Before watching Feels Good Man (which, for those of you wondering how I was able to see it before its official release date of September 4th, I caught a backdoor screening of on August 29), the year’s best documentary thus far, I had next to no idea what Pepe the Frog was. All I knew was that he was a cartoon frog that became a popular meme around the Internet, and was deemed a “hate symbol” by the Anti Defamation-League because of some less-than-nice ways in which more than a few people have used him.
And it’s here that I’d like to stop and address some of the negative attention Feels Good Man has received online, mostly (I’m guessing) from those who hadn’t even seen it in the first place. Sure, the trailer may somewhat make it look like a “Pepe memers bad, everyone else good” narrative, but for reasons I’ll get into later, the movie itself digs into Internet culture in a far more nuanced and even-handed way than that.
In fact, despite a slight liberal bend very occasionally being visible (for instance, one of the main people being interviewed describes Trump’s win in the 2016 presidential election as “something that shouldn’t have happened”), this is as close to a politically neutral take on Pepe as we’re ever likely to get*. Still, it’ll be quite interesting to see how audiences respond to the film once it finally gets a wide release.
Can we expect to see some serious review-bombing from them on sites like Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and Metacritic? Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure we will. Should everyone angry or concerned about the movie at least watch it before automatically making up their minds that it’s “out-of-touch nonsense for left-wing soyboys?” Yes, they definitely should.
Pepe the Frog’s creator is a shy, sweet man named Matt Furie who loves drawing, spreading positivity through his work, and hanging out with his family. In 2005, he posted his first full-length Pepe comic, Boy’s Club, on MySpace, and “Feels good man”—Pepe’s biggest catchphrase from the comic—soon becomes a tagline for a couple men’s fitness memes online. Furie initially ignored this, but as Pepe himself got bigger on the Internet—particularly a little site named 4chan—things gradually get worse for him. A lot worse.
Unlike that trailer, however, Feels Good Man doesn’t immediately skip ahead to Pepe being abused by angry 4channers. Instead, it actually takes the time to discuss what 4chan is all about, and why some people—especially young people and NEETs (short for Not in Education, Employment, or Training)—see it as a place where they truly belong. We’re even given an extended look at one 4channer who (literally) lives in his parents’ basement, and the film’s treatment of him is surprisingly sensitive and nonjudgmental. This moment alone should be enough to quell the accusations of anti-4chan bias once more people actually watch the film, though that sadly may not matter if the aforementioned review-bombing starts happening rapidly enough.
Even more sadly, once the film actually does get to Pepe being used as a hate symbol (and it doesn’t hold back when showing the extent to which he was maligned in that way), it’s still honest enough to explain the full context of this, not make it seem like a few Internet edgelords did it just for the sake of getting attention. After celebrities like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj were also using Pepe as a joke, many 4channers were so afraid of losing him to “normies” that they started using him for racist, anti-Semetic, and otherwise hateful memes, images, and videos.
Then white nationalists started appropriating him too. Then Donald Trump starting using him for his campaign, and all of 4chan started rallying behind him as a result. Finally, even after Furie kills Pepe off in Boy’s Club, a “racist, Islamophobic, and hate-filled” (Furie’s words, not mine) children’s book named The Adventures of Pepe and Pede comes out… and he finally takes legal action.
In response to that, I may have a few saying “Well, nobody owns anything on the Internet. As long as people are using Pepe the meme for their copyrighted material, and not Pepe the Boy’s Club character, it falls under fair use.” It actually doesn’t, though. Regardless of which Pepe somebody may be using for their book (particularly a book defaming him to that extent), it’s still a character copyrighted by Matt Furie, and unless he gives explicit permission to do so, nobody has a right to use him in that way. Period.
In the midst of my slight rantings, I haven’t even gotten to how excellently made Feels Good Man is yet. Several new animations of Pepe and the Boy’s Club characters were created for the film, and they’re all absolutely incredible. The music and editing not only have an excellent sense of humor, but are really just excellent in general (which I admittedly can’t quite say the same for in that trailer—at least, not in the editing department). Perhaps one brief section involving a young criminal addicted to 4chan before carrying out illegal actions distracts from the general narrative, but everything else flows so incredibly well that it’s hard to really care about that. Overall, the entire movie is a formidable testament to the power that great documentary filmmaking can have, and it should be required viewing for anybody interested in making such a film themselves.
After my screening, there was an extended Q&A** afterwards with the film’s first-time director, Arthur Jones (as well as YourMovieSucksDOTorg, a Canadian YouTube film critic who gave Feels Good Man a very positive review, and George Lucas—no, a Lucas impersonator, not the man himself—from the George Lucas Talk Show). Watching Jones talk and answer questions about his movie with such enthusiasm, I saw him as a man who genuinely cares about Pepe and wanted to bring this little cartoon frog justice, not some random dude who wanted to make a quick buck off of this whole controversy. With any luck, everybody else who watches the movie will see him that way too.
*Sure, Feels Good Man will probably make you hate Alex Jones with all your soul, but that’s mainly because of what he does to Pepe (more specifically, putting him in a copyrighted InfoWars book without getting Furie’s permission first, and forcing the kind artist to take him to court to get the frog removed from there). Additionally, just a little research about him afterwards will confirm just how scummy of a human being he really is anyway, so it’s not like the movie will be solely responsible for this.
**10-8-20 UPDATE: This particular Q&A was finally uploaded to YouTube by the film’s production company, Ready Fictions, so check it out below if you have a chance. Go on. Do it.