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'Ready Player One' Is Not 'Black Panther' and That's Okay

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the best-selling sci-fi fantasy novel Ready Player One topped the holiday box office this past weekend with a solid $53 million-plus debut (and an estimated 181.3 million worldwide). It's no small feat for a movie without A-list film stars that's not based on a comic book.

After the new Tomb Raider fizzled, and the Pacific Rim sequel came to be seen as little more than a play for international audiences, Ready Player One is arguably the first film to capture the zeitgeist in the wake of the Black Panther phenomenon. It is perhaps fitting that Ready Player One has supplanted that Marvel blockbuster as the movie of the moment, since—in terms of tone and content—it could be seen in some ways as the anti-Black Panther. While Black Panther presented a complex portrait of an Afrofuturist world with rich political themes that felt both timely and prescient, Ready Player One is unapologetically steeped in the past, which was part of the novel’s inherent appeal, but will also likely confound some audiences.

Think pieces are already taking Spielberg’s film to task for being yet another adventure anchored by a white male perspective (although to be fair, Olivia Cooke, Win Morisaki and Lena Waithe do help diversify the supporting cast) and for romanticizing a problematic period—the 1980s. But to some extent, these critics may be missing the point of the whole enterprise.

Ready Player One harkens back to a time when blockbusters weren’t supposed to mean anything, when films weren’t held up to hot-take scrutiny but instead were just pure, mindless fun. And this nostalgia-fest couldn’t have arrived at a more auspicious time, as audiences seem to be craving the very kind of no-frills fun that ‘80s pop culture can often effortlessly provide. Roseanne is back on TV screens, scoring massive ratings. Meanwhile, nearly every iconic '80s franchise, from Ghostbusters to Lethal Weapon to Gremlins, has either been rebooted or reimagined—or is about to be.

The generation that grew up on these films has not yet aged out of the mainstream moviegoing populace, and the kids who have come up in their wake have been schooled on these new "classics," with nonstop cable and cultural saturation that has kept '80s franchises in their consciousness. In other words, kids know who Indiana Jones is, even if they weren’t alive when any of the first three films came out.

Unlike Black Panther, which had to deftly introduce audiences to a host of new characters and establish a fully-realized fictional world in Wakanda, Ready Player One benefits enormously from a baked-in familiarity with the flood of iconic characters and cars who cameo on-screen (including Chucky, Robocop and a vintage TV Batmobile). To be sure, Ready Player One has its own complicated narrative to establish—about a Willy Wonka-ish competition to win the fortune of a dead, eccentric video game designer—but the stakes are considerably lower than the average superhero or Star Wars film.

This is perhaps part of why Ready Player One may speak to audiences right now. Escapism at the movies has always been an appealing antidote to real-world drama, and certainly, with the very real threat of a nuclear confrontation and a constitutional crisis looming in the national discussion, throwback thrills might be just what the doctor ordered for an anxious audience of Americans.

Still, it's hard for any film to dominate the cultural conversation on the level of director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. That film—which has already earned Oscar buzz, inspired fashion trends and spawned curriculums on colonialism—is on pace to supplant 1997’s Titanic as the third-highest domestic grosser in U.S. history. Barring unprecedented staying power, this is a height Ready Player One has no chance of reaching and speaks volumes not only to how eager audiences were to see a predominately black big-budget genre film, but also how much quality can pay off.

At this stage in Ready Player One's release, it's safe to call it a win. But if Spielberg hopes not just to repeat his prior successes but build on them, he might want to be paying close attention to Black Panther’s enduring popularity. His upcoming return to the Indiana Jones franchise will inevitably put butts in the seats because of brand loyalty, but it may need to actually speak to the modern world in order to reach the box-office stratosphere.

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