Written by Patrick Hao
Last month AT&T announced that they were unloading Warner Media to Discovery for $43 billion after less than three years of merging with Warner Media. This also comes after a lengthy battle with the U.S. Court of Appeals for antitrust claims and a bungled roll out of HBO Max. With the merger with Warner, Discovery is looking to combine their newly released streaming efforts, Discovery+, with HBO Max. I say all this as a precursor to discuss what Space Jam: A New Legacy is. It is a cynical piece of work emblematic of the larger problem within the media industry, art being constructed as content and pre-existing IP as the only cache.
This is not to say that the original Space Jam was not a cynical piece of art when it was released. The film was constructed from a popular Nike commercial that paired Michael Jordan with Bugs Bunny. The results were an exercise in branding building for both entities – Michael as the most popular athlete on the planet and returning to basketball and the Looney Tunes with their resurgence in popularity with reruns filling up time slots on the newly created Cartoon Network.
It was a surprise then when the online reactions to the trailers of Space Jam: A New Legacy acted as if the film was an affront or a mockery of the legacy of the original. If anything, the new film is the perfect 2021 follow-up: a bloated film that prioritizes corporate synergy and brands over anything of artistic merit. Lebron James, who has been dogged by comparisons to Michael Jordan throughout his NBA career, is also the perfect successor to Jordan, not only because of his basketball prowess. Jordan was the first athlete that truly capitalized on licensing his name and image as a marketing tool. James, taking a cue from Jordan, has become a mogul of far greater magnitude. His empire includes endorsements, sport franchises, production companies, and restaurants.
There really is not much to say about Space Jam: A New Legacy. As a movie it is nothing. It is bad in what it represents and competent but uninteresting in everything else. Lebron James plays a fictionalized version of himself who hopes his son (Cedric Jones) would follow in his footsteps in basketball, despite his son’s proclivity towards video game design. Meanwhile, a sentient Warner Bros. AI named Al-G Rhythm (Get it: Algorithm), played by a game Don Cheadle, wants to use Lebron James’ fame to lure the public into his virtual reality. To do so, Al-G uses Dom’s resentment towards his father and a basketball game in order to trap Lebron. Lebron must team up with Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Merry Melodies gang to beat him.
As one can imagine, the plot is really a serving dish to the antics that could be drummed up from Lebron James interacting with Bugs Bunny. The result is nothing interesting. But it is curious as to the consistent meta-narratives that these giant corporations drum up for these films. As James is being sucked into the virtual reality, he zooms past planets designated as IP worlds – DC, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and inexplicably Casablanca. It is a real testament to how Warner Bros. views the property that they own. And to have the main villain be a sentient soulless algorithm underscores a self-critique that goes unexplored.
Instead, the film tries to root itself in a hollow message about family – whether it is the Looney Tunes or Lebron and his son. The Looney Tunes themselves have never felt so rudderless. In a movie that should’ve been a celebration of them during a period when their cultural influence is at its lowest, they seem like an afterthought for more important IP’s. At one point a character is involved in a parody of The Matrix that seems out of 2001, until I remember that Matrix 4 is due to be released in Q4 of this year.
Is there a good movie to be made here? Possibly, but Warner Bros. was never going to let that happen. Originally, the film was announced to be written and directed by idiosyncratic filmmaker Terence Nance. Maybe he could have produced something interesting and self-critical. However, while he still has writing and producing credit on the film, Nance was replaced by director Malcolm D. Lee, a safe choice whose career is defined by his workmanlike mediocrity. Lee directs the movie as such. There is no personality, no soul.
Ultimately, this is not a Space Jam: A New Legacy problem. This is the corporate world of movie studios. As more studios create their individualized streaming platforms, movies become an advertisement for subscriptions. Space Jam started out as an ad for sneakers. And now A New Legacy is an ad for HBO Max. What a fitting full circle.
Space Jam: A New Legacy Trailer