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.
There was a time when the crossover-culture market was sufficiently obscure or contained that this problem was circumvented easily enough. In early examples of the inter-universe mash-up, writers could simply wipe the slate clean whenever things got too messy or incoherent. Team-ups between the Marvel and DC comics houses date back as far as the 60s, but they were generally contained to one-issue specials that could be safely isolated from the main narratives and wiped away after the final page. In 1996 and 1997, Amalgam Comics fused heroes from DC and Marvel into new characters that occupied their own diegesis – that way, Iron Lantern could never cross paths with the Green Lantern or Iron Man. The issues of faulty characterization could remain limited to thin, inexpensively produced booklets purchased by a young readership who mostly didn’t care either way.
The entertainment crossover truly took wing in the world of gaming, where the organizing principle of combat over narrative made the conglomeration of disparate characters go a bit smoother. Games such as Super Smash Bros or arcade-cabinet classic Marvel vs Capcom were light on story and focused their energy instead on maximizing the fun of the collision. There’s a plotline buried deep inside Super Smash Bros Brawl, but it makes not a lick of sense, pairing characters without rhyme or reason apart from how their powers might combine most niftily. And the plot is easily ignored when a player is busy using Bowser to bodyslam Pikachu into a cute yellow pulp.
Ready Player One is the culmination and the nadir of the crossover’s gradual migration to Hollywood and into the wider public consciousness. The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have raked in regular cash windfalls through brand association, but have only been able to do so at the expense of unwieldy narrative constructions and homogeneity. In order for their roster of superheroes to be able to move naturally and freely from property to property, all their films must maintain a rather dreary sameness about them. Ready Player One goes a step further, ironing out everything unique about the characters it takes from elsewhere, until they’re faceless icons. Who could possibly care that Ryu from Street Fighter makes an appearance when he’s little more than an extra filling space in a big fight scene? Ready Player One reduces these characters to figures stripped of all meaning, intended to produce a satisfied smirk of recognition and little else.
The hectic free-for-all of playtime is the force animating all of these mashups, as they attempt to replicate the giddy feeling of pitting all your favorite action figures against each other at once. For an exemplar that transcends the snags mentioned above, consider The Lego Movie and its Batman- and Ninja-themed successors. They acknowledge the absurdity of Spider-Man crossing wits with Jason Vorhees, and use that absurdity as a jumping-off point instead of trying to ignore it. The films turn the breaks in character into a joke: in block form, billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is more like a sad-sack bachelor. In short, Lego Batman refuses to take playtime seriously. Ready Player One treats it like war.