You might remember Michael Jordan from the decisive basketball game in the original “Space Jam” movie. At halftime, his fictional team “the Tunes” is desperate, sure they can’t beat the evil Monstars. Jordan, in a classic twist, gives them “magic juice” (spoiler: it’s just water) to play better, only for the Tunes to find out in the end that all they really need is it. was self-confidence.
It’s not exactly Oscar material, but it’s certainly a moral we are all comfortable passing on to our child with few reservations.
This is not the case with what is conveyed in this summer’s big box office offering “Space Jam: A New Legacy”. The film is well updated from its mid-90s predecessor: the protagonist is now LeBron James, the setting is not just the Looney Tunes, but a connected universe of Warner Bros. properties, and the moral at the center of it. history is lacking. .
In this story, James’ fictional son Dom just wants to have fun, whether it’s fun on the basketball court or playing video games, but his dad expects him to have fun. ‘he learns the basics of basketball. “You never let me just do it,” her son laments at the start of the film.
The film borrows many of the same rhythms from its predecessor. James and the Looney Tunes are down at halftime with the fate of the universe at stake. This time, rather than trusting the Tunes to play the game, we find that the Tunes have played the game the way they are. which James, one of the best of all time, would have wanted them to play from the start, but they’re still down. So James gives in, learns his lesson, and lets the Tunes be themselves, a lesson he then applies to Dom.
“Space Jam: A New Legacy” isn’t the first film to extol the virtue of “being yourself”, and it won’t be the last. The advice is largely meaningless. What should we be other than ourselves? But maybe a milquetoast moral fits into a movie that, while useful for providing a dose of kid-focused entertainment and adult nostalgia, is also largely meaningless.
But the idea of ”being yourself” today is more loaded than the authors of “Space Jam” probably imagine. As Carl R. Trueman, professor of religious studies, recently wrote in the Deseret News: “’Who are you?’ … Is the most pressing issue of our time. And his answer holds the power to shape society.
Sociologist Philip Rieff traced the American concept of the self as evolving in the mid-twentieth century until he called “psychological man.” In his 1966 book “The Triumph of Therapeutics,” Rieff defined the psychological man as being primarily driven by his own desires. “Psychological man takes the attitude of a scientist, with him alone as the ultimate object of his science.”
Americans, according to Rieff, have abandoned previous models of self – people no longer defined themselves through a religious or political lens. Instead, they saw themselves as a reflection of their most basic psychological thoughts and desires, what he called “the newest and perhaps the supreme individualist.”
Although barely so cerebral, this idea shines through in the simplistic plot of “Space Jam: New Legacy”. James conquers his son, not by helping him realize a bigger and more selfless vision, but simply by giving him more pleasure. In another era, this would be considered lenient.
None of this suggests that pleasure is incompatible with a moral life. But learning to have fun and to define yourself by self-directed desire alone are worlds apart. Yet “A New Legacy” seems to see them as one and the same: “Be yourself” means every desire is worth embracing as the authentic you.
What’s heartbreaking about the new take of “Space Jam” is how close the film has come to repudiating the self-defeating nature of this narrative. When Dom complains that he just wants to be himself, James retorts, “Do you think I could have ‘done’ myself when I was 12?”
James is right, of course. It is one of the great American success stories. Born to a single teenage mother who struggled to find a job, LeBron James’ hard work not only helped him become one of the best in the profession he chose, but also extended his influence in entertainment, finance and politics.
When James hints that none of his successes would have been possible if he had simply blundered growing up, he’s actually right.
His fictional son, on the other hand, seems totally oblivious to how his famous father paved the way for his success.
As human beings, we need direction and vision. We need coaching. LeBron James had a lot to do with becoming a world class athlete. Yes, personal autonomy is a cherished American ideal, but if we as individuals and as a country are to be successful we need a few more messages about restraint and hard work, and fewer pieces of amorality. and shrugs on the big screen receding back. to tell us what we need to hear.
Christopher D. Cunningham is the editor of Public Square Magazine.