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Pepe the Frog died, and part of the internet died with him

The documentary Feels Good Man explores a meme’s life, death, and rebirth

Feels Good, Man still Kurt Keppeler and Christian Bruno / Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Years ago, the birth of a meme was cause for celebration. So when Matt Furie’s character Pepe first became famous online, it seemed like a good thing. The easygoing cartoon frog was a shorthand for relatable satisfaction or sadness, particularly on the chaotic message board 4chan. And when a friend urged Furie to crack down on copycat Pepes, he didn’t see the need. This was, after all, the age where everything was a remix.

But the new documentary Feels Good Man, directed by Arthur Jones, explains the fallout of his decision. In the years that follow, Furie watches his creation get co-opted by white supremacists. He spends months in legal battles with conspiracy theorists and bigots. He agrees to destroy thousands of dollars of Pepe merchandise, afraid it will be worn by neo-Nazis. He pleads with the Anti-Defamation League to remove Pepe from its hate symbol database, then leaves its offices defeated. It’s heartbreaking to watch. To a few viewers, that heartbreak will be the point — because some of Pepe’s biggest fans love to watch people suffer.

Feels Good Man is about the rise, fall, and slow recuperation of Pepe the Frog. But it’s also about the death of a more playful but far too exploitable era of internet culture — and about the birth of whatever comes next.

What’s the genre?

The overall Pepe saga is fairly well-known, but Feels Good Man explores it through a combination of individual biography and cultural analysis. The film is built around Furie and spends a lot of time discussing his comic Boy’s Club, where Pepe originated. It’s artistically ambitious, including some very effective animated segments featuring Pepe and other Furie characters. But it also draws from a range of other sources, including journalists, fellow artists, and a 4chan micro-celebrity.

What’s it about?

Pepe’s story starts in the mid-’00s, when artist Matt Furie began posting his comic Boy’s Club to MySpace. The canonical Pepe was a guileless slacker who hung out with three other anthropomorphic animals, all loosely inspired by Furie and his friends. (Furie also just loves drawing frogs, the film notes.) But the character’s simple design meant that you could adapt him for basically any art style or topic. As one internet analyst explains, there are lots of clusters of memes across the internet — and “there tends to be a Pepe variant in every one.”

Pepe was becoming part of the language of the internet. Inevitably, though, that led the frog to some dark places — especially in the hands of nihilistic online trolls. 4chan users celebrated mass shootings with his image. When mainstream female celebrities started sharing Pepes, the deeply misogynist site tried to “reclaim” him with offensive Nazi variations, which were quickly adopted by actual Nazis. A Trump-themed Pepe was retweeted by Trump himself, boosting the candidate’s support among some of the worst people on the web.

And as Pepe’s image changed, Furie tried to regain control of his creation. He launched a campaign to draw positive Pepes, canonically killed the character off out of sheer frustration, and began filing suits against right-wing figures who sold Pepe merchandise, including Infowars founder Alex Jones and the author of a xenophobic children’s book. The film follows all of it — along with a few tangential topics like Pepecash, a cryptocurrency based around “rare Pepe” trading cards.

What’s it really about?

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect microcosm of recent internet history than Furie’s frog. Pepe is the Altamont of memes: a symbol of a counterculture’s latent flaws curdling into something hideous. In the mid-’00s and early ‘10s, social media helped new artists broadcast their work. 4chan exported lolcats and Rickrolling and the loosely anti-authoritarian Anonymous movement. The internet’s enemies were government or corporate censors and other stodgy gatekeepers.

But the dark side was always there, too. “I used to believe that the internet used to be fun,” wrote Whitney Phillips, author of a canonical book on trolling, in an essay last year. The fun just required ignoring all the ugliness. “There was a lot I blinked at and ignored then, a lot I made excuses for then, a lot I laughed at then that simply wasn’t funny.” In some places, nihilism won. 4chan’s Anonymous movement was supplanted by the anti-feminist Gamergate campaign, the misogynist incel ideology, and the white nationalist “alt-right.” And the constant creative remixing of ubiquitous memes like Pepe turned them into collateral damage.

Even so, Furie comes off in Feels Good Man as a thoughtful (if confessedly naive) avatar of a genuinely more optimistic online era. While that earns him derision from some of the documentary’s participants, including one 4chan user and a Republican strategist, the filmmakers emphasize the cool stuff that has come out of Pepe’s internet fandom and the charm of his original incarnation in Boy’s Club.

The filmmakers never suggest that we can go back to that world. Even so, Feels Good Man ends on a note of hope: in 2019, Pepe evolves into something completely new and becomes a symbol of protest in Hong Kong. It’s still a serious political use of the meme — but he represents good instead of evil.

Is it good?

Many documentaries become less interesting the more you already know about the subject. But Feels Good Man presents a heavily covered story in a thoughtful and vivid way. Even its standard talking-head segments are peppered with compelling absurdities: a self-described chaos magician laying out how memes become reality, a 4channer proudly guiding viewers through his dingy bedroom’s utter squalor.

And if you have spent a long time immersed in online culture and media, Feels Good Man has a unique and uncomfortable appeal. The film never demonizes the internet or even lays out an explicit ideological statement. But it’s still a subtle, cutting rebuke of an old strain of internet idealism — the kind that unconditionally celebrated the weird chaos of a cultural petri dish, until it started breeding monsters.

Feels bittersweet, man.

How can I actually watch it?

Feels Good Man is seeking distribution, but it’s perfect for a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon.