If there are two essential truths in today’s media and popular culture, it’s these: One, virtually the entirety of mass popular culture is geared towards pandering to the wants, needs, interests, and desires of male nerds. And two, those male nerds often fail to believe that they’ve been pandered to quite enough.
Just look at the movie release schedule. There’s a Star Wars movie every year now and virtually every single comic book hero, video game, and fantasy character or franchise of any note is the subject of either its own movie, or a series of them. Less than 20 years ago, it was considered risky for a movie studio to make a Spider-Man movie. Now, we’re on our third cycle of them. A large, large percentage of tent pole movies each year are made with the nerdly male gaze and worldview in mind.
But are the target audiences happy with the way things are? Some are, but many are not. Because in this landscape in which every nerd desire is pandered to at all times, there’s another constant theme: Debates over whether those desires are being pandered to sufficiently. And I’m talking about adult males, even if the movies- as well as the toys tied in to them- are explicitly meant for children. Stand aside, 9-year-olds…
Less than 20 years ago, it was considered risky for a movie studio to make a Spider-Man movie. Now, we’re on our third cycle of them.
Every single one of these movies is met with whining over their lack of sufficient fealty to the sacrosanct canon of comic books or video games. And sometimes its even more toxic, with attacks on the “social justice warrior” tendency of any film that dares to put women or minorities in its cast. Or the belief, by certain members of DC Extended Universe fandom, that the odious, unwatchable films cranked out as part of that series are somehow unfairly unappreciated – leading to these fans to consider themselves as put-upon victims just because they like Superman and Batman. Guess what boys – the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League probably doesn’t exist. And if it did, it would almost certainly suck.
Nerd fan toxicity comes in many forms, from nutty conspiracy theories about bought-off movie critics and Rotten Tomatoes score manipulation to an actual critic writing that Alicia Vikander (Alicia Vikander!) shouldn’t have been cast as Lara Croft because she’s not hot enough to measure up to the standards of that precious video game character.
Nerd fan toxicity comes in many forms…
Indeed, read the comments section of any website geared towards superheroes, sci-fi, comic books, video games, or any other nerd-adjacent pop culture genre, you’ll notice a recurring theme above all others: Rampant, aggressive, and hateful misogyny. Through Gamergate, Comicsgate, and the national ragegasm over the unforgivable existence of an all-female Ghostbusters movie, it’s become clear that when it comes to sexism, the bros don’t hold a candle to the geeks.
And yet, year by year, the more nerd-directed properties take over the centrality of film culture, the unhappier the nerds are.
So now we have a new film, from one of our greatest filmmakers, one who has long approached a series of subjects at hand – childhood, the 1980s, and popular culture, with reverence and respect. So naturally, that film may be the most unwatchable, indefensible manifestation of the nerd-pandering tendency to date.
I’m speaking, of course, about Ready Player One, the new film directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from Ernest Cline’s novel of the same name.
The website Heavy.com set the tone for the film’s release, with a think piece that’s this entire awful toxic worldview in one sentence: “Will ‘Ready Player One’ be ‘Black Panther’ for Gamers?” I’m not sure what’s worse about that formulation – the equivalence of gamers with black people, or the idea that gamers have somehow been underserved by popular culture, up until now. Both suggestions are as obscene as they are absurd.
I’m not sure what’s worse…the equivalence of gamers with black people, or the idea that gamers have somehow been underserved by popular culture…
Ready Player One is set in the mid-21st century, in a post-apocalyptic landscape in which seemingly everyone on Earth spends most of their days in a shared virtual reality space called The Oasis (think The Matrix, although not quite as overtly evil). The totally nondescript hero (Tye Sheridan) gets pulled into a Willy Wonka-like competition to win control of the Oasis, as organized by the technology’s dead founder (Mark Rylance).
Yes, this movie, which was released the same week the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica brouhaha hit the news, saw it fit to make its idealized hero the nerdish, socially maladroit founder of a world-spanning technology company.
But that’s not the worst thing about this film. Ready Player One establishes that the Rylance character, James Halliday, was obsessed with 1980s popular culture, so that means everyone in the far future is, too. So the Oasis is filled with references to things that were popular in the ‘80s. Rubiks Cubes! The Back to the Future Delorean! And a whole bunch of other things that the movie seeks to congratulate the audience for noticing, even if these things were all part of the ‘80s monoculture and not the slightest bit obscure.
So in short, it’s a $175 million, effect-laden sci-fi epic that’s pitched at the level of a Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon sketch, with, say, Will Smith dressed up like the Fresh Prince again, and the audience expected to laugh merely at the recognition. Ready Player One is “Hey, Remember That Thing?: The Movie,” as brilliantly parodied by Demi Adejuyigbe with his “rejected theme song” on YouTube:
The film doesn’t seem to understand why some of these characters and objects it’s featuring even exist; it’s just dozens of pieces of intellectual property, on a literal battlefield against one another.
I didn’t so much mind the long sequence set inside the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, as it’s one of the few parts of the film with any creativity. But the most insulting thing of all is the use of The Iron Giant, who in the eponymous 1998 animated classic was an avatar of pacifism and non-violence. Now, here he is as a killing machine. What a betrayal of everything that beloved film stands for. It reminded me of the “Ghandi II” bit from Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF.
The LEGO Movie…Also full of pop culture references…But that movie had a lot more soul, and stakes that made sense…
Then there’s the small matter of none of the characters having any presence to speak of, as Olivia Cooke’s heroine is the one person in the film who registers even slightly as an actual human. Nothing has any stakes, and the plot is merely MacGuffin upon MacGuffin upon MacGuffin. How were we supposed to keep track of all the “keys,” and “challenges,” and “easter eggs”?
Do you know what film was a better version of what Ready Player One was trying to accomplish? The LEGO Movie. Seriously. Also full of pop culture references, and Ben Mendelsohn’s villain in Ready Player One was basically President Business. But that movie had a lot more soul, and stakes that made sense, even though its characters were animated Legos.
A film like Ready Player One, even more than the endless Marvel and Star Wars releases that at least take some care in giving audiences what they want, is just an insult to its own audience. It tells them, “here’s a thing! You recognize it, right? Enjoy it!” It’s disappointing that a master filmmaker like Steven Spielberg didn’t know better.
Entertainment directed at nerds and geeks, clearly, isn’t going anywhere, nor should it. A lot of it, after all, is quite great. But I ask filmmakers, and the studios supporting them, to be more respectful of their audience, and the audience, in turn, to dial back the toxicity.
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