Sometimes Fandom Is Better: Head Canons Versus The Real Thing -The Toast

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Sulagna Misra’s previous work for The Toast can be found here. Note: This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.

There’s a lot one could say about Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the thought that struck me most often during my 10:30 AM screening was, Why does this feel like bad fanfic? 

I turned to my friends in the crowded theater and whispered, “This is bad, right? This is bad writing?” They agreed, laughing at my eagerness to condemn the film, but I was genuinely puzzled. I had enjoyed the first  Avengers movie, and everyone and their dog knows how much I loved Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But the feeling I had about Avengers: Age of Ultron was very specific: not only was I disappointed, I couldn’t believe how disappointed I was.

Where was the fun, the wit? There was a romance between two very good-looking people with a ton of angst and some pining thrown in; how was there no heat? And if you’re going to have fight sequences that look like literal trash, why weren’t there more funny quips during? In Age of Ultron, the Avengers did what so many fans most wanted them to do: they hung out like pals and made jokes and acted silly. But their jokes fell flat for me.

It didn’t help that the movie was riddled with cognitive dissonance. Do these people exist in an alternate universe in which a man who creates an all-powerful omniscient murderous AI is brushed off with a “boys will be boys”? Joss Whedon has publicly pointed out that he and Marvel tussled over various parts of the script, and maybe that is what drove what was previously a winning formula straight into the ground.

After the movie, I was reminded of a set of tweets from Juliet Kahn about female fandom that began with this one:

And I realized: I’ve been spoiled by fandom. Specifically by fanfiction, as well as by fandom “head canons,” which are the shared stories and beliefs that emerge again and again in fandom communities. With head canons that bridge the narrative gaps or dissonances often found in a particular character’s story, fandom can find ways to go beyond the original text. Consider the incredulity of that movie romance between Bruce Banner and Black Widow. She tells him women like dorks, which, duh. But while Mark Ruffalo can play dorky, he’s decidedly confused and conflicted in this film, and not in the endearing terrible-but-fun sensitive boy way. Annoyed by what I’d seen in the film, I was sure I could find better, sweeter fic of the couple. Done, with a lovely subtlety, over coffee dates. Multiple times. aou1 Then there’s Black Widow’s whole storyline. Juliet hit on this too:

Instead of the character complexity we see in some previous movies – that emotional elusiveness and quiet manipulation – Black Widow is suddenly, inexplicably, open about her emotions. And while she has also opened up in past movies, in Age of Ultron Bruce Banner has done nothing to earn her trust or interest — at least, not that we are allowed to see — in the way Clint Barton, Sam Wilson, Nick Fury, and Steve Rogers have all had to do before she will speak candidly with them. With Natasha, Bruce remains passive (not submissive — passive) in the face of her advances, not even reacting when she mentions her infertility. Based on her past characterization, I wondered if Natasha was opening up to him as emotional leverage, as she did with Loki. She does actually emotionally manipulate Bruce later, by distracting him with a kiss and a declaration of her affections before forcing him to become the Hulk without his consent, so I don’t think this is an entirely unfair assumption. The way Natasha talks about her infertility have been discussed elsewhere and all over the Internet, but I was particularly struck by how inappropriate the conversations seemed given her relationship with Bruce. The characters aren’t even together, so speaking about fertility and possible children seems rather incongruous. And the fact that they would both assume a romantic relationship was impossible because one or both of them couldn’t have biological children is a depressingly heteronormative assumption. 

Once you get a woman writing about Marvel women, she proves to be loads better at it than the writers of this movie. Agent Carter, a show executive-produced by Tara Butters, depicted the horror and legacy of Black Widow-like training with a subtlety and sharpness, focusing on a woman who’d been through the same. Dottie is not viewed a “monster” because she was forcibly sterilized; instead, the horror of her character comes from how she represses and defuses painful leftover childhood abuses — being a little girl forced to kill other little girls — and grows up to murder people, often and easily. This incongruence in character development between film and TV characters who have similar background experiences is par for the course with Marvel, which makes a show of trying to hew to consistency that usually comes to naught. I’ve read countless Black Widow fanfics that explore her character much better than the film did, and if you’re reading this post, you may have too. (Please, please link in the comments!)

claudiakimSince seeing Age of Ultron I’ve discussed the movie with friends, and while we do talk about bad things in this movie – there’s so much to discuss – we are more interested in filling in those narrative gaps with something stronger, better, more real. That’s where the concept of head canons come in: fandom can take these flawed tales and create richer and more authentic versions of these stories.

Here at The Toast, Nikki has already told you about the loveliness that is Dr. Helen Cho, and why her existence matters so much. And come on: you can’t tell me that a doctor who can literally print new body parts for the injured wouldn’t be able to pick up Thor’s hammer with ease? Head canon: Dr. Cho could flip Mjolnir up in the air and catch it before any of those dudes could make a move! Head canon: Human sunshine Sam Wilson could lift it, too.




Heck, head canon: Black Widow just wanted to try on heteronormativity for a time and was actually all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ after the last scene of the movie. Or maybe, head canon: Bruce Banner is really conflicted because he as Bruce is dating Natasha, but he as The Hulk is actually dating Hawkeye. Maybe Natasha babysits the traitor baby, maybe the Avengers love hanging out with Hawkeye’s too-cute kids, maybe Tony got the talking-to he more than deserved. Heck, maybe Dr. Cho was just into Thor because she wanted to pepper him with questions about Dr. Jane Foster, physicist extraordinaire. A friend of mine told me she’d already written a version of Age of Ultron exploring the actual political ramifications of superheroes, rather than dismissing notions of national sovereignty and international relations altogether. (As someone who has actually studied this, I have a lot of opinions on that aspect of the film.)

(Sidenote: I don’t know what she means by “if.” These are both clearly true.)

The best part of head canons is that they don’t have to complement one another. You can suggest Katniss is queer while also heralding a straight female character who doesn’t have to be feminine. And yes, ultimately I wish there was better representation of all these films; I wish that so badly. But sometimes head canons can even be a way of correcting these gaps and grievances, a way to salve our wounds with the stories we so deeply need:

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 1.22.54 PM

So: what are your favorite head canons and fanfictions? Personally, I’m going to finish this excellent fic about the Avengers writing a video game about themselves, and then, you know, maybe a Sam Wilson/Helen Cho fanfic is in my future.


Sulagna Misra writes about the weird things that pop into her head when she's not paying attention. She's on Twitter so she can not pay attention more effectively.

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