References are the pop culture fan’s favorite treat. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing one medium you really enjoy reference another. It humanizes the film and connects the audience to the production staff in a new way. It tells the audience, “We like the same things you do.”
While references and crossovers are nothing new, they are becoming increasingly common and much more mainstream. Two prime examples would be the recently released Space Jam sequel and Ryan Reynolds’ Free Guy.
While Space Jam is, in its nature, a film about crossing over the pop culture worlds of professional basketball and the Looney Tunes, Free Guy and Space Jam both pull nods to other intellectual properties that are about as subtle as the destruction of Alderann, or a man that can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
These films go beyond slyly nodding to popular media and incorporate popular media as part of the story. Space Jam, for example, not only combines Lebron James and the Looney Tunes characters, it makes its production company Warner Bros. (and all of its successive properties) a character.
The film’s entire setting is the “Serververse” or the Warner Bros. servers that house all of the intellectual property the company owns. Warner Bros. isn’t shy about dishing out the fan favorites either, showcasing characters from throughout its roster of films and TV — showcasing the DC Universe, Harry Potter, King Kong and countless other properties.
Half of the audience for the basketball game at the climax of Space Jam is made up of fictional characters from Warner Bros. films. The film revels in its celebration of media. However, this starts to feel almost disturbing when you realize that all of these famous and popular ideas are all owned by one company. A celebration of media and a nod to pop culture begins to feel like a cheap grab at recognizable brands as promotion tool.
Some of these references are unique and inventive, for example, the new Space Jam features scenes where Lebron James and Looney Tunes characters are inserted into scenes from Warner Bros. films like Mad Max Fury Road.
Editing existing footage, replicating props and scenes are genuinely interesting ways to combine two pieces of media. It also takes significant effort to do this. However, for every interesting scene like that, there are 50 extras standing in the background of the basketball game dressed like a copyrighted character.
Cameos like this are cheap and easy to do. While there were some interesting deep-cut characters like Pennywise from the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation of Steven King’s IT as well as the 1 960s Batman, overall this inclusion feels like a cheap way to draw an audience in to see which of their movie favorites they can spot.
While Free Guy is not as audacious as Space Jam in its use of other intellectual property, it still does a good job of reminding you that its production company, 20th Century Studios, belongs to Disney.
Overall, Free Guy (which is about a non-player-character from a video game gaining sentience) lovingly alludes to videogame tropes without smattering videogame properties all over the place. However, it doesn’t completely ignore this either. Several videogame -centric Youtubers and Twitch Streamers show up as part of the story.
On top of this, towards the film’s finale, Free Guy uses both music and props from Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars properties. This is swiftly followed up with props from Epic Games’ “Fortnite” and Valve’s “ Half Life2.” Free Guy somewhat redeems this moment in its willingness to pay a high -profile MCU actor to make a cameo as part of the gag.
However, when four different brands show their face in under a minute, it’s hard to avoid the chagrin you feel when corporations shamelessly rub their advertising in your face. It’s the same feeling one gets when seeing a painfully obvious Bud Light bottle take up a shot in your movie about giant robots beating each other to hell.
Free Guy is an interesting movie when looking at the crossovers between different media — primarily because Free Guy takes place in a video game, a medium which has had these same types of crossovers for decades.
Videogames haven’t traditionally crossed over with major mainstream film properties (aside from the movie tie-in game, which tends to be more a promotional tool for the film than a truly independent game).
Games, however, have been crossing over with themselves for a long time. The most notable example of this is the Super Smash Bros. franchise. This casual fighting game created by Nintendo pits some of its most popular characters against each other in battles from famous game locations.
The first two games in the series featured only Nintendo properties; however, beginning in 2008, “Super Smash Bros Brawl” characters from different companies began to show up: most notably Sega’s rival to Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog.
Guest fighters have now become a major part of the series with fans choosing their dream guest characters and theorizing which characters Nintendo will bring into the game as downloadable content.
Nintendo isn’t the only studio that has been doing this. Capcom (another Japanese game developer) has had its own long-running Marvel Vs. Capcom series, where characters from their game franchises go head to head with Marvel heroes and villains.
Similarly, Nether Realm’s “Mortal Kombat” game series has had crossovers with DC heroes and villains, although this is less impressive considering Warner Bros. owns the development studio, as well as the rights to all DC characters.
However, it is fair to note recent “Mortal Kombat” games have featured famous film characters like the Xenomorph from Alien, the Terminator and John Rambo. All of these are owned by separate companies.
Videogames have been doing this a long time. The extensive cross -collaboration between popular films and other properties is a somewhat recent development.
Normally when a character like the Xenomorph is added to a game, it’s to serve the fans and incline more people to buy the game or the downloadable content. What we haven’t seen as much is studios trying to promote their products through games..
The first recent example I can recall of the collaboration across companies and mediums is the use of “Fortnite” in Avengers Endgame. “Fortnite” was featured in a scene in Endgame and, around the same time, there was an Avengers-themed event in “Fortnite.”
Epic Games now has a long-running relationship with both Marvel and DC in adding skins that let players play as their favorite heroes, with both Marvel and DC having a line of comics tied into a “Fortnite” season.
It’s a truly astonishing feat to get rival companies to agree to have their properties viewed next to each other, but “Fortnite” is the game that did it. The list goes on and on but aside from just superheroes, “Fortnite” has official skins from the John Wick films, Alien, Ghostbusters and G.I Joe.
That’s ignoring the several TV shows and musicians they’ve collaborated with, like Rick and Morty, The Walking Dead, Travis Scott and — most recently — Arianna Grande. Social media has allowed companies to quantify interest. Companies now know what people like instead of having to guess.
This kind of fan service in games isn’t detrimental to the medium; TV and film may suffer greatly from forced brand integration. Videogames are a very different art form than more traditional media. Videogames have content that is outside the primary body of the game. Adding a popular character isn’t a problem in many games because it doesn’t impact the story.
Special characters or items are often separate from the story and function as additions for people who want to enjoy the game beyond just completing the story.
In the case of a game like “Mortal Kombat,” the primary purpose of the game is simply fighting with others. While these games may have story modes, they often take a backseat to the multiplayer where the reason why the Joker is fighting the Terminator is less important than seeing them shatter each other’s bones.
In film, however, there is only a finite amount of content. You can’t just watch something unrelated to the story. The film is the story. Bonus content and features are sometimes packaged with films, but this optional content is not as big of a component to the film as open-world exploration, multiplayer, or arcade modes are to videogames. Anything over the top than a sly reference will feel like advertising, as opposed to the slight nods to the audience they’re supposed to be.
These cameos and cross -promotions serve as more than just advertising and cheap laughs; they are also a grim reminder of how few companies own so many of America’s most iconic characters and brands.
Garrett Hartman is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. He is a California State University, Chico student double-majoring in media arts design technology and Journalism/PR. A lover of pop culture, Garret enjoys a wide array of film, television, video games, and literature. However, as a drummer in a rock band and an alt-rock enthusiast, music holds a special place in his heart.