Space Jam: A New Legacy Is Peak, Mindless Corporate Synergy
Here is a brief, not-nearly-complete list of Warner Bros. characters that appear in the movie Space Jam: A New Legacy: Harry Potter, Harley Quinn, Rick & Morty, Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone, Space Ghost, the Matrix, Superman, Batman, King Kong, the Pink Panther, Pennywise the killer clown, the droogs from A Clockwork Orange, the Night King from Game of Thrones, and Rosey, the robot maid from The Jetsons. The complete roster runs to well over 100 entries, but this sampling should be enough to give you the flavor of what a random grab-bag of intellectual properties the movie presents. If the first Space Jam, released 25 years ago, was a brand summit between the Looney Tunes and the NBA, with Michael Jordan acting as the chief negotiator, its supercharged successor both literally and figuratively opens the vaults, zapping LeBron James into the “Warner 3000 Serververse,” where all of the media conglomerate’s holdings exist on the same plane.
A New Legacy’s villain and chief instigator is Don Cheadle’s Al G. Rhythm, a Warner Bros. algorithm determined to get public recognition for his overlooked accomplishments. But what’s noteworthy about the movie’s garbage-dump of WB properties is just how arbitrary and non-algorithmic it feels. There’s no apparent logic to what’s included and what’s left out, who makes the cut and who gets left to molder in some forgotten corner of the digital domain. Some of the characters who make cameos, whether in the course of the film or just crammed into the audience that fills the stands during the movie’s climactic basketball game, are truly iconic; others, like the Hanna-Barbera obscurity Frankenstein, Jr., are just seat-fillers, party-crashers who turn out to be a friend of a friend of a friend. Pride of place, naturally, goes to franchises like The Matrix and Fantastic Beasts which the studio is actively mining for further installments. WB also seems happy to peddle all things Casablanca, which has essentially become Warner Bros. synecdoche for all of the company’s holdings pre-1980. (It’s the classic that plays in a movie theater in Doctor Sleep, the WB sequel to the WB-owned The Shining.) There’s nothing here from Citizen Kane or The Big Sleep or North by Northwest or 2001 or All the President’s Men, all of which made it into the centenary collection the studio assembled in 2013, but there’s generous representation from every era of Batman, including the 1960s TV show, as well as various Gremlins and Goonies, et al.
A certain amount of winking intertextuality has been part of cartoons almost since their inception: The Looney Tunes short “Racketeer Rabbit,” released in 1946, features animated caricatures of Warner Bros. contract stars Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre . But there’s no apparent artistry behind how A New Legacy digs into the rich history of one of Hollwood’s most venerable studios. The corporation’s holdings are there only to be recognized, not critiqued. (You could arguably say the same about WB’s Ready Player One, but that seems more like a failed attempt at subversion than a lack of one.) When LeBron James shows up as Harry Potter himself, triumphantly brandishing a snitch atop a Quidditch broom, it’s not a commentary on or a subversion of J.K. Rowling’s overwhelmingly white world; it’s just the kind of posed snapshot that would set you back $25 at a theme park. On the sidelines of the big game, A Clockwork Orange’s rapists and Game of Thrones’ genocidal icicle rub shoulders with Scooby-Doo and the Thundercats, because why not? (No Pepe Le Pew, though; he’s beyond the pale.)
The mash-up vibe is a little less morally idiotic than it appeared from the movie’s advance trailers, if only because the characters come off less like digital automatons and more like half-successful cosplayers. As they bounce around in the background of every shot—and I do mean every shot; whatever assistant director was in charge of making sure the extras gave it their all really put their back on it—the droogs seem less like psychopaths on the prowl and more like collegiate dumbasses, whose girlfriends didn’t vet their costumes in advance. The collisions between properties don’t create anything akin to the memorable (and carefully negotiated) meeting between Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, instead serving as toys crammed onto the same shelf willy-nilly, displaying nothing but the fact of their ownership. The only place where those brands actually co-exist in reality—the only place where the sprawling holdings of what was then WarnerMedia and is now Warner Bros. Discovery can claim any core identity—is on the company’s streaming service HBO Max, where the new Space Jam is not coincidentally making its debut. (It’s also technically in movie theaters, but Warner Bros. doesn’t own those.)
A New Legacy is much slicker and more appealing than the original Space Jam, in no small part because James is approximately 50 times the actor Jordan is. But it’s also because corporations handing a bag of unrelated IP and ordering screenwriters to come up with a story around them is the template for most studio filmmaking now, if not all of contemporary existence. In the first Space Jam, Michael Jordan is a spokesperson for brands, a position lampooned when Wayne Knight’s publicist character urges him to “get your Hanes on, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade.” But in 2021, Lebron James is a brand unto himself, complete with his own logo, and the titular legacy refers both to the franchise reboot and the passing of the torch to James’ real-life son—who, in the movie, chooses to seek his future not on the basketball court but as a video-game designer. It’s standard sequel practice to flip the original’s script, but that this one involves the main character getting sucked into the Looney Tunes’ world rather than them invading ours seems only too fitting. We all live in the serververse now.