Space Jam: A New Legacy of “hey, I understand that reference” movies

Space Jam: A New Legacy is not a good movie. And let’s be honest – for all the nostalgia that millennials have for the original Space Jam, it wasn’t a great movie either. But compared to the sequel, the original is nearly The Godfather.

Now, not every movie has to be The Godfather. But Space Jam 2 is bad in ways that just feel lazy and cheap.

In nearly every aspect, Space Jam 2 just a 2-hour long commercial for HBO Max. The movie is designed to be incredibly meta and self-aware, but it doesn’t do that well at all. Instead, it spends the majority of its runtime showing off all the properties Warner Bros. owns. It packs in Looney Tunes, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, the Justice League, The Wizard of Oz, Mad Max Fury Road, The Matrix and even Casablanca. And that’s not even counting the background references during the basketball game.  

Of course, movies referencing other movies is not a new concept. Iconic movie lines are referenced all the time – from Empire Strikes Back’s “I am your father” to Wizard of Oz’s “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Every Pixar movie has a reference to another one of their own movies. Even the Looney Tunes have showed up in other movies before. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? famously featured both Looney Tunes and Disney animated characters.

Credit Touchstone/Amblin

And movies like Shrek feature new takes on well-known fairy tale characters (often made famous by Disney) and reference movies from The Lord of the Rings to The Matrix.

But Space Jam 2 is part of a new genre of “multiverse” movies. It’s the idea – sparked by the interconnectedness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – that everything exists in the same sandbox and can interact with each other.

Two other recent examples of the “multiverse” movie are Ready Player One and Ralph Breaks the Internet. Both of these movies use the multiverse concept much better than Space Jam 2, although neither are perfect.

Credit Warner Bros.

In Ready Player One, the world in 2045 revolves almost completely around an immersive virtual reality game. The real world has gotten so bad that players use the game as an escape from actual reality. The plot focuses on players searching for an Easter Egg within in the game placed by the creator, James Halliday. Players that solve the clues based on Halliday’s life will find the egg and gain full control over the virtual world. It’s part Tron, part Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Halliday himself was someone who retreated from the real world and immersed himself in pop culture – notably from the 1980s and 90s. So the game (and the movie) is packed with references to classics like Back to the Future, Buckaroo Banzai, The Iron Giant, Gundam, Godzilla, Jurassic Park, Chucky and more.

The movie mostly gets away with packing in references by connecting them to Halliday and his game, which drives the plot. The best example is in the middle of the movie when the main characters must search through a virtual version of the Outlook Hotel from The Shining because that movie played an important role in Halliday’s early life.

Credit Warner Bros.

On the other hand, there’s always a bit of a disconnect between the movie references and the rest of the world within the movie. The question of why so many teenagers in 2045 are this knowledgeable and obsessed with pop culture from the 1980s and 90s lingers throughout. Other references are just there for the fun of it. Sure, it’s a blast to watch the Iron Giant and Gundam fight Mechagodzilla, but they don’t really add much to the story other than a coolness factor.

Overall, Ready Player One gets by with their movie references because they’re used in interesting ways. The movie has a lot of other issues in terms of the plot and some of its themes and messages, so the references can often help gloss over those to bring more enjoyment to the viewers.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is an interesting case. It’s a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, which already featured a small, early version of the multiverse idea by having video game characters from different games interact. It even had cameos from famous characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Pac Man. And with the sequel taking place in the internet, companies like Facebook, Google, YouTube, eBay and Amazon are featured, but mostly in a way that just makes the internet world feel real.

Credit Disney

However, so much of the marketing for Ralph Breaks the Internet focused on the scenes where the character Vanellope meets the Disney Princesses. It’s a very self-aware and meta moment, but it’s such a small scene compared to the rest of the movie. But they certainly pack in everyone they can in this short sequence – from C-3PO to Grumpy to Groot.

And sure, it’s fun to see all the princesses hanging out together and every line they say is a pun or reference to their most famous moments, but more importantly, this scene actually plays a role in Vanellope’s journey. The princesses help her start to consider what it is she really wants – whether it’s to get her home game fixed or to move on and have new adventures.

Ralph Breaks the Internet focuses on the two main characters and how relationships change through growing up and growing apart. And the Disney-verse sequence, as self-serving as it is, helps move that story forward.

Now, for Space Jam 2. In this world, all of the characters and properties Warner Bros. owns exist together in the “serververse” (gross), literally the computer servers in the basement of their studio. Lebron James and his son are brought into the serververse (ew) by an algorithm named – for real – Al G. Rhythm. Al challenges Lebron to a basketball game for…some reason and then banishes Lebron to Looney Tune world.

Credit Warner Bros.

Lebron and Bugs Bunny then have to travel throughout the serververse (why) to find the rest of the Looney Tunes, visiting the animated Justice League, Austin Powers, The Matrix, Mad Max Fury Road, Game of Thrones, Casablanca and a Wonder Woman comic book. And most of these aren’t used in a remotely interesting way. The Looney Tunes characters are just inserted into existing footage from most of these movies.

And I cannot get over including something like Casablanca in this movie. What child will recognize this or care what it is? I guess WB is expecting kids who grew up with the original Space Jam are now old enough to know about more movies so they’ll understand the Casablanca reference? Truly a mystery to me.

Credit Warner Bros.

So then other stuff happens and we finally get to the climactic basketball game. Al G. Rhythm invites the entire WB serververse (ugh) to watch the game, and we get split-second shots of King Kong, the Iron Giant, the Mystery Machine, the Flintstones, Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, freaking Jabberjaw, and hundreds of other “characters” (extras in bad Halloween costumes) un the background like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Jim Carrey from The Mask, the Night King from Game of Thrones, the guys from A Clockwork Orange(??) and more.

Credit Warner Bros.

And they all just…watch the game. Literally just there in the background to be Easter Eggs and for viewers to scan the crowd and go, “hey, it’s [that guy] from [that thing]!” In no way, shape or form do they impact the story at all. And then they’re just…gone once the game is over.

Space Jam: A New Legacy will most likely not be the last movie of its kind. In a world where recognizable characters and name brands are the new movie stars, studios will probably take this approach again to ensure audiences watch their products. Ready Player One and Ralph Breaks the Internet show that there are at least slightly more interesting ways to do that, but I think it’s a dangerous trend.

Instead of watching Space Jam: A New Legacy, go watch one of the much better and more interesting movies referenced in it instead.