Why LeBron James’ ‘Space Jam 2’ Is Summer 2021’s Biggest Open Question

Warner Bros. has released the second trailer for Space Jam: A New Legacy. We got a somewhat clever “30 on 30” spoof featurette over the weekend, and now this trailer will play before theatrical showings of In the Heights and Peter Rabbit: The Runaway. I’m not going to pretend that this 25-years-later sequel, starring LeBron James instead of Michael Jordan, looks like some grand cinematic masterpiece. I saw the first Space Jam on opening weekend in November of 1996 and thought it was a painless and cute diversion. I was impressed at how Jordan was a smart enough actor not to try and steal scenes from the Looney Tunes and rolled my eyes at how it fetishized its one main female character, but otherwise shrugged accordingly.

The highest compliment I can pay is that it doesn’t seem to be targeted at nostalgic adults. Insertions of R-rated Warner Media characters (the hooligans in A Clockwork Orange, the nuns from Ken Russell’s The Devils, etc.) into the crowd scenes notwithstanding, this looks like a kids flick through-and-through. Its rated PG (par for the course in 1996, but now I’m almost surprised they didn’t finagle a PG-13) and features the kind of humor that makes young kids laugh while parents look at their watch. And to a certain extent, that’s okay. Back in 1996, a movie like Space Jam starring a basketball star and a cartoon character facing off against aliens in an intergalactic basketball game, was unique amid action movies and studio programmers.

It opened the week after Mel Gibson’s Ransom, a $70 million, R-rated action thriller which would earn $309 million worldwide, more than the $230 million earned by the $90 million Space Jam. And while Mars Attacks! turned into one of the most expensive private jokes in modern Hollywood history, it got clobbered by star-driven originals like John Travolta’s Michael and Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire. It is a cruel irony that 25 years later, the only “big” movies of late 1996 which would have a shot in hell of A) existing theatrically and B) succeeding theatrically are the franchise-specific likes of Space Jam, Beavis and Butthead and Star Trek: First Contact, although we’re getting a fifth Scream next year because the  Scream series was popular 20-25 years ago.

Is Space Jam: A New Legacy still a viable IP 25 years later? Is Space Jam a popular movie to the point where all audiences (not just kids and chaperoning parents) actually want to see another go-around? Or is it a case of an unrequested IP extension that exists because the studio (and in this case, the top-billed star) wanted it to exist? A fracturing of pop culture means that famous sports stars aren’t quite as universally known/beloved as they arguably were in the NBA Jam days, and once again Space Jam: A New Legacy faces a marketplace where movies of this nature are par for the course. I don’t know the budget for this one, but I’m hoping it’s closer to $90 million than $150 million.

Even adjusted for inflation, the original film’s “adjusted for inflation” $476 million global cume would barely cut it on a $150 million budget (notice how nobody is breaking down doors to make a sequel to the $433 million-grossing Detective Pikachu). But even presuming it’s closer in budget to Shazam than Aquaman, there’s always the chance that the film will be received about as warmly as Zoolander, No. 2. That $50 million sequel to a 15-year-old movie that didn’t even crack $61 million was greeted upon announcement with the usual “Everything is Awesome!” geek-and-nostalgia-centric media chorus, and its failure ($57 million) was a classic example of not mistaking online fandom and online hype for mainstream interest (see also: the current cultural divide over Zack Snyder’s DC superhero movies).

How Space Jam: A New Legacy is, especially outside of F9 and the DC/Marvel movies, one of the biggest “franchise titles” in play this season. The only films that come close are (speculation alert) Free Guy and Jungle Cruise. Yet, the strength of its appeal is uncertain. It’s possible that the film could send new subscribers to HBO Max while enticing existing subscribers to stick around, but we’re still talking an ecosystem where the newest WB theatrical pulls in around 2-3 million viewers on “opening weekend” with little data for “legs.” It will be… interesting if a sequel to a movie that wasn’t that big of a hit 25 years ago can become an A-level franchise today. Well, after Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I can’t entirely write it off.

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