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 are among the Warner Bros. characters who appear in Space Jam: A New Legacy.
The full list has far over 100 entries, but this sample should give you a sense of what a haphazard collection of intellectual assets the film offers. If the original Space Jam, which was released 25 years ago, was a brand summit between the Looney Tunes and the NBA, with Michael Jordan serving as the chief negotiator, the supercharged sequel literally and figuratively opens the vaults, zapping LeBron James into the “Warner 3000 Serververse,” where all the media conglomerate’s holdings exist on the same plane.
Don Cheadle’s Al G. Rhythm, a Warner Bros. algorithm determined to gain public acknowledgment for his underappreciated achievements, is the film’s villain and major agitator. The movie’s garbage-dump of WB properties, on the other hand, is notable for how arbitrary and non-algorithmic it feels. What is included and what is left out, who makes the cut and who is left to molder in some forgotten corner of the digital universe, has no apparent rationale.
Some of the characters who appear in cameos, whether in the film or simply in the audience that fills the stands during the film’s climactic basketball game, are truly iconic; others, like Hanna-Barbera obscurity Frankenstein, Jr., are just seat-fillers, party-crashers who turn out to be a friend of a friend of a friend. Naturally, franchises like The Matrix and Fantastic Beasts take center stage, with the studio actively pursuing new chapters. WB also seemed to enjoy peddling all things Casablanca, which has essentially become a synecdoche for the company’s pre-1980 assets. (In Doctor Sleep, the WB sequel to the WB-owned The Shining, it’s the classic that plays in a movie theater.) There’s nothing here from Citizen Kane, The Big Sleep, North by Northwest, 2001, or All the President’s Men, which all made it into the studio’s centennial collection in 2013, but there’s plenty of Batman from every era, including the 1960s TV show, as well as various Gremlins and Goonies, and so on.
Cartoons have had a certain level of winking intertextuality nearly from their inception: The animated caricatures of Warner Bros. contract performers Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre appear in the Looney Tunes short “Racketeer Rabbit,” which was released in 1946. However, there is little evident artistry in the way A New Legacy delves into one of Hollwood’s most historic studios’ rich past. The holdings of the corporation are just there to be recognized, not to be criticized. (You could make the same argument for WB’s Ready Player One, but that appears to be more of a botched attempt at subversion than a lack of one.) It’s neither a remark on or a subversion of J.K. Rowling’s mainly white universe when LeBron James appears as Harry Potter himself, proudly clutching a snitch atop a Quidditch broom; it’s just the kind of posed image that would cost you back $25 at a theme park. A Clockwork Orange’s rapists and Game of Thrones’ genocidal icicle brush elbows with Scooby-Doo and the Thundercats on the sidelines of the big game, because why not? (However, no Pepe Le Pew; he’s outside the pale.)
Because the characters appear less like artificial automatons and more like half-successful cosplayers, the mash-up mood is a little less morally ridiculous than it appears in the movie’s early trailers. The droogs appear less like psychopaths on the prowl and more like collegiate dumbasses whose girlfriends didn’t vet their costumes in advance as they bounce around in the background of every shot—and I mean every shot; whoever 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.
Instead of creating a memorable (and carefully negotiated) meeting between Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the collisions between properties serve as toys jammed onto the same shelf at random, exhibiting nothing but the fact of their ownership. The only place where those brands can coexist 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, which also happens to be where the new Space Jam is premiering. (It’s also in movie theaters, though Warner Bros. doesn’t own them.)
A New Legacy is far smoother and more engaging than the original Space Jam, thanks in large part to James’ 50-fold increase in acting ability over Jordan. But it’s also because delivering a bag of unrelated IP to screenwriters and telling them to create a plot around it is now the standard for most studio filmmaking, if not all of contemporary life. Michael Jordan is a marketing spokesman in the first Space Jam, a role mocked by Wayne Knight’s PR character, who tells him to “put on your Hanes, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade.” In 2021, however, LeBron James is a brand unto himself, complete with his own logo, and the title refers to both the franchise reboot and the passing of the torch to James’ real-life son—who, in the film, opts for a career as a video-game creator rather than a basketball player. It’s normal sequel procedure to reverse the original’s plot, but the fact that this one has the main character being drawn into the Looney Tunes’ universe rather than them invading ours seems all too appropriate. We are now all living in the serververse.