins, 91). Although this study may overgeneralize gendered differences in approaching fiction, there does appear to be some truth to it, especially when considering the most popular fanfiction works in the Avengers fandom. On AO3 comments are a form of currency, and therefore the amount of comments a story has is the best indicator of popularity.
As seen above, the most reviewed story on AO3 is a collection of letters between Captain America and other canon characters. You will note in the tags mentions of Tony/Steve, rom-com elements, and “whump” (the fanfiction word for a character experiencing trauma). If one were to continue to scroll down on AO3, one would see the second to fifth most popular stories are: a Danny Phantom (Hartman, 2003-2007) crossover with The Avengers (to be noted, both Peter Parker and Danny Fenton are tagged as queer); a Harry Potter (Rowling, 1997-2007) crossover where Harry is genderbent and queer; an Iron Frost story; and a series about the personal issues the characters experienced post Captain America: Civil War (Russo and Russo, 2016). The top five fan works transform the canon to be more about interpersonal issues, to be queerer, and to explore issues outside of action plots. Based on this small sample, there may be some truth to the study in Jenkins’ article, because fanfiction has always been a women’s-led mode of fan engagement. The Avengers laid the groundwork for fan engagement through a careful balance of archetypes and character development. Based on the above sample, fanfiction writers are clearly more interested in stories that explore interpersonal issues, as well as complex intertextual stories. They are writing what the film did not give them—stories that focused on the person behind the hero persona—showing mastery over the intertextuality and transmedia storytelling Jenkins idealizes in his work on convergence culture. The Avengers fanfiction fandom not only showcases how fanfiction is a space for more queer and women-led works in a still male-dominated fandom, but it also showcases how women and queer folk exemplify utopic cultural convergence.
Although fanfiction is a medium of intertextuality, transmedia storytelling, and total transformation of canon works, it is mostly text-based. Tumblr, which is both text-based and image-based, is more inherently “fannish” and queer than fanfiction (McCreakon, et al, 171). Since its creation in 2007, Tumblr has been a website for tailor-made community building that is “fully woven into the contemporary queer experience, playing a critical role in the everyday lives of LGBTQ people” (Cavalcante, 1719). One of the many reasons why women and queer folk create fan works is because “popular narratives often fail to satisfy” so “fans must struggle with them, to try to articulate to themselves and others unrealized possibilities within the original works” (Jenkins, 24). One of the problems with the MCU, and for fans of the alter egos, is the serialized nature of the films, as well as solo outings post-The Avengers. This format does not allow for the kind of “found family” stories that fans clearly want to see. So, they did it themselves. After the 2012 film, Tumblr tags began popping up that were dedicated to the more mundane and interpersonal aspects of being an Avenger. For instance, the tag #AvengersTower content was generally about everyday events that happened in the Avengers Tower, where fans imagined the Avengers coexisting as roommates (Hale-Stern n.p.). These posts were in the form of “incorrect quotes” (fan-written dialogues between characters), gif sets, and fan art. Another popular tag was #Science Bros, which focused on the friendship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner that was beginning to flourish in The Avengers. The blog page sciencebrotp has been reblogging #sciencebros art, gif sets, and text for ten years now. Their relationship is explored in canon, but because the films are more dedicated to action plots than relationship development, the fans curated and created the content they wanted to see.
Another less canon relationship tag that exploded on Tumblr after the film was affectionately known as “Super Family,” which is an alternate universe (AU) adopted by several fans that rewrites Tony and Steve as husbands as well as fathers to Peter Parker. On the blog Avengers AU + Superfamily, you will see ten years’ worth of content depicting fan art of Super Family, texts and headcanons on Super Family, and gif sets either featuring the characters or the actors with original text over the images. The gif sets are of particular interest to this paper. The gifs not only put original text over top the canon imagery, but they also splice together images from different films and media. For instance, there are gif sets that feature Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man from The Amazing Spider-Man (Webb, 2012) spliced with gifs of Tony and Steve from the MCU. This is a prime example of the kind of transmedia storytelling women and queer folk are creating in the Avengers fandom. The fandom achieves more seamless interconnectivity than the canon ever could because Tumblr is not bound by contracts or budgets. Plot holes like “Why was Tony not involved in the Winter Soldier” can be fixed in fanfiction and fan edits. Fanfiction and fan edits have a privileged kind of intertextuality that is impossible in film. AU’s and crossovers in fan works exemplify how women and queer folk are experts at intertextuality and exemplify the utopic qualities of cultural convergence.
Although Jenkins refers to the collective intelligence as fans gathering information across canon materials, the idea can be applied to the media literacy necessary to understand fan works (Jenkins, 27). Throughout this essay, I have used fandom-specific language such as “ships,” “whump,” “tags,” and more. Navigating the world of The Avengers fan work requires learning not only the language of fan works in general but also the language of The Avengers fandom. To engage with more slash content, one must learn the different ship names, such as Iron Frost. To understand what #SuperFamily refers to, one must become familiar with this particular AU. Interestingly, this media literacy makes fanfiction and fan works more like the comics than the film itself. Unlike films, which are a more passive medium (despite Jenkins’ ideals of fan participation), the serialized nature of comics requires more active engagement and knowledge of the language of comics. Similarly, fan works require knowledge of the fandom language. In a way, the fan creators of Avengers are more empowered than other fans because they are not only experts in their own unique language, but also creators who use that language to engage with the canon material in transformative ways. In the following, I will more closely analyze elements of The Avengers fandom in relation to Jenkins’ ideals of convergence culture.
To understand how fan creators exemplify the ideals of convergence culture, it is important to understand how fan works function as a paratext. Because the canon is an “overt precursor” to the fan material, within fan works such as fanfiction there is an inherent “wrestling match” between fidelity and resistance (Leavenworth, 43). Not unlike film adaptations. The “wrestling” between canon and transformation is “initiated by a desire to profoundly subvert the messages in the canon text, but it may also stem from a wish to refuse the canon’s limits and have more of the same story” (43). For instance, #ScienceBros stems from fan’s desire for more funny and wholesome interactions between canon characters without the interruption of hero plots. One important element to fanfiction as non-canon paratext is the use of author’s notes (A/N) at the beginning or end of the story. The A/N can function as a sort of instruction manual on how to read a particular story (50). For instance, the author may “warn” the readers of non-canon elements, such as certain ships or changes to canon events. Or they may preface the story by explaining the nuances of the AU or the Crossover elements it covers. These instructions from the author not only give the readers an idea of how to read the work, but also serves to defend against commenters who may accuse the work and characters of being out of character (OOC). Many A/Ns contain the line “Don’t like, don’t read” to deter negative comments about the material, reminding the reader that it is their choice whether they engage with certain content. Fan creators are the ideal subjects of convergence culture because of their ability to fluidly work with the canon and their own transformative imaginations.
Along with A/Ns, Crossover works, such as the #SuperFamily content that involves Garfield’s Spider-Man, also exemplify the boundless agency fan creators have in a convergence culture. Because these stories “break boundaries between texts,” they not only exemplify Jenkins’ ideas about seeking new information across media, but reach higher standards of transmedia storytelling (Jenkins, 175). Rather than simply gathering info across textual boundaries, the fans are creating across textual boundaries. They are accomplishing what the MCU can only dream of: complex stories featuring characters across the Marvel canon, without the limits of company rights, budget, or actor contracts. In a way, crossovers such as #Superfamily bear a stronger resemblance to the medium specificity of graphic novels. Graphic novels are not bound by the same budgetary concerns as films. However, fan works can transcend the limits of comics as well by incorporating characters like Danny Phantom, who exists entirely outside the canon of Marvel.
Jenkins’ utopic ideas of community building are also exemplified in the importance of comments and reviews in fanfiction. Readers can leave encouragements or even ideas on what they would like to see next. Often, the author will address these comments either directly to the fan, or in the A/N. In fact, fan engagement through comments can transform the work itself (Leavenworth, 50). It is not uncommon for the author to ask for help on what to write next, or scrap an idea altogether based on fan response (50). Similarly, Tumblr pages dedicated to The Avengers often engage with their followers. For instance, the blog ASK SUPER FAMILY encourages followers to private message questions for #SuperFamily and then the owner of the blog will answer the questions “in character” as members of the Super Family. Blogs such as these are built on fan engagement, where fans and fan creators build entire worlds together, transcending the possibilities of canon and Jenkins’ own ideas about convergence culture.
Henry Jenkins’ theory of convergence culture has been essential in my exploration of the empowerment and agency women and queer folk have in The Avengers fandom. There are, however, limitations and contradictions in his theory that must be addressed. For instance, Aaron Taylor questions the agency of the Avengers fandom. Jenkins claims that cultural convergence is a grassroots movement that puts the power on the fan’s side, not the media corporations (Jenkins, 17), but as Taylor points out, it was a strategic move to hire Joss Whedon, beloved among sci-fi and horror fans, to be the director of The Avengers (Taylor, 187). In fact, a good portion of Whedon’s fans are women, and so his Buffy female fans were a built-in audience for The Avengers, targeting a portion of the female audience that may not have otherwise been interested in the film (187). Taylor points out that “blockbuster transmediality is not only indicative of the economics of post-cinematic adaptation, but it also exemplifies a corporate strategy that aims for the strategic co-option of potentially unruly niche audiences”, contradicting Jenkins’ ideas of an audience with agency (191). The MCU is making their “fannish” audiences more passive viewers by placating the comic fans with “easter eggs”, “nerd” directors, and references to its serialized nature. All of this is true, but the industrial nature of the MCU is the very reason why fan creators exist. Fanfiction writers and fan creators are less concerned with adherence to canon since their works transform the canon. They are by nature active members of the fandom. The corporate ambitions of the MCU matters little to fan creators who are absorbed in AUs and Crossovers anyway. It matters little to the Stony shipper if the MCU is trying to placate the fandom through “easter eggs” and “nerd directors”; they will continue to write the story they want regardless, and more importantly in spite of, mercenary corporate tactics. Here lies the power of the female and queer-led fandom: fan creations are a form of resistance to industrial-created “fannish” passivity.
Like Taylor, the anthropologist professor S. Elizabeth Bird is cynical of Jenkins’ theory, pointing out that most fans are not “produsers” or “creators” of their media, nor are they as heavily involved in the collective intelligence Jenkins envisions (Bird, 504). Most fans, even ones that are passionate about the MCU, will not engage with the film past the initial watch and rewatches. Most will not be part of a convergence culture because they are happy to be a passive audience. Jenkins’ utopic vision may apply to niche subcultures, but his vision is far too generalized. However, in terms of the empowerment and agency of the women and queer spaces of the Avengers fandom, accepting that convergence culture is in fact a subculture is not a problem. The power of this subculture comes from the fact that they are a small, dedicated group that utilizes media literacy to develop their own distinct languages and worlds.
It should be noted, however, that like cultural convergence, fandom in general is not utopic. Fan writers and creators can be bombarded with negative comments about their works, claiming that OOC content is like “character rape” (Jenkins, 81). Fan works that go against reader and viewer ideologies can be met with severe bullying. It should also be noted that in 2022 Tumblr is not the same queer-friendly place it was in 2012. In 2017, Yahoo bought the company and quickly “introduced a new feature called ‘safe mode,’ which prevented users from seeing adult and NSFW [Not Safe For Work] content” which ended up blocking most LGBTQ content, “branding it “NSFW.” Even wholesome artworks depicting Stony may be blocked under “safe mode” (Cavalcante, 1732). Additionally, fandom has long ignored “wider structural inequities that seep into fan communities, which are structured by normative whiteness” (Floegal, 787). Like most fandoms, The Avengers fandom has its share of toxicity. However, that does not result in meaningful works that challenge cis, white, heterosexual normativity losing their importance and transformative qualities.
Much has changed since The Avengers was released in 2012. The MCU continues to reach new heights of intertextuality and transmedia storytelling, for better or for worse. The ways fan works are shared have changed too; Instagram and TikTok seem to be emerging as the new domain for fan edits. But, despite the changes to the fandom over the last ten years, women and queer folk continue to create works that both celebrate and resist the MCU in empowering and engaging ways, exemplifying Jenkins’ ideals of convergence culture far more than the passive, canon-focused male MCU fans ever could.