The internet is a wonderful beautiful thing, opening people up to an insurmountable world of information, connectivity, creativity and the best of humanity, but as Fantasia Film Festival 2020’s Feels Good Man so deftly portrays, it can also be an insurmountable and unending void of the worst of humanity that takes all of the joy and wonder and turns it into something horrible.
In this case Feels Good Man focuses on artist Matt Furie and how one of his comic-book creations went from being an expressive piece of art, representing a small piece of Furie as a person and something he loved, to become a symbol of hatred, co-opted by the alt-right and bastardised beyond all recognition. That piece of art is, of course, one that we’ll all recognise – Pepe the Frog.
Director Arthur Jones’ capturing of Furies journey to reclaim Pepe the Frog as a symbol for peace, as well as explaining the journey in which it went from innocent comic book character to a rallying cry for racists, misogynists and homophobes is nothing short of extraordinary as a cautionary tale over intellectual property rights, the internet in general and also as a microcosm of society and how this small battle over a frog is indicative of a lot of today’s societal issues.
It also is a superb look at the good and the bad of going viral. Virality is one of today’s defining measurements for whether or not content is worthwhile and something that almost every money-making business craves. Indeed, Furie is initially happy about Pepe the Frog becoming a recognised internet meme and even attempts to cash in on it with a clothing range, as anybody would.
But then we see Pepe and his iconic phrasing ‘feels good man’ morph from being a phrase used by bodybuilders, to an expression of happiness used by members of the general public and then finally into a recognisable template replicated in meme after meme by 4-Chan users to be as offensive and controversial as possible, the opposite of what Pepe the Frog is supposed to be.
I was left aghast at the parallel that is then drawn between this monstrous mutation of Pepe at the hands of a disenfranchised and acutely tragic group of people who feel they have no place in society and the rise of Donald Trump leading up to his 2016 election win, during which Pepe the Frog became an unwitting mascot as the same people who had stolen the character from Furie and claimed it as their own attempted to meme a president into the oval office.
Naturally, this political subject matter will prove to be divisive as society seems to be more politically split than ever, and certainly if you’re on the right-hand side of politics and are a fan of alt-right figureheads like Alex Jones, Richard Spencer and, indeed, Donald Trump than you will not see any of the events in Feels Good Man as a triumph. This is because the film itself, as well as Furie’s attempt to reclaim Pepe, which involves suing a lot of the aforementioned alt-right figures for intellectual property theft, is firmly positioned in opposition to those things.
But, regardless of where you stand politically, the story of a man who has created something that’s actually very personal to him, and has seen it spiral out of his control and become something he hates is a relatable one and the documentary does a great job of telling Furie’s story, portraying him as an innocent, talented and tormented human being.
The addition of animated sequences from Furie’s own drawing is also a stroke of genius in this regard as it adds a splash of colour visually, but also serves as an excellent window into Furies’ psyche, especially when he makes the decision to kill off Pepe the Frog in his comic book, but then resurrects him in a wonderfully hopeful piece of animation to end the film.
For these reasons, Feels Good Man is an emotional roller-coaster that captures real-life events as a horror movie but offers a cathartic conclusion that is ultimately one of hope on so many levels. Peace and love can overcome hatred; it’s possible to reclaim something that has been lost against all odds and, perhaps more pertinently that nothing is insignificant and everyone and everything can make a difference, something as little as a crudely drawn frog can mean so much to so many people, good or bad.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here