All mixed up: Ready Player One’s pop-culture crossovers are just empty nostalgia

On paper, it sounds like a utopia. Steven Spielberg’s new film Ready Player One presents itself as a party to which everyone is invited, its fictional VR dimension playing host to familiar faces from every blessed corner of the pop-culture universe. In the virtual plane known as the Oasis, players can captain the Millennium Falcon or the fluffy beast Falcor. They can try to sweet-talk Jessica Rabbit or befriend Sonic the Hedgehog. Brave warriors may fight alongside Freddy Krueger or Solid Snake, Mecha-Godzilla or the Iron Giant.

Except that the Iron Giant is a lover, not a fighter. Tricking out the character with death-lasers goes against everything that he’s about, directly contradicting his native film’s guiding theme of pacifism in the face of violence. The way Ready Player One deploys the character undermines everything we understand about him. But the film doesn’t get hung up on this, quickly cutting to the next big-ticket cameo. Was that Samus Aran from Metroid just now?

While this particular objection might smack of haughty comic book store nit-picking, the Iron Giant issue speaks to a larger flaw hardwired into all fan-driven crossover entertainment. Each movie, TV show, comic book or video game has its own distinct style, tone and philosophy. Mashing them all up into one glorious fracas can be a logistical nightmare, creating irreconcilable inconsistencies between the way characters behave and interact with one another. In a world so jam-packed, someone’s going to have to learn to play by someone else’s rules.

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