In my totally unsolicited opinion, the sustained success of The Black Panther is the feel-good story of this young year. Marvel went all-in on ‘Panther’, trusting a $200 million dollar budget to a Director, Ryan Coogler, who’d only made two movies before – and allowed him to tell a story that walked a tight-rope between mass-market appeal and cultural specificity.
Black Panther is a movie where characters make cracks at colonization, reference Grace Jones, speak openly about the trials and tribulations of the African American experience and weaponize a wig- while at the same time being a slam-bang action picture for all ages and audiences. This tight-rope walk was rewarded justly – with the flick hauling in over a billion dollars at the box office – so far.
It’s a movie but also a movement; an authentic celebration of a culture and a people (by those people) who have been historically disenfranchised, that won audiences over by leaning into that disenfranchisement by showing them a kingdom untouched by the ills of colonization.
In fact it’s been a good couple of years for big-budget, culture-specific movies. ‘CoCo’ from Pixar was an exploration of Mexican norms in a way that educated, entertained, and brought tears to many an eye – but resonated on an entirely extra level for Mexican Americans. Wonder Woman, while a ‘lesser’ movie than Black Panther, was an empowering film – both in practice and production – even if the film itself shied away from the feminist zeitgeist that celebrated it.
Which brings us to ‘Ready Player One’ and its designs on celebrating ‘gamer’ and ‘nerd’ culture, which is far far far far far far far far far (far) less important than the examples provided above, but still an appetizing idea. Someone like Steven Spielberg (who is by all reports a ‘true’ gamer) taking a culture you love dearly, and dropping $175 million dollars to make a movie celebrating and exploring it in serious regard, is an intoxicating notion.
Thus the comparison between Black Panther and Ready Player One is more apt than you may think. Even if Black Panther’s place in the world (and cinema history) is far more meaningful than Ready Player One’s, the goals of both films appear to be the same: deliver an entertaining movie that appeals to mass audiences while being specific enough to speak to a given culture in a way they may not have experienced before.
On its face, Ready Player One seeks to weaponize nostalgia; as various intellectual properties smash together in delightful ways viewers never thought possible. A ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ for the iGeneration, with a distinct eye toward the movies, games, television, and anime that Millennials hold most dear. Elevating and legitimizing their importance in our culture as our modern-day mythology.
But is gaming and nerd culture in need of legitimacy?
In the case of Black Panther, absolutely. There had been black superheroes before – notably Blade and Spawn, but not in the current Marvel Movie blockbuster era – and certainly not in a way where African American culture was at the forefront of the adventure. Which is to say African American superheroes and action stars have been ‘legitimate’ for years – but it took Black Panther to bring explicitly black culture to the blockbuster mainstream in a major way.
For example, Sam Jackson and Denzel Washington and The Rock may be black, bankable, action stars, but rarely is ‘blackness’ intrinsic to their blockbusters’ success – or a major part of their character outside of a few colorful metaphors. Man on Fire, The Negotiator, or Fast and Furious have very little to do with black culture – they just happen to have black folks in it. Which is fine. Not every movie with a black star needs to speak directly to African American issues and audiences. But now, thanks to Black Panther, you absolutely *can* if you so choose.
Gaming-wise, the legitimacy is lacking. There’s been films based on games like Doom, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, and (infamously) Mario Brothers, and movies featuring game developers; Grandma’s Boy and David Croenberg’s Existenz, and even House of Cards occasionally dabbled in gaming culture. Yet, most gaming specific adaptations are poor-to-middling, few of them authentic, and none of them with anything particularly profound or thought-provoking to say about games or pop-culture and why they transcend just about every culture there is. Even the excellent Wreck-It Ralph is less about what gaming means to people, and more of a simple (but really enjoyable) love-letter.
The problem is these adaptations assumed it’s the characters and plots that drew us to games, when in reality, it was how those games made us feel; powerful, scared, strong, skilled, smart…loved. The movies simply borrowed the story – which are often poor in games – and thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.
The one movie that sticks out as equal parts good and somewhat authentic to gaming and pop culture – Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – woefully under-preformed at the box office despite a heavy focus on marketing toward nerds. But the nerdy / gamer stuff was also fairly surface level. Musical stings, graphical gags, and throw-away lines about extra lives rang true, but the movie wasn’t really *about* gaming or *about* nerd culture in the same way Black Panther or Coco were about African and Mexican American culture. The gaming stuff was the texture, not the subject.
‘Ready Player One’ on the other hand, looks to dive into the subject of gaming culture thumbs first and present an on-screen thesis regarding how gaming and interactive entertainment makes us feel – and why that’s important.
And while it’s not as monumental a goal as what Black Panther accomplished, seeing gaming taken seriously in this way, after years of shockingly inaccurate depictions of both games and of fat gamers, and of actors who can’t hold a controller properly, and years of having our passion of choice deemed at-best a novelty or at worst a dangerous, violent-sociopath creating hobby – it’ll be nice to get a little mainstream respect – even if in the grand scheme of things its nary a drop in the bucket compared to what the audiences of Coco, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther have likely dealt with their entire lives.
And that’s the ‘Black Panther’ of it all, really – respect. In the same way millions were excited to have a massive movie speak directly to their culture, strife, and beauty, Ready Player One will speak directly to a culture that transcends age, race, gender, sexuality, and even politics. People who learned their geography from Oregon Trail. Their sports from Madden. Their friends from Xbox Live. Their engineering from Minecraft. In some cases, their sense of duty from World of Warcraft raids.
For those people – across race, color, creed, and social status, it’s entirely probable they look at the above trailer and think ‘this one’s for me’.
Of course a bunch of gamers and nerds getting excited for their own version of ‘proper’ representation in the wake of Black Panther, CoCo, and Wonder Woman, seems a little entitled. Privileged if you will. At the same time, you can’t help how you feel, and it’s fundamentally crummy to be shamed for your excitement as the tweet above seems to do – if you’ve spent your life championing the fundamental power of interactive entertainment, you can’t help but hope Ready Player One will finally make the case for you.
On a macro level, Ready Player One isn’t nearly as important as Black Panther. But for certain gamers and certain nerds…well, don’t be surprised if #OASISForever starts trending some time in the near future.
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