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Against the Universe

Space Jam: A New Legacy takes the cinematic universe to its logical conclusion

In 1991, Universal Pictures opened its vault and an army of memorable movie monsters came shambling out. To mark the Halloween season, Universal Studios in Florida launched “Fright Nights,” a series of ticketed parties that saw Count Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Phantom of the Opera, Mr. Hyde, and other branded ghouls mixing and mingling with guests, like a real-life iteration of the infamous monster mash chronicled in the novelty single of one Bobby “Boris” Pickett.

But Universal’s Fight Nights were about more than spook-tacular fun for the whole family. They were a concerted effort, as a marketing executive told The Orlando Sentinel at the time, “to capitalize on our sixty-year history we’ve had with movie monsters.” The Fright Nights proved so successful that Universal repackaged a number of its classic horror titles for the VHS market under the Universal Classic Monsters brand. According to a 1992 interview with Louis Feola, then head of Universal’s home video operations, the series was an effort to make these disparate creatures and stories “look like a line”: that is, to establish a sense of cohesion and continuity. It was an early attempt by Universal to retroactively establish its own fictional universe.

The concept of the fictional “universe” was first outlined in a 1970 issue of CAPA-alpha, a fanzine dedicated to comics. An article credited to Don Markstein outlines the parameters of these fictional domains, in which characters and plot lines are connected by dint of crossing over with one another. The key here is that a character must be proprietary. For example, Markstein writes, it’s crucial that the DC comics version of Jerry Lewis “is clearly not the Jerry Lewis of TV and media of that ilk. The ‘real’ Jerry Lewis does not have a nephew named Renfrew or a housekeeper who is a witch.” For Markstein, “constructing a web of crossovers” in this way was a kind of game, one that deepened and enriched the possibilities of his favorite comics. And while certain authors (L. Frank Baum, J.R.R .Tolkien) had created their own detailed fantastical cosmos, the idea of a common, coherent world inhabited by multifarious characters from different properties seemed, in 1970, novel.

The original run of Universal monsters didn’t work this way. Not really. Frankenstein’s monster may have met the Wolf Man in 1943, or have been run afoul of by Bud Abbot and Lou Costello circa 1948. And sure, many of these creatures could profitably cohabitate in Castle Frankenstein, as depicted in 1944’s House of Frankenstein. But there was never a genuine sense that the characters had any meaningful existence beyond the screen. One never wondered, for example, what Gill-man, of the Creature From The Black Lagoon pictures, got up to when he wasn’t splashing around in muck, terrifying bathing beauties sunning themselves in the vicinity of his aqueous homestead. These creatures and their terrors were conjured by the films in which they appeared, and bound by them. Nobody was asking where the Invisible Man went when the credits rolled.

There’s a Toy Story-like logic to these films, which operate on the idea that these characters are not stuck within one or another film or TV series.

Now, nobody has to ask. The establishment of a fictional universe has become a standard and highly profitable narrative conceit. Leading the pack is Marvel Studios, who have successfully exported the interlinked logic of comics that Don Markstein disentangled fifty years ago to screens big and small. The collected titles of Marvel’s “Cinematic Universe” total some $23 billion, making it one of the most profitable franchises in movie-making history. Its boardroom committee of content creators make sure to account for every inch of their expanding, densely entwined cinematic (and, recently, televisual) universe. When the mighty Thor fails to report for duty in Avengers: Endgame (2019), it is explained that he’s on a bender on some Scandinavian isle, boozing with other CGI projections who the savvy viewer is, I guess, expected to recognize from another of Marvel’s adjacent properties. 

There’s a Toy Story-like logic to these films, which operate on the idea that these characters are not stuck within one or another film or TV series and do not “come alive” only in the act of being perceived. Instead, the films invite us to imagine what their characters might be doing when they’re not on-screen—like children who imagine what all the food in the fridge gets up to the instant the door snaps shut. The idea of Dracula being simply a costume, donned by Bela Lugosi with the express intent to terrify or otherwise titillate viewers, is now insufficient. So-called “intellectual properties” must be invested with a crude form of sentience instead. It’s not enough for Captain America or “Groot” to merely be, as a kettle or a rock is. They must exist, as a person does, or at least aspires to.

Space Jam: A New Legacy follows this idea to its logical conclusion, at least according to the terms set by Hollywood’s new standards of monopolization and corporatism. A follow-up to the 1996 Michael Jordan/Bugs Bunny vehicle Space Jam, A New Legacy sees basketballer LeBron James, playing a version of himself, parted from his son Dom (Cedric Joe) during a meeting at the Warner Bros. Studio. Shenanigans ensue, and James and his son are digitized and teleported inside the “Serververse,” a sprawling galaxy where all the Warner-owned intellectual properties live out their lucrative existences. The film is the sort of sequel-slash-remake that is common nowadays, relying on market familiarity with a premise that (save for a few winks to the audience) is not shared by the characters in the film. Like the original Space Jam, this one feels strangely, sadly of its moment.

Space Jam drew together two popular trends of the mid-1990s: a renaissance in animated films following the success of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and a parallel renaissance in Michael Jordan’s basketball career, following his return to the NBA after a short-lived retirement. The film was itself a sort of spin-off of a 1992 Nike ad that aired during Super Bowl XXVI, featuring Jordan and Bugs Bunny squaring off against a squad of bullying ballers. In its commingling of choreographed basketball scenes with cartoonish hijinks, the sneakers advertisement struck a template for Space Jam’s mix of live action and animation. This mixed-media approach was itself ascendent following films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Cool World.

Credit where it’s due: as is the case with the original film, A New Legacy genuinely amuses when it feels most like a Loony Tunes picture. Arriving on “Tune World” after being sucked into the Serververse, James is rendered in cartoony primary colors. He finds the province deserted, save for Bugs Bunny. With the other cartoons off colonizing distant planets in the sprawling Warner Bros. IP universe, Bugs lives as cabin-fevered recluse, maniacally acting out familiar scenarios with animate objects dressed up to resemble his friends and foes. The film’s middle act, in which James and Bugs team up to find Daffy, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, and rest of the gang has a “let’s get the band back together” vibe reminiscent of the original Muppet Movie (1979) and, for anyone sensitive to the goofball charms of these characters, is pretty fun. Call me a soft touch, but when Elmer Fudd was digitally inserted into a scene from Austin Powers . . . well, I laughed. But even the most serviceable—and honestly entertaining—modern franchise blockbusters feel subservient to something more forbidding.

At one point in the original Space Jam, Daffy Duck bends over to reveal the Warner Bros. trademark shield affixed to his own hindquarters, which he then puckers up and kisses. This satirical image neatly predicted the current landscape of mega-franchising, a case of corporations quite literally kissing their own asses. A New Legacy is its own overlong gesture of fawning self-admiration. If the old Saturday morning cartoons were criticized as being mere ads for action figures, then this is a kind of meta-action figure ad. Its product is brand loyalty to Warner Bros., which is hailed onscreen without a hint of irony as “the studio behind all the classics.”

The first Space Jam drew freely from Patton, Pulp Fiction, and Doctor Who: all entertainments not owned by the Tunes’ parent corporation. A New Legacy plonks its characters within The Matrix, the Metropolis of D.C. comics lore, a Harry Potter planet, and other fictional landscapes that are controlled by Warner Bros. Entrainment Inc. Both films are examples of what Frederic Jameson would call “blank parody,” a form of imitation drained of any discernible satiric intention. But the original’s pastiches now feel subversive by comparison. I point this out not in the service of redeeming the original Space Jam as some sly, postmodernist masterpiece. It’s lousy. But the new one is lousier, if only because it comports to the entertainment standards of our present age, which are themselves worse. Compared to the genuine po-mo surrealism of a Looney Tunes classic like “Duck Amuck” (1953), which sees Daffy frantically warring with his own animator, Space Jam’s cartoon anarchy feels docile. The Tunes’ antics dutifully serve the imperatives of corporatization and mega-branding instead of ironically undermining them.

If the old Saturday morning cartoons were criticized as being mere ads for action figures, then this is a kind of meta-action figure ad. Its product is brand loyalty to Warner Bros.

Both Space Jams are united by the fundamental insincerity of their plotting. In the original, Danny DeVito voices the extraterrestrial impresario of an intergalactic theme park called “Moron Mountain,” so named, presumably, because its management openly regards the clientele as morons. He is hellbent on recruiting superstar Michael Jordan to his entertainment complex, a motivation that stands as the perverse mirror image of the studio execs who had already accomplished just that by making the film. Likewise, A New Legacy’s baddie is a sinister algorithm, played by Don Cheadle, who rules over Warner Bros. own legacy properties like a tyrant. His scheme, too, involves zapping an NBA legend into his domain, this time in order to plop a digitized version of James inside Warner-owned entertainments like Batman and Game of Thrones. This, of course, is also the literal conceit of the film.

Following the illusion of movement, this is probably the greatest trick of cinema crafted at this scale: studios hiding their own corporate villainy by casting corporations as villains. The films preach a form of mom-and-pop anti-modernism while peddling just the opposite. Promoted as a crossover event between Warner Bros. and the HBO Max streaming service, even A New Legacy’s marketing attempts to frame media consolidation, the vertical and horizontal integration of platforms, as a virtue.

Considering the proliferation of CGI doubles, live concert holograms, and other futuristic techno-baubles, can we really be that far from a posthuman future in which actors living and dead are scanned into an app, digitized, and manipulated like some grisly virtual puppets? Maybe the ghost of John Barrymore can shoot field goals with Kawhi Leonard and Fat Bastard in Space Jam 3. How long until an A.I. can predict the narrowcast crossover events for specific audiences based on viewing habits or stated markers of identity, like the cinematic equivalent of those targeted ad T-shirts reading, “Yes! I’m the PLUMBER Husband to a WIFE who was BORN IN FEBRUARY!” that you see all over Facebook? I’d say we’re already there.

The real tragedy here is not even technological. It’s the deleterious effect such ornately designed fictional universes have on the imagination. The way they chart everything as canonical, which is conflated with proprietary. It was ever thus, I suppose. Even when the Universal Monsters weren’t part of the same branded “universe,” they were still the property of the studio. But forgetting that was just part of the medium’s grander suspension of disbelief. Space Jam foretells a future, if not a present, that wants us to recognize the realities of intellectual property. It asks us not to forget the condition of our own subservience to mega-corporations, but to cheer it. The innocent, childish wonderment this device invites is punished in turn. Now, the ludic play of children acting out fantasies of The Hulk vs. King Kong is a kind of eminent domain. Schoolyard hypotheses about who would win a foot race between Superman and the Flash can be definitively answered. The idle stuff of pure fantasy can be profitably expropriated.

Of course, it’s true that those with access to repertory cinemas and private torrent clients, who have the tools and inclination to cultivate cinephilia, can merely look away from this degradation and cultivate alternate viewing habits. But such a turning can also feel defeatist, especially for those of us daffy enough to still romance the idea of cinema as a popular medium: a space where collective hopes and anxieties coalesce, and not just as feature-length advertisements for other products in an ever-expanding line of motion picture-based vendibles. What can we do but sputter, irritated, like the compromised hero of “Duck Amuck,” and gaze up helplessly to the corporate overlords who exert increasingly maniacal control over us as they snicker and sneer, “Ain’t I a stinker?”