Two critics weigh in on the IP apocalypse and what happens when the main unit of entertainment is not TV or film but corporate universe.
Photo: Warner Bros.

The strangest thing about Space Jam: A New Legacy, the “standalone sequel” to the 1996 hit, is that an algorithm played by Don Cheadle is the villain of the story but also dead-on when it comes to the goals of the movie itself: What is it if not an attempt to suck viewers into the WB Serververse? Take the moment LeBron James, playing himself, starts drafting his fantasy team for a basketball game that will determine the fate of the world (or at least the chunk of it following him on Twitter). He announces, with an Oscar-worthy show of enthusiasm, that “we’re going to need the most powerful Warner Bros. characters for this team” and then immediately begins listing his picks — Superman, King Kong, the Iron Giant — as though it’s only natural for someone to have an encyclopedic knowledge of which beloved pop-culture properties fall under which particular corporate umbrella. A New Legacy’s biggest flight of fancy is not that famous athletes could team up with cartoon characters but that members of the public naturally feel intense loyalty to faceless media conglomerates.

Warner Bros.’s shameless flogging of its own library worked well enough to trounce Black Widow in its second weekend at the box office — Black Widow along with the just-wrapped Loki form the latest extrusions from Marvel’s multimedia franchise, the largest but by no means only star in Disney’s own constellation of intellectual properties. Given the results, two of Vulture’s critics felt it a better time than ever to discuss the current state of the corporate universes.

Alison Willmore: Critics are pretty clearly not the desired audience for Space Jam: A New Legacy, but the movie did get a genuine guffaw out of this one as I slogged my way through it over the weekend. I’m not sure the scene in question was meant to be funny, but then the new Space Jam makes it hard to tell. Like, is the sight of Elmer Fudd subbing in as Mini-Me in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me really meant to be funny? It seems like it might be, but then … why? And to whom?

Jen, you write about television, and I cover film, but lately I’ve felt like we’re approaching an event horizon in which this difference no longer matters because the main unit of entertainment is not a series or a feature but a corporate universe. That may be just the sense of impending doom I seem unable to shake in all aspects of my life, though (as well as my inability to believe that people can actually derive pleasure from the sight of Foghorn Leghorn riding a Game of Thrones dragon). So, what do you think — is the inescapable MCU an anomaly that no one else will be able to replicate or just the natural order of things now? When did the term “intellectual property” go mainstream, and can we make it go away again?

Jen Chaney: Alison, I feel like we already reached that event horizon whenever people started to use the term “content” unironically.

Actually, I think the sea-change moment for the corporatization of IP — an abbreviation now as commonly recognized as OMG and HSM:TM:TS — came in 2012, when Disney acquired LucasFilm and the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises that went along with it. Disney already owned Marvel at that point, and Marvel was already well into the process of dominating the cinematic landscape with a franchise that practically demanded moviegoers see every entry. But the idea of Star Wars, the original blockbuster franchise, becoming a Disney property was a disconcerting shift (even though Star Wars was already featured in Disney theme parks) and a signal of how corporatized pop-culture branding was becoming.

That process only accelerated as Netflix demonstrated how addicted humans can become to a single streaming platform and, a few years later, when Disney acquired Fox. When I realized that The Simpsons, once considered controversial, subversive, and the antithesis of a Disney cartoon, would now be considered a Disney show per its central positioning in the Disney+ launch, my mind exploded and my heart broke in half. As I wrote at the time, that was when I fully realized that the original artistic identity of and context around any particular show or film was now fully irrelevant. The Simpsons was just another solid stock in the portfolio Disney was building.

Now, every studio-slash-company is trying to mine its catalogue and mold it into a robust streaming platform. Which brings us back to Space Jam: A New Legacy, or as I call it, Space Jam: That Time Everything on HBO Max Threw Up on LeBron James. The scene that made my brain fritz out — actually, it’s not so much a scene as basically half of the movie — is the climactic basketball game attended by characters from various arms of the sizable Warner Bros. library, but they’re all mashed together in ways that make little sense. Like, I get Fred Flintstone and the Jetsons being there, since they are also cartoon characters, albeit of the Hanna-Barbera variety. I can kind of understand the presence of Batman and other DC Comics characters because they’re arguably cartoon-adjacent. But who gave the Droogs from A Clockwork Orange, Bette Davis’s character from What Happened to Baby Jane?, and Pennywise from It courtside seats to a game taking place in what is basically a children’s film? If I’m the parent of a young kid, I most likely did not bring that child to Space Jam so they could be introduced to Pennywise. I’m trying to maintain a Pennywise-free zone, quite frankly!

If Space Jam’s M.O. is to sell us on the Warner Bros. brand, it seems like the only ostensible brand being sold is “Warner Media: We Own the Rights to a Lot of Shit and We Want You to Interact With All of Our Shit, Oh and Also: We Want Your Kids to Get Started on That Early.” That’s the reason to wedge in allusions to Austin Powers and The Matrix: to make these characters and stories recognizable to everyone, even if only on a subliminal level, to lay the foundation for building on that IP even further.

[Exec in a pitch meeting]: “Yes, we definitely should move forward with Droog Babies, the animated Clockwork Orange pre-school series we’ve been discussing. Four-year-olds love the Droogs. They know them from Space Jam!”

Don Cheadle’s evil algorithm.
Photo: Warner Bros.

AW: The Droogs have to be the strangest presences in that audience — unless the prominently placed nun is, as has been hotly debated, meant to be Sister Jeanne, the character played by Vanessa Redgrave in Ken Russell’s 1971 notorious exploration of mass hysteria, religious hypocrisy, and sexual obsession, The Devils.

Per your point, Jen, I can see the Austin Powers and Matrix references as pragmatic efforts to seed a sense of familiarity in young viewers. There’s a new Matrix movie out this year, and while Austin Powers 4 has been stalled out for over a decade, who knows when it might lurch forward again? I can even rationalize the soul-crushing Mad Max: Fury Road sequences along the same lines. But what to make of a nod to an incendiary movie that was slapped with an X rating and banned in multiple countries at the time? Even as an Easter egg for theoretical cinephiles watching the movie alongside their kids, it’s perverse given how notoriously tough it’s been to see The Devils over the years. To toss it in there is to flaunt ownership of a movie that the company doesn’t care enough about to make it easier to actually access.

Back in 2018, our former colleague Abe Riesman wrote a piece about what he called “mash-up cinema,” pegged to the barrage of The Emoji Movie, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Ready Player One, all of which sold themselves on the promise of bringing a bunch of familiar things together. As he wrote at the time, “If you can’t build out a pantheon of characters that you convince an audience to become familiar with, why not just rent a bunch of properties they’re already familiar with, duct-tape them together, hoist them aloft before the camera, and declare that movie magic has been made?” This continues to be true, with the caveat that Space Jam 2 didn’t even need to rent. And while Marvel still has to make deals to incorporate Spider-Man, it was able to return the X-Men and the Fantastic Four to the fold by way of the Disney/Fox deal. Jen, my brain-break moment was also around the time of that merger, when news of this seismic shift in the media landscape was breaking on Twitter and all anyone could seem to talk about in the replies was how exciting it would be to see the X-Men become part of the MCU.

But the thing about throwing allegiances behind brands instead of creators is that it leads to worse work. You mentioned Netflix, which has been coasting off its market dominance by putting out a steady stream of increasingly forgettable originals, secure in the loyalty, or at least the inertia, of its customer base. And I can’t be alone in feeling like all of Marvel’s new shows so far have been seriously hampered by their obligations to the MCU as a whole?

JC: What I loved about my favorite of the Marvel shows so far, WandaVision, is that it wasn’t hampered by those obligations … until, of course, it was in the finale, which was my least favorite episode. Marvel is praised often for its ambition and Kevin Feige’s ability to weave broader story arcs through all of these individual projects. Which is impressive, and I do enjoy a lot of the Marvel stuff.

But some of the story decisions that get amplified in the realm of the Very Online don’t always live up the hype. You mentioned the excitement of the X-Men entertaining the MCU, and I must admit that I was among those who thought the initial arrival of Evan Peters as Pietro in WandaVision was a clever hat tip to both the notion of recasting roles in sitcoms and to the X-Men–Marvel merger. (In previous MCU films, Aaron Taylor-Johnson played the Pietro role.) But given the show’s focus on Wanda, Agatha, and other matters, not to mention that Peters was actually playing Ralph Boehner, who had been brainwashed to think he was Pietro, WandaVision did not really do much to further develop his character. Pietro’s primary reason for being was to serve as a wink-wink joke for fans and nudge the plot forward at some key moments.

The fact that Evans’s arrival was more enriching for those who understood all the casting history behind the X-Men franchise speaks to another issue with the Marvel multiverse: its perpetuation of inside-joke-based entertainment. We’ve alluded to this a bit, but so many of the films-slash-shows we’ve discussed are examples of this, meaning that their entertainment value and creative vision is steeped largely in references to other works and Easter eggs. Ready Player One — especially the book and to a lesser extent the movie — strikes me as a real flash point for the style of storytelling we’re talking about and that has now been co-opted by major studios who use it as a means to advertise their offerings.

What I hated about that book — a book that should have been parked straightly in my wheelhouse, given my love for ’80s pop culture — was the way it called out certain video games, movies, etc. in a way that implied if you didn’t get them, you were inferior. Even though I got a lot of them, I still found this off-putting, especially because it seemed to mistake references for actual character development. It’s the same reason that I dislike the post-credit sequences in Marvel movies that tip their hat to a significant Marvel character who will appear in a future movie or series. I’m not as familiar with the comics as most Marvel diehards, so when I’m in a theater with a bunch of people gasping at some comment or person but I don’t understand why, it feels … bad.

A preponderance of inside jokes and Easter eggs either (a) makes viewers feel great about themselves for recognizing them or (b) gives them a case of FOMO that will force them into a deep-dive Google search to understand what they were missing. For an example, look no further than the recent Loki finale, where Jonathan Majors’s He Who Remains made a memorable appearance, the broader relevance of which was lost on anyone who didn’t realize he’s actually [name redacted, rhymes with Tang] and/or missed the announcement a few months ago that Majors will appear in the next Ant-Man movie. From the perspective of the studios and their IP, this is ideal — they’re either rewarding the audiences who have been loyal to their IP or making the ones who haven’t been want to feel more invested so they aren’t left behind. There’s a whole psychological study that could be done on this, but we don’t have time for that.

In lieu of that, Alison, can you think of any examples where IP-mining and reference-based storytelling have been creatively satisfying and successful? The one that immediately pops to mind for me is The Lego Movie because there was so much cleverness and thought given to how to tell an inventive story without it being completely overshadowed by the references.

Gaze upon the IP.
Photo: Warner Bros.

AW: Does Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, and the modest aims only to offer what is promised in the title count? Not that that movie can be separated from our current exploitable IP insanity. It was one of a scattering of monster crossovers that Universal Pictures dabbled with back in the 1940s in a precursor to the poor, doomed Dark Universe. Remember the Dark Universe? That would-be action-horror franchise that was kicked off with much ceremony in 2017 by the Tom Cruise misfire The Mummy and then abandoned? That recent reminder that while cinematic universes aren’t new, they also aren’t guaranteed to succeed, as also attested to by failed attempts at launching Robin Hood and King Arthur ones.

Credit should go to Marvel for that, I guess. I don’t want to downplay the fact that I’ve liked MCU movies in the past and that the ones I’ve liked the most — Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok — retain a real sense of their directors’ voices. But that’s in spite of the larger framework they’re part of, not because of it. I don’t get the dopamine rush that a lot of people seem to when watching characters from different properties come together onscreen, but I do feel acutely aware of all the choices that have to be made to enable that to happen, often for the worse. Shared universes are just bad for storytelling. You mentioned that last episode of WandaVision, which took all of the series’s slow-building sense of horror and shucked it off with a “My bad!” in order to move the character forward to her next scheduled appearance. And Loki, after an intriguing setup, felt so reverse engineered to introduce the multiverse rather than driven by its characters or even a sense of coherent dramatic stakes.

That’s the problem with relying on references, too. There is that sense of smugness, yes, that congratulatory air for picking up on a citation — like the nod to being part of the Disney fold that’s included in an upcoming release from 20th Century Studios. But it also creates an artificial sense of narrative sophistication — because while the storytelling is not especially refined or open to ambiguity, it requires you to have done the work in terms of watching everything else to follow it (or at least have just kept up with corporate rights ownership in the trades). The character showing up, the crossover, the Easter egg is allowed to be an end unto itself. Julia Louis-Dreyfus turning up in the post-credits scene of Black Widow is meaningless if you haven’t watched The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but it’s also not that meaningful if you have or if you know the character from the comic books — because who knows if the MCU has the same sort of arc planned for her. That sequence is just a promo for what’s happening next.

And what’s happening next is just more and more and more. We’ve gone back and forth before as to whether the MCU owes more to television than to film, and the MCU in turn has demonstrated that it’s determined to be both. As we bring this to a close, Jen, what I’d like to know from you is this: Do you think this is the future of entertainment, or is this a phase that’s going to look very rooted in this time when we look back? Space Jam: That Time Everything on HBO Max Threw Up on LeBron James really is inseparable from the context of the current streaming wars, to the point where the audience at the game is functionally an advertisement for an available library of things to watch. Is the cinematic universe, or the extreme IP mash-up, just inextricably linked to the attempted consolidation of media conglomerates into subscription services?

JC: I am loath to make any predictions about the future of entertainment, particularly at this precarious moment in time. But I feel comfortable saying this much: All this IP mining will only represent the future of entertainment if it results in profit.

The problem is that sometimes these blatant IP pushes can still be mildly entertaining. That’s how I felt about Space Jam: That Time Don Cheadle Cleaned Out Everything in the Warner Bros. DVD Prize Closet. Like, I laughed a few times during that movie. I was never bored. I even thought it was better than the first Space Jam, a movie that truly makes no sense but remains beloved because so many people first saw it when they were kids and didn’t care whether it made sense.

That said, mildly entertaining only goes so far in the long run. At some point, I have to believe that film and TV audiences will find it stale and repetitive to watch blatant IP mining that’s been Play-Doh-molded to look like a story, especially when it’s so obvious that these efforts are designed, in part, to make them subscribe to 1 of the 80 new streaming services that have been launched while we were having this discussion. There will always be attempts to build franchises and launch sequels and reboots. That’s been the case for decades. But the streaming wars and how they play out will dictate how interwoven all these media conglomerates want their IP to be. For a corporation like Disney, I can’t imagine things changing. For a Warner or a Paramount, I’m still not sure the Disney model will work as well for them, and that’s something they may figure out in time.

Like you, Alison, I’m hoping that such obviously corporate-motivated attempts to jam (sorry) all this IP down consumers’ throats will mark a brief trend rather than something that alters the entertainment timeline for good.