The Meme-ification of the Ukraine Invasion

Why are people recasting ordinary Ukrainians as Marvel heroes? It's got more to do with internet fandom than you think.
A girl in Ukraine national colours with a meme about the war
Photo: Konrad Zelazowski / Alamy Stock Photo

The war raging in Ukraine has been inescapable on social media, with TikTok, Twitter and Instagram propelling scenes of horror and destruction into our feeds – whether we want them or not. 

Alongside those images, there’s a parallel universe of images and comments discussing the events in Ukraine as Vladimir Putin’s army marches on major cities, wreaking havoc along the way. It’s meme-Ukraine, where pop psychologists have been engaging in fan fiction, casting the protagonists in the conflict as Star Wars or Marvel characters.


Some on social media see it as cringey. Thousands of others are lapping it up. 

In part, the propulsion of Ukraine’s resistance fighters into meme-like characters who represent the heroism of holding out against a much larger oppressor is down to our desire to lionise inspirational figures. “Sometimes, users use the morality of the fictional narrative to justify a political argument or position which [researcher] Ashley Hinck labels ‘fan-based citizenship’,” says Line Nybro Petersen, who studies fandom and politics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “When we see the narrative or mood from The Avengers activated in the context of the war in Ukraine through memes, media users, in a sense, borrow the characteristics of the fictional characters to demonstrate a commitment to a particular cause.”

It’s also in no small part because the events that are playing out are undeniably incredible. Ukrainians are demonstrating remarkable bravery in the face of what seem like insurmountable odds – whether that’s staring down advancing tanks or removing a land mine by hand. For countries unaccustomed to war, these scenes register as simply unbelievable. 


But it’s also due to the way in which we all live now. “I think we are seeing an adaption of the cultural logic of fan communities applied to political participation – and in this case, to a war situation,” says Nybro Petersen. It means that we’re willing and able to recast Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an ordinary politician put into an extraordinary position, as Captain Ukraine, and his cabinet as the Avengers cast.

Memeifying the Ukrainian situation – and the characters involved – helps to simplify what is an impossibly complicated, unpalatable series of events into something more understandable. Rather than reading up on the hundreds of years of history that has caused ongoing tension between Ukraine and Russia, or even the warped 5,000-word crib notes version written by Putin, we can simplify history. Russia are the bad guys. Ukrainians are the Avengers.

“Whilst it certainly provides a creative outlet and some brief levity to Ukrainians in a dire position, memes can oversimplify and remove any nuance from what is a deeply complex and constantly evolving situation,” says Steven Buckley, who researches political communication and social media at the University of West of England. “These overly simple narratives can hurt a public’s wider understanding and hence damage efforts to seek solutions to the problems this invasion has caused.”


It’s also made easier by the fact that Zelenskyy’s pre-politics career is absurdly varied, and encourages people to make him – and by extension, those around him – into a meme. This is a former entertainer who has played the role of an unprepossessing man who inadvertently becomes president on screen; who has performed a skit where he plays a piano with his penis; who has won the Ukrainian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing; and who is the voice of Paddington Bear in his country. If an Extremely Online memelord were to write the ideal backstory for the man currently clowning Putin, they’d only get partway to describing Zelenskyy.

“Zelenskyy’s past as an actor is mostly responsible for the way he’s being framed: It feels more acceptable to make these kinds of references and jokes and memes when the person in question has been on Dancing with the Stars, has voiced Paddington, has been a comedian,” says Georgie Carroll, an Australian academic studying the relationship between online creators and their audience. “He was an actor, and we’re seeing people revert to treating him as such as a way to cope.”


It’s also good, shareable content. “This is a war taking place across user-generated platforms that sort of require and demand of its users to keep producing content,” says Hussein Kesvani, an author and researcher studying digital anthropology and tech cultures. The reason why British banter meme accounts like @thearchbishopofbanterbury posts heartfelt Humans of New York-style content alongside whatever banging viral tweet they saw on the timeline that morning is because there are algorithms to be fed, and we engage with content in different ways through social media. It’s notable that the Venn diagram of Instagram meme pages and war content has significant overlap: There’s money in highly engaged-with content, and plenty of people are trying to make a quick buck.

Despite the methods and formats changing, presenting the lighter side of serious incidents such as war is also nothing new, despite some trying to portray this as the first social media war. Rather than a radical break from the past, what we’re seeing is a continuum of what’s always gone on – just in different formats. 


Back in the 30s and 40s, people were similarly guffawing at posters saying that Allied forces should catch Hitler “with his ‘panzers’ down”. It’s also something that Ukraine’s government has encouraged: As tensions rose in the region, before the outbreak of war, @Ukraine, the country’s official Twitter account, has repeatedly shared meme posts about its relationship with Russia.

Memes can also be used to dominate the information space – an important element of any conflict. While Russia struggles to gain a foothold sharing its disinformation thanks to social media bans and blocks, pro-Ukrainian voices are drowning out Russia on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. It’s a way that ordinary people can feel like they’re helping – and focus attention on the plight of Ukrainians. “We can let ourselves get swept away by a mood of defiance and the thought of standing up to the aggressors alongside Ukraine by producing or retweeting easily decipherable images of Zelenskyy as an Avenger or placing Iron Man in a Ukrainian battlefield,” says Nybro Petersen.

However, the same things that catch the eye can also create a backlash. We’re a decade on from KONY 2012, the highest profile example of clicktivism, when a social media campaign to depose an African warlord went viral but caused zero real-world change  – and we run the risk of seeing the same thing happen here. As anyone who’s spent time on the internet knows, the half-life of a meme is incredibly short until the next big thing comes along. “These types of mood practices on social media tends to be ephemeral in character,” says Nybro Petersen, “and so the internet might move on to other topics to make into fan objects, while Ukraine might still need our attention and support.”