There is a moment near the end of Space Jam: A New Legacy, the new Looney Tunes–LeBron James crossover product that is less a movie and more a vacuous advertisement for WarnerMedia’s intellectual property, when Bugs Bunny, having just air-balled a buzzer beater, appears to die. “That’s all folks,” a bleary-eyed Bugs moans before slowly floating heavenward as a rabbit-shaped beam of light. It’s hard not to envy Bugs. Not just because he gets to miss the final few minutes of an interminable movie, but also because—at least in theory—killing him off would mean he wouldn’t have to appear in another movie this bad again.
In 2021, existing as a piece of intellectual property, particularly one as storied as Bugs Bunny, is a kind of hell: You are condemned to repeat the same humiliations again and again, all in the name of brand management or, if you’re particularly unlucky, synergy. The first Space Jam film, released in 1996 and starring Michael Jordan and the Looney Tunes crew, is one of those movies that attained “classic” status while no one was looking. (This was probably due to a combination of mid-2000s “remember the ’90s” nostalgia and basketball writers needing content to fill the long, slow off-season months.) It was novel: Athletes had made movies before but typically after retirement. Jordan was, in 1996, arguably the most famous person in the world and had just won the NBA Championship months earlier.
But Space Jam was a pioneer in another, more depressing way. The conceit of Jordan hanging out with Bugs Bunny originated as a Nike commercial. When Warner Bros. saw audiences respond, it greenlit the movie. Critics at the time recognized the resulting product as the cynical cash-in that it was. “This mediocrity disguised as entertainment, this greed promoted as synergy—this, to paraphrase that seminal media study, Broadcast News, is what the devil looks like,” Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote at the time. Space Jam was a critical failure but made $250 million worldwide; not long after, the intellectual property era, in which franchises dominate everything, took over Hollywood. Space Jam: A New Legacy is conscious of its status. This is a movie that knows full well that it exists solely as an advertisement for Warner Bros. In abler hands, the plot could even be considered subversive.
Warner Bros., in the film, is unknowingly controlled by a sentient computer, Al-G Rhythm, bent on gaining more power and recognition. To do this, Rhythm, played by Don Cheadle, kidnaps James and his son, an aspiring video game developer, and traps both of them in the Warner Bros. cinematic universe. To escape, James has to defeat Rhythm in a game of basketball—and to do that, James has to enlist the help of the Looney Tunes. The film’s villain doesn’t care about the opinions of studio executives, stars, or the public; his only goal is to maximize profits and power. Given the ongoing battle royale for streaming control between Netflix, Amazon, Disney, and the WarnerMedia-owned HBO Max—and the related scramble to control as many bits of attractive IP as possible—this could, in different hands, have turned into a tongue-in-cheek critique of the great game that has swallowed the entertainment industry over the last decade. (In the hands of Random Acts of Flyness creator Terence Nance, who had previously been attached to the movie, this could have been a reality.)
But for Warner Bros., control of the streaming land is no joke. Instead, Space Jam’s thin plot is padded out with jaunts through the company’s extensive holdings. We are treated to an excursion into Casablanca, where the piano-playing Sam has been replaced by … Yosemite Sam. We travel to The Matrix, which now stars a bullet-dodging Speedy Gonzalez and a surprisingly nimble Granny. There are sojourns to Winterfell and to Hogwarts and a cameo from Wonder Woman. There is a long bit involving Mad Max that I can only assume went over the heads of the 7-year-olds who are this movie’s ostensible target demographic. Then there is a detour into the first Austin Powers film, a franchise whose last entry was released before the Iraq War started. None of these bits rise to the level of parody, let alone satire. Puncturing their auras—or their importance to WarnerMedia’s bottom line—is too dangerous. Instead, they amount to a lengthy infomercial for HBO Max and a terrifying preview of the future of film. Warner Bros. sits atop a mountain of classic content, but that isn’t enough these days.
To keep viewers happy—and paying $14.99 a month—they must also be fed a steady diet of warmed-over stuff they already like. Space Jam: A New Legacy is crasser than most of what else is out there but not so different in essence. It is a film that has no reason to exist except as a vehicle for reminding people that various pieces of content, all of them merchandisable, are available for instant streaming now. The fact that Warner Bros. is the villain in Space Jam: A New Legacy also gives it an odd lack of stakes. James, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, is trapped in a giant computer by a sentient algorithm. This should be terrifying and panic-inducing. But because he and his son are trapped with the glorious content of Warner Bros., they instead have a grand old time: James, whose son has been kidnapped, is positively giddy when he finds out he’s a Hufflepuff.
He can’t wait to visit the DC Universe. Shortly before the game that decides the fate of the father and son, James implores his son to realize that they are, in fact, in deep trouble. “Everyone in here is in danger,” James says. “He’s using the game to trap everyone in here!” But isn’t that what Space Jam wants?