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Ready Player One writer talks superhero fatigue

"Marvel and DC are acutely aware", says Zak Penn.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

If there's a single movie that sums up how sequels, reboots and comic book adaptations dominate the box office, it's Ready Player One. Which means the film's co-writer Zak Penn is in a good position to weight up whether the blockbuster bubble of familiar franchises is about to burst

Penn has made a career writing comic book adaptations from the X-Men to the Avengers, but he admits some viewers might be growing weary of spectacle-driven effects-saturated blockbusters. "I get a little tired of seeing movies where I can predict where the ending is going," he says. "You have to do something different. You really can't just give [viewers] the same-old same-old, and I know the people at Marvel and DC are acutely aware of that."

We caught up with Penn on the phone to discuss the writing process for Ready Player One, the film's message for overzealous fans, and his plans for a reworking of The Matrix. Here is CNET's podcast about the interview.

Ready Player One follows a group of gamers who enter a contest to determine the future of a hugely popular virtual reality game called The Oasis. Inside the Oasis, players inhabit avatars based on their favourite moves and TV shows.

Like the novel by Ernest Cline on which it's based, the movie is a dizzying cavalcade of pop culture references, drawing in elements from DC comics, video games and countless other blockbuster franchises. 

Ideas for presenting these characters and references were fed to Penn from director Steven Spielberg as well as from the production team and the effects wizards at ILM. All the while, the legal team continually added to the list of well-known characters given the thumbs-up to appear. "We had a giant board in our hallway that showed us everything as it cleared," laughs Penn. "We knew, okay, we need a robot, who are we going to use? We'd walk out into the hall and take a look."

Zak Penn has written superhero adaptations from X-Men: The Last Stand and Electra to the forthcoming Suicide Squad 2.

Zak Penn

Among these many characters from other sources are various comic superheroes. But Ready Player One's legions of comic-based characters are used very differently to, say, the many Marvel heroes competing for screen time in Avengers: Infinity War. Penn points out that the cameos in Ready Player One aren't technically cameos at all: we're not seeing the actual Robocop or Harley Quinn, just gamers dressed like them. "It's like Comic-Con: The Movie," Penn jokes.

With its highly meta story about fans and their obsessions, Ready Player One is a direct commentary on the way viewers engage with popular culture. Fandom today is plagued by online screaming matches that all too frequently lead to harassment of other fans and creators, and Penn thinks Ready Player One has a pretty clear message for those incensed by new takes on old favourites like Star Wars. "It doesn't burn up your comic book or your book or the old TV show, they don't disappear when someone makes a new version," he points out. 

In adapting the book, Penn deliberately moved away from the novel's plot in which characters advancing through mindlessly regurgitating encyclopaedic pop culture knowledge. "One thing we really wanted was something that could undercut the notion it was all about knowing trivia," he says, pointing to a sequence in the Oasis in which the characters have to break the continuity of a classic film to complete a challenge. "You don't want some trollish fanboy being a person who's never learned anything outside of the Oasis," he says. "If it just turns into something to keep lists of, like statistics in sports, then I think you've missed the point."

Having marshalled these kind of characters in Ready player One, might Steven Spielberg be interested in directing a straight-up superhero movie? Penn says the legendary director is drawn to ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances, and "once they turned into superheroes it would be a lot less interesting." 

However, he also admits to being surprised Spielberg took on Ready Player One. "I was really surprised... You can't peg him. You just never know."

Ready Player One hits digital on digital 23 July and is released on physical disc in the UK on August 6.

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