There’s a scene during the second half of Space Jam: A New Legacy where the villain, played with a pitiable intensity by Don Cheadle, says the line, “Let’s get some butts in these seats,” as he prepares for a basketball game between the good guys and several CGI abominations of his own creation. There is some deep rumbling and the ground begins to shake. LeBron James, here somehow failing to convincingly play the character of LeBron James, looks around nervously. The nightmare cartoon creature to his left—quite possibly a psychotic Roger Rabbit draped head to toe in Bugs Bunny’s rent pelt like some sort of cartoon leporid Buffalo Bill—tosses off the line, “How big are these butts?” Suddenly a bunch of, uhh, characters(?) come pouring over the hill. Just all these characters, with no uniting characteristics or origins or motivations, except that they exist in pop culture and are owned by the same global megacorporation. The Iron Giant, and possibly SpongeBob, and Pennywise the Dancing Clown. But also: What? They were summoned? And they’re sprinting? Like a rope drop at Epcot, only in a videogame server or something? Look at all these characters, and smile for some reason.
I had endured a lot by this point. I left the peace of home on a sunny Friday morning, on the last day before my vacation, when I had infinite better uses for my time, and drove for the better part of an hour to catch the first showing of this … I don’t even know what to call it, at a movie theater several towns and too long a stretch of the Capital Beltway away. I need you to understand that I have other, better ways to use my time! That I owe our newsletter subscribers and several Defector Accomplices original artwork! That the blog mines are indifferent to my predicament and will demand half-a-loaf sports takes whether or not I die alone in a suburban movie theater! That my Xbox randomly launched an update last night with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a franchise game in MLB 2K21 just seconds before I was due for my overnight shift caring for my infant child! That I was up bottle-feeding her at 2:56 a.m. and again at 4:14!
More to the point, I had already mostly held back my disgust when Speedy Gonzalez said, “Neo ain’t got nothin’ on me, bro,” and when Granny said, “Game, blouses,” and when the dead-eyed teen at the ticket counter cocked an eyebrow after I all but whispered, “One for Space Jam.” I’m not sure whether it was the “one” or the “Space Jam” that pained me worse. I tried very sincerely to slip in and out of this experience as discreetly as humanly possible, but I reached something of a breaking point at the How big are these butts moment. My hands were mashed up against my cheeks to the point of pain. Those fuckin’ characters came charging over the hill, for no purpose other than to slow the movie down and cram it even more full of the dreaded IP, and I sobbed aloud the words, “I don’t know, man.”
There were three other people in the movie theater. Two were children, and the other was their mom, or grandmother, or babysitter. They weren’t even sitting especially close, but my wail of despair must’ve been pretty loud. Plus I’d already whimpered and sighed a dozen times or more. The mom shushed me. I absolutely deserved it. I forgave her in my heart for the shush. I’m not sure I will ever forgive her for not firing a harpoon through my brain.
There’s a horrifying short story by Richard Matheson called “The Dance of the Dead,” about a teenager in a post-apocalyptic future who goes to a seedy hellhole of a nightclub where a nightmare cocktail of substances is used to animate corpses and make them dance luridly on a phantasmagoric stage. Things go poorly. After it’s over, perhaps the most upsetting part of the story is how changed the teen is by the experience, how irreversibly warped and tainted she’s become, and you wonder whether it’s the corpse or her that’s truly in hell. I think that’s us! I think we’ve dragged too much shit out of our comic books and crappy old sitcoms, and mined enough of what was once this or that artist’s authentically original or at least authentically self-respecting style, and rechewed it like big stinking wads of cud, and now we’re just ruined! Ruined! This is what I was thinking while watching this fucking movie! Granny gloated “I’m goin’ old-school on his butt” about an isolation matchup with some sort of mechanized, time-warping Damian Lillard(??), and a bright red light exploded in my brain. This thing, on this scale, with this level of visibility and prestige, is simply not something that anything but a terminal culture would produce.
A certain type of reader is going to form a certain sharply negative impression of what sort of person I am when I say the things I am about to say. I will admit that’s normally something that would bother me very much, but I think I am too tormented and unclean by the experience of having done this to muster up much more than a grim shrug. (Though I do want to note that I was assigned this blog and told it was not optional.) Here goes: It’s a bad thing—meaningfully bad, bad at a cultural and societal level, urgently bad—that Dumb and Bad are now viable genres of motion picture. It’s bad that people give dumb and bad movies credit for their pandering, mocking performances of art, and it’s especially bad when that credit is given to movies that are the cinematic equivalent of a Pine Sol tweet with just the word “bae” atop a photo of like Kevin Love scrubbing a countertop. It’s alarming and sincerely bad that we seem to have thrown ourselves so willingly into some sort of bizarro world where studios ever more boldly express contempt for their audiences by exploiting an earnest, incomplete, and possibly premature 21st-century critical reassessment of pop entertainment, while simultaneously exploiting a Gen-X–powered tidal wave of nostalgia for cultural artifacts that should’ve been left where they died. That the resulting pap—that’s what all of this is, pap, in the very literal sense of the word—is so often cynically fortified against criticism by broadly liberal-seeming bonafides and by the psychotic Gamergate-esque militance of diehards is all the more frustrating and dispiriting.
It used to be that shitty movies won by getting you to buy the ticket, and would just accept the critical pounding to follow. That was the trade, and it was a fair one: We got to call garbage garbage, and from time to time we would admit to ourselves that sometimes this or that hunk of garbage was our particular flavor of garbage. But now, I think, in the era of online, an unredeemably beshitted movie industry wins by getting us suckers to dig and fortify rhetorical battle trenches around some new derivative horror show, out of pure tribal loyalty and near-religious sentimentality. My hating this movie and writing about it is the prize, because I am providing it with a vector into some fresh corner of The Discourse. I haven’t worked out the more intricate mechanisms whereby this improves the Q Score or whatever of quite literally the most famous basketball player on the planet, but I know in my ruined soul that ticket sales are no longer the point. The long con is to get you to believe as deeply as possible that attaching your one infinitely precious self to these endlessly mass-produced mockeries of art and forming up a human shield around them is in fact a moral act.
This front of that campaign—the Space Jam: A New Legacy maneuver—is just appallingly brazen. The plot is nonsensical, but who cares. The acting is horrendous, but who cares. It looks bad, but who cares. The updated Looney Tunes characters are just bone-chillingly gross and distorted, like the screenwriters were given two-word descriptions of Bugs and the gang and had otherwise never heard of them before. The runtime is full to bursting with little winking asides that will mostly sail over the heads of anyone young enough to enjoy all the disconnected sweaty mania of the action (Bugs warns LeBron, “DIS AIN’T DA MIAMI HEAT, YOU KNOW,” when LeBron wants some good players for his team), but are not in any sense “jokes.” There’s a Michael Bay–style montage where Looney Tunes characters are gathered willy-nilly from scenes in non–Looney Tunes movies—Yosemite Sam is somehow in Casablanca; Elmer Fudd is in Austin Powers—that I swear to God was the most boring thing I have ever endured in my entire life, even though it was almost certainly the seed and inspiration for this entire movie’s existence. The script is pure Joss Whedon/Seth MacFarlane crapola, where characters have no real distinguishing personality traits that cannot be swapped at a moment’s notice in order to have a specific one of them deliver the next samey and deeply unfunny one-liner. Respectable actors are paraded across the screen—Wood Harris, Sarah Silverman, Sonequa Martin-Green, Steven Yeun, Lil Rel Howery, Michael B. Jordan—but are given nothing even approaching interesting or funny or original to say or do. Whole huge chunks of the plot are shamefully yanked right out of Futurama and Hook. Everything is a reference to something else. Scenes and music and whole big sequences overtly reference Wonder Woman and The Matrix and Mad Max: Fury Road, but the movie is too ingratiating and chicken-shit to reach for parody, and so it winds up just sort of thirstily grasping for the lowest hanging fan service shit: recognition.
I have never repeated any word or words as often in such a short period of time as I groaned the words “oh my god” during this movie’s 115 minutes, and I have performed the Hallelujah Chorus before. Porky Pig’s dreaded rap battle is punctuated by Ernie Johnson saying, “He was spitting hot fire.” Who wants this? Who is this for? But I have the feeling that I am supposed to root for it, somehow, because LeBron is firmly established in the culture as A Good Dude, and because it can’t be very harmful to have a little fun with nostalgia, and what kind of asshole evaluates Space Jam: A New Legacy on its merits as a movie? Have some fun! But this trend is ruining us equally: I am becoming like the crew of the Event Horizon, tearing my eyeballs out and hissing scary Latin phrases, and you are twirling in a field like the poor teen from the Matheson story. We’re both fucked.
There is a moment toward the very end of the movie where it appears very much like the filmmakers have killed off Bugs Bunny. To heck with all spoiler sensitivities! As an audience member you are supposed to feel Feelings about this, because of course you love Bugs Bunny and do not wish him dead. I grew up watching Bugs Bunny, I do love Bugs Bunny, and I did feel something. I felt regret that I had not been given the opportunity to choke the blasphemous unlife out of this reanimated corpse of Bugs Bunny with my own quivering hands. Alas, you will not be surprised to learn that it was all misdirection. Bugs returns moments later, with no explanation whatsoever, and is fine. Once again you are invited to feel Feelings. I felt bad, after all that suffering, that neither of us had been allowed to simply die.