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Several copies of Wile E. Coyote hurdle through the air together, along with several basketballs, holding up signs that say “What have I done?” in this image from Space Jam: A New Legacy Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

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Space Jam: A New Legacy runs on video game logic, in every way

A universe of exploitable intellectual property

Space Jam: A New Legacy is all about games. That’s not surprising, since it stars LeBron James saving the world with basketball and is a sequel to a film about Michael Jordan also saving the world through the powers of basketball. As far as that goes, both films are vaguely similar: some bad guys appear, and they want to take over the world. A basketball star has to recruit and align themselves emotionally with the cartoon cast of the Looney Tunes and convince them to play basketball. In New Legacy, the basketball game is no longer just the fundamentals. Instead, it restages everything within a basketball video game, changing the rules and using video games themselves to bring some important parts of contemporary video games into the film.

Where Space Jam was created in the sports-centered 1990s, New Legacy comes at a time where video games have emerged as a rival social event to going to or watching sports events with your friends. Now you can party up and play games together, or you can watch the same streamer, or one of you can play while everyone chats over Discord. Sports are no longer the thing that gets children irrationally excited in the way that they did in the ’90s. Now, games serve that function, and the film follows the times.

The basketball played in New Legacy barely resembles the real-life sport. The fiction of the film explains that LeBron, the Looney Tunes, and an algorithmic Don Cheadle are competing within a video game version of basketball created by LeBron’s tween son Dom. It is functionally Calvinball, following the loose structure of balls going in baskets but surrounded by physical powerups and the full use of superpowers on the court. What they play is a video game-ass video game that sits somewhere between a MOBA and NBA Jam.

An overhead shot of the Dom Ball stadium in Space Jam: A New Legacy Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

This game dominates the back half of the film, just like the original Space Jam, but its video game logic worms its way through the entirety of the plot. Director Malcolm D. Lee has said that the film is meant as a “technical and fun video game experience” to make us feel “as if we were all at the game as audience members.” The slippage here between what we think we’re watching (basketball) and what we’re really watching (a weird video game version of it) is an important one: Lee is saying that he wants us to feel as if we’re in the audience for a video game experience, not a basketball game.

This video game-ness plays out across the film, in less obvious ways than watching the players use court-based powerups. Take, for instance, the social media uproar about a short section of the film that features the Looney Tunes edited into some of the classics from the Warner Bros. library. Tweety Bird ends up in The Matrix. The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote hang out in the Fury Road universe. Later on, when the big game is going to happen, denizens from all around the Warner IP universe populate the stands, allowing the film to cut to reaction shots from Game of Thrones characters and the gremlins from, well, Gremlins. It feels deeply cynical, the kind of decision made to show off the vast holdings of a company and to generate YouTube and list content for the copious world of Space Jam commentary (which I have just entered).

In this way, New Legacy brings itself closer to games than simply including a video game in its plot. It is borrowing strategies that have been deployed in our biggest video games, which generate novelty for players (and social and monetary value for publishers) by cramming as many different references and pieces of intellectual property into themselves as possible. Earlier this year, Warzone put both John McClane and Rambo into the game, voiced with lines cut directly from the films. You can download the game right now and shoot people in Nakatomi Plaza. Stranger Things has characters in Smite, The Joker and Harley Quinn showed up in PUBG, and Fortnite is in the middle of a billion dollar pivot toward a Metaverse that collapses all of pop culture and social interaction into a single application. The video game industry has realized that it can cram Rick Sanchez and Superman into the same game, stitched together by a thin genre plot, and that is sufficient to get people interested in buying and playing through it.

The Dom Ball Stadium in Space Jam: A New Legacy, full of characters from various Warner Bros. properties Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

While I think it is clear that video games have functioned as a canary in the coal mine for this kind of mass exploitation of recognizable characters, it’s also something that Family Guy and Robot Chicken pioneered more than a decade ago: Mentioning things as content. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has made this referentiality, and coherent worldbuilding, into its own blockbuster genre. It is clearly enjoyable to be in proximity to things that you’re familiar with. New Legacy simply mirrors the games culture we exist in.

When Lee talks about making New Legacy a video game experience, what he’s unintentionally saying is that he’s filmified the battle pass impulse to cram references into things and make that itself the content of the work. If you remove the Warner Bros. references and constant frontloading of IP content via the game sections from New Legacy, you are left with a thin but basically fulfilling plot about a father and son coming to understand one another in a predictable pattern. But the core of the film is all produced by importing games, and their logic, into the filmic universe. Games have rules, but the thrill of them is in the way that you can bend and stretch those rules once you understand them. In fact, LeBron James learning this fundamental fact is a huge part of the film’s plot. But what also gets brought in with the game-y vibe is this new relationship between games and intellectual property.

Make no mistake, just like Fortnite or Warzone, a huge part of why we’re here is to see the tornado of unrelated pop culture spin out of control over the top of a barely-conceived digital game facsimile. In current pop culture, games like Fortnite are where intellectual property can intermingle. It’s not too serious. It’s just a game — who cares if Catwoman can gun down a giant carrot? Similarly, when I saw Yosemite Sam digitally edited into Casablanca in New Legacy, I didn’t recoil in horror due to the loss of sanctity of the film. I thought it was a perfectly fine gag that a 10-year-old might laugh at, in the same way that I constantly lost it at references in The Animaniacs that I didn’t understand until grad school. It’s perfectly middle-of-the-road funny.

Daffy Duck and Lebron James exchange a look of chagrin on the sidelines of the Dom Ball game in Space Jam: A New Legacy Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

But Warner Bros. takes this contemporary understanding of games and uses it to fuel a giant advertisement that’s meant to get us to invest more of our time and energy into the things they own. The problem here is not simply that the references happen, but that the references are made possible by a system of intellectual property concentration that encourages us to value things in terms of how much recognizable content is in them. New Legacy, and the video games that are doing this in major ways, are parts of a broad movement on the part of media companies that encourages you to be a fan of the containers that great works sit in as much as you’re a fan of those works. It’s not just about whether you like Ant-Man; it’s about whether you’re willing to sit through it to learn some factoids about the broad container that is the Marvel Universe. It’s like enjoying an ice-cold Coca-Cola but really being an enthusiast for aluminum cans, and an entire aluminum can industry existing to tell you how awesome they are.

By normalizing this as business as usual, games have opened up the door to these IP cyclone experiences. The aesthetics of games, the look and feel and logic of games, are obviously things that can be adopted and absorbed into other media in order to generate audience buy-in for absolutely wild ideas like what New Legacy pulls off. Warner wants you to know about all of their properties, and for you to be happy that John Snow can talk to Harry Potter, because the novelty of that happening is enough to get us to pay the price of entry. It’s a vertically integrated universe where profit leaks from every character’s iconic line or smile. Our understanding of how contemporary games work is what allows this to be sold so easily in New Legacy. It is our willingness to get on with the game that makes it so appealing as a corporate business strategy.

We’re in an era of normalizing this, of thinking that warping all our pop culture into universes and balls of distinct IP to be exploited as packaged is desirable. I think we should be actively considering whether this is what we want out of our culture. We’ve been deep in the nostalgia era of filmmaking, from Transformers to Stranger Things, for a long time, and this evolution into a grand composite reference universe seems to be the worst impulses of every media form smashed together. I’d rather watch new and interesting movies than ones that rely on IP recognition. Video games have helped produce this, massifying it in ways that comics and late-night tv comedy only dreamed of, and New Legacy has picked up the baton and is running as fast as it can with it.

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