The trailer for Space Jam: A New Legacy underlines the dark horror that animates too much of Hollywood right now — and, honestly, too much of capitalism right now.
The upcoming film, a follow-up to the mediocre 1996 “Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes characters play basketball” movie that is much loved by some (for some reason), strands LeBron James in Looney Tune world, where he becomes a cartoon. To save his son, who has been kidnapped by the ruler of something called “the Serververse,” the superstar must win a game of basketball against the “Goon Squad.” James’s teammates are, of course, the Looney Tunes.
But what’s important about Space Jam 2 isn’t the attempt to riff on the first movie’s premise. No, what’s important is what exists within the Serververse. Early in the trailer, as James flies through said Serververse, he passes two planets marked with visual iconography making clear they represent Game of Thrones and The Wizard of Oz, two properties owned by WarnerMedia, the parent company of Warner Bros., which is producing Space Jam: A New Legacy. The Game of Thrones planet is even helpfully labeled “Game of Thrones.”
But that brief moment has nothing on one that presumably teases the movie’s climax, when various representatives of WarnerMedia’s many corporate subsidiaries show up to the big game. The Iron Giant, King Kong, and Fred Flintstone all appear, and eagle-eyed viewers have caught glimpses of everyone from the sneering Droogs of A Clockwork Orange to Danny DeVito’s and Burgess Meredith’s takes on the Batman villain The Penguin among the game’s spectators. (There are far, far more Easter eggs that trailer sleuths have picked up on, but the ones I’ve listed here are a representative sample.)
Such a vast and random smattering of characters you might already be familiar with can feel like a giant corporation is simply vomiting up every single piece of intellectual property it has ever devoured. But when looking at other major films that have done something similar in just the last few years — notably Warner Bros.’ own Ready Player One and Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet — what seems to be happening with Space Jam 2 becomes a lot harder to divorce from the tendency the richest of the rich have to show off all their toys in the hope that onlookers will be impressed.
If you grew up in a town or neighborhood like the one I grew up in — small and cloistered — you probably knew one or two people who were well-off and flaunted it by collecting something. In my town, the flaunting usually took the form of guns or cars, but it’s easy to think of rich people who, say, buy lots of fine art. The impulse to collect might start as appreciation, a love of antique rifles or cool cars or avant-garde sculpture. But it’s so, so easy for that impulse to become all about ownership, about having something that nobody else can.
I’m not letting myself off the hook in this regard. I’ve spent much of my adulthood amassing a BluRay collection that is maybe a little too thorough and increasingly filled with movies I haven’t watched but like to have on my shelf for vague status reasons. Showing off nice things is a human impulse on some deep level.
But forgiving giant corporations for behavior we might excuse in a single human being is rarely a good idea. Movies like Space Jam: A New Legacy seem to exist solely to show off all of the movies and TV shows owned by the corporation producing them, and frequently cheapen the story in the name of cramming in more cameos.
From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense that Space Jam: A New Legacy might feature every WarnerMedia character known to humanity. After all, the film will debut simultaneously in movie theaters and on the company’s flagship streaming service, HBO Max, and if you get really excited about watching Game of Thrones after seeing its logo float by on a planet in Space Jam 2, it’ll be waiting right there for you to stream. The movie wasn’t always going to debut on HBO Max, but it was always going to arrive at a time when the studio that made it would be trying to lure new subscribers to its streaming service. What better way to do so than to advertise all of its many properties in a single movie?
So many conglomerate-owned streaming services, after all, have advertised themselves based on their hefty catalogs full of titles and characters you might already know, as when HBO Max announced its launch with the slogan “Where Bada meets Bing meets Bang,” underneath photos of The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, Friends’ Chandler Bing, and The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. Meanwhile, NBCUniversal’s service Peacock has largely framed its ads as an argument for subscribing to Peacock just so you can watch The Office, because that series is so beloved.
But when does this impulse to show off all the properties a company owns cross over from nostalgia-fueled mashup to gross capitalistic chest-thumping? The answer is probably “It was gross capitalistic chest-thumping all along,” but even if we’re going to cut these companies a little slack, there’s something perverse about creating new stories that exist primarily to brag about how many older stories you own.
And sometimes, these companies don’t even own the old stories! The Wizard of Oz, for instance, is in the public domain. Anybody who wants to write stories involving Dorothy, Scarecrow, and all the rest can do so however they like. But WarnerMedia owns the most famous movie version of The Wizard of Oz and, as such, is doing its damnedest to act as though its version of Oz is the only one that can exist.
“Wow, everything sure is built around nostalgia now, huh?” is not exactly a new observation to make in 2021, when everything sure is built around nostalgia. Space Jam itself was a blatant play at making the Looney Tunes gang relevant for a new generation, all the better to sell merchandise, so it’s not like a classic is being sullied. And even if the 1996 movie wasn’t the very first attempt made by a studio to squeeze money out of beloved characters by forcing them into new contexts — what is Mickey Mouse but a sponge that Disney wrings cash out of every once in a while? — it certainly wasn’t a great harbinger of things to come, as my colleague Alissa Wilkinson wrote in 2020:
That Space Jam is a bald commercial grab (and I don’t really mean that pejoratively) based on existing entertainment properties — the Looney Tunes, the NBA, Michael Jordan himself — also feels almost visionary. The movie is self-aware about this. Its characters crack jokes constantly about endorsements; at one point, Daffy Duck literally kisses a Warner Bros. logo on his own butt.
I am under no illusion that there is any good way to stop the gradual transformation of every single studio’s back catalog into the equivalent of the video game Super Smash Bros., where all your Nintendo favorites from different franchises do battle against each other. But there’s something odious about the person who just wants to show off all their toys all the same, isn’t there?
WarnerMedia isn’t the only company offering this kind of wholesale corporate proselytizing. What does a scene like this one, from Disney’s 2018 movie Ralph Breaks the Internet, add to the movie’s story or themes or character arcs? It’s just a bunch of cameos, seemingly functioning as an advertisement for Disney itself. Some of its gags are amusing enough, but the whole of the scene ultimately feels more than a little creepy in its crassness.
I am not exactly trembling with anticipation for a new Space Jam movie, but its filmmakers (who include the very talented director Malcolm D. Lee, who made some terrifically observed small-scale comedies like The Best Man and Girls Trip; producer Ryan Coogler of Black Panther and Creed fame; and co-writer Terence Nance, whose TV series Random Acts of Flyness was a delight) deserve to have their movie function as something other than a gimmick or a museum. As is, it’s easy to watch the Space Jam 2 trailer and feel like you’re strolling through a long gallery hall, with Bugs Bunny as your docent, as he periodically stops to say, “Look at all this stuff. We own it, and you don’t.”
Then he’d chomp on a carrot and say, “What’s up, Doc,” because he, too, is a corporate property, and his owners have reduced his character to a catchphrase. What a time to be alive.