Trailer for Space Jam: A New Legacy underscores the dark horror that animates too much of Hollywood right now – and frankly too much of capitalism right now.
The upcoming film, a sequel to the mediocre “Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes characters play basketball” from 1996, which is much loved by some (for some reason), pushes LeBron James into the Looney Tune world, where he becomes a cartoon. To save his son, who has been kidnapped by the ruler over something called “Serververse”, the superstar must win a game of basketball against “Goon Squad.”
But what is important about Space Jam 2 is not the attempt to riff on the premise of the first film. No, what matters is what is in Serververse. Early in the trailer, as James flies through the aforementioned Serververse, he passes two planets marked with visual iconography that make it clear that they represent Game of Thrones and The Wizard of Oz, two properties owned by WarnerMedia, the parent company of Warner Bros., which produces Space Jam: A New Legacy. That Game of Thrones the planet is even helpfully labeled “Game of Thrones.”
But the brief moment has nothing on one that presumably teases the film’s highlight when various representatives of WarnerMedia’s many subsidiaries show up for the big game. Iron Giant, King Kong and Fred Flintstone all show up, and eagle-eyed viewers have caught a glimpse of everyone from the mocking Droogs of A clockwork orange to Danny DeVito and Burgess Meredith takes 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 have mentioned here are a representative sample.)
Such a large and random smashing of characters that you may already be familiar with can feel as if a giant company is simply throwing up every single piece of intellectual property it has ever devoured. But when you look at other great movies that have done something similar the last few years – especially Warner Bros. ‘own Ready Player One and Disney Ralph breaks the Internet – what seems to be happening Space Jam 2 becomes much harder to separate from the tendency of the richest of the rich to show off all their toys in the hope that spectators will be impressed.
If you grew up in a city or neighborhood like the one I grew up in – small and monastic – you probably knew one or two people who were wealthy and proud of it by collecting something. In my city, flaunting usually took the form of weapons or cars, but it’s easy to think of rich people saying they buy lots of art. The impulse to collect can start as appreciation, a love of antique rifles or cool cars or avant-garde sculpture. But it is so, so easy for that impulse to become all about ownership, about having something that no one else can.
I do not let go in this regard. I’ve spent much of my adult life putting together a BluRay collection that may be a little too thorough and increasingly filled with movies that I haven’t seen but that like to have on my shelf for vague status reasons. Showing good things is a human impulse on a deep level.
But forgiving giant companies for behaviors that we might apologize to in a single human being is rarely a good idea. Movies like Space Jam: A New Legacy seems to exist solely to show all the movies and TV shows owned by the company that produces them, and cheaper often the story in the name of squeezing in several komos.
From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense Space Jam: A New Legacy may contain all WarnerMedia characters known to mankind. After all, the film will debut simultaneously in cinemas and on the company’s flagship streaming service, HBO Max, and if you get really excited to watch Game of Thrones after seeing its logo hover past on a planet in Space Jam 2, it’s right there waiting for you to stream. The film was not always supposed to debut on HBO Max, but it was always supposed to arrive at a time when the studio that did so would try to lure new subscribers to its streaming service. What better way to do that than to advertise all of its many properties in a single movie?
After all, so many conglomerate-owned streaming services have advertised themselves based on their large catalogs full of titles and characters that you may already know, such as when HBO Max announced its launch with the slogan “Where Bada meets Bing meets Bang”, under photos of The sopranos‘Tony Soprano, Friends‘Chandler Bing, and Big Bang theories‘s Sheldon Cooper. Meanwhile, NBCUniversal’s service Peacock has largely framed its ads as an argument for subscribing to Peacock just so you can see The office, because that series is so loved.
But when does this impulse cross to show all the properties a company owns, from nostalgia-driven mashup to gross capitalist breast dumping? The answer is probably “It was gross capitalist breast dumping all the time”, but even though we want to cut these companies a little loose, there is something perverse about creating new stories that exist primarily to boast how many older stories you own.
And sometimes these companies do not even own the old stories! The Wizard of Ozis, for example, in the public domain. Anyone who wants to write stories involving Dorothy, scarecrow and everyone else can do it no matter what they want. But WarnerMedia owns the most famous movie version of The Wizard of Oz and as such does its damn thing to act as if its version of Oz is the only one that can exist.
“Wow, everything is probably built around nostalgia now, huh?” is not exactly a new observation to make in 2021, when everything is surely built around nostalgia. Space Jam in itself was an obvious game to make the Looney Tunes gang relevant to a new generation, the better at selling merchandise, so it’s not as if a classic is being saddened. And while the 1996 film was not the very first attempt 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 turns cash out of sometimes? – it was certainly not a big advocate for the coming things, as my colleague Alissa Wilkinson wrote in 2020:
To Space Jam is a bald commercial grab (and I mean not really pejoratively) based on existing entertainment features – Looney Tunes, NBA, Michael Jordan himself – also feels almost visionary. The film is self-conscious about this. Its characters constantly crack jokes about endorsements; at one point, Daffy Duck literally kisses a Warner Bros. logo on his own ass.
I am under no illusion that there is any good way to stop the gradual transformation of each studio’s back catalog into the equivalent of the video game Super Smash Bros., where all your Nintendo favorites from different franchises compete against each other. But there’s something unpleasant about the person who just wants to show all their toys at once, right?
WarnerMedia is not the only company offering this type of wholesale business. What makes a scene like this from the Disney 2018 movie Ralph breaks the Internet, add to the film’s story or themes or character arcs? It’s just a bunch of cameos that seem to serve as an advertisement for Disney itself. Some of its gags are funny enough, but the whole scene ultimately feels more than a little creepy in its roughness.
I do not exactly tremble at the expectation of a new one Space Jam film, but its filmmakers (which include the very talented director Malcolm D. Lee, who made some amazingly observed short comedies such as The fiancé and Girls turn; producer Ryan Coogler from Black Panther and Creed fame; and co-author Terence Nance, whose TV series Random acts of flyness was a delight) deserves to make their film function as something other than a gimmick or a museum. As it is, it is easy to see Space Jam 2 trailer and feel like you are strolling through a long gallery hall with Bugs Bunny as your docent as he periodically stops to say, “Look at all these things. We own it and you do not. ”
Then he chopped on a carrot and said, “What’s going on, Doc,” because he’s also a corporate property, and his owners have reduced his character to a slogan. What a time to be alive.