This post contains spoilers for Free Guy.
Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds’ new, hammy vehicle in which he plays a self-aware video game character, didn’t start its life as a Disney movie. The movie was already in production when the House of Mouse bought Fox, at which point the comedy became yet another member of the Disney family. Reynolds stars as Guy, a non-playable character in the generic-looking multiplayer online game Free City, in which players wreck an unassuming American city in the hopes of scoring cash and experience points. Despite being a bland Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto Online rip-off, Free City is apparently massively popular around the world: Real-life streamers Ninja and Jacksepticeye make cameos as Free City players, we’re told the game has won tons of awards from IGN, and even Good Morning America is covering its viral moments.
As an NPC, Guy is only supposed to be set dressing for the real users. But because of a contrived, nonsensical plot device, he gains access to some hidden code within the game that grants him artificial intelligence. Now, Guy wants more for himself than just the same daily routine of waking up, getting coffee, going to work, and going to bed. Guy wants to be a playable character.
Part of his desire to do so is that he is in love with user MolotovGirl1, who is the woman who actually came up with that AI code. It was stolen by the rich, Elon Musk-y tech scion played by Taika Waititi who runs the studio that makes Free City (which looks way more like a glitzy Silicon Valley startup than an actual game development house, where people work obscene hours under often horrendous conditions).
Guy and MolotovGirl1 share a passion for freedom, for originality, for autonomy. Free City, as a megabucks franchise about to be spun off into a shoddy, cash-grab sequel, is the antithesis of everything they believe in. Thus, the pair of budding lovers endeavor to find the stolen code and rebuild Free City as a game where NPCs and player characters can live in mundanely peaceful harmony together, doing whatever they want. It’s kind of like The Sims, except without Simlish or kitchen fires or alien abductions or $5 dust add-ons.
This desire for something new and unique is a fine pursuit, ideologically, even if the movie wraps it in a bland romance and unbelievable set pieces. But at the end, Free Guy undercuts its own message, throwing away the heart of the movie in favor of the Disney of it all. A fight scene sees Guy battle against a buffer version of himself, Dude, who also looks like Ryan Reynolds. Guy’s getting beaten to a bloody pulp, but with the help of his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery, the only redeeming quality of the movie), he is able to pull himself together and fight back. And how does he fight back?
With Captain America’s shield. Oh, and a lightsaber. Because, lest we forget, this is a Disney film! After all that talk of how franchises are bad and we have nothing original these days, the way that Guy manages to save himself and his world is through the help of some good ol’ gratuitous Disney IP. And these aren’t the only references we’re expected to cheer for: Chris Evans appears, watching a stream of Guy fighting Dude, asking “What the shit?” when he sees Guy wielding his Marvel character’s shield. Taika Waititi, no stranger to Star Wars, asks if Guy is really wielding a lightsaber right now. Because if you are one of the .01% of folks watching Free Guy who doesn’t recognize these things immediately, hunny, you better learn yourself quick!
The crowd howled at this scene during my screening, clapping and crying with glee. But that’s because they fell for it. They proved Guy right: We love our franchises more than we love anything else. No other moment in Free Guy elicited as much of a reaction as this in-movie commercial for other Disney properties did, and that says a lot about how movies like Free Guy can sustain themselves in our world of remakes and sequels and spinoffs. As much as the movie wants to decry our society’s dependence on franchises, IP, and sequels, it can’t help but fall prey to Disney’s “look at all the properties we own!” trappings that have come to define the gigantic company. Had Fox not been sold, perhaps this scene would have played out differently, without relying on recognizable pop-culture references—or maybe Guy would have just turned into Homer Simpson or a Na’vi instead. Ugh.