Ben Affleck’s Air Leads Right into Bizarre Origins of Space Jam Movie

Ben Affleck’s Air is a unique feel-good movie about Michael Jordan and the birth of a sneaker. But the legacy of Air Jordans don't stop there... Just ask Bugs Bunny.

Ben Affleck in Air
Photo: Amazon Studios

A little over a year after Ben Affleck mused he would never make a theatrically released movie again, and insisting he wanted to focus on non-franchise films for adult audiences, the filmmaker nonetheless enjoyed one of the happiest box office stories of 2023. To be sure, this past holiday weekend was dominated by yet another “IP movie,” as Affleck is wont to say, The Super Mario Bros. Movie. However, in the shadow of that film’s gargantuan $205.5 million across five days, Affleck’s own adult-skewing drama, Air, also dominated the court in its own league, grossing $20.2 million over five days.

Not bad for a movie that’s produced by one of the biggest streamers around, Amazon Studios, and which true to Affleck’s word wasn’t even originally intended to reach the big screen. In fact, Air didn’t pivot to a theatrical release until post-production when Amazon realized how well the pic played in front of audiences, particularly those with rosy memories of Michael Jordan flying high on the court and on Nike commercials.

Which is indeed the brilliance of Affleck’s Air, a film he directed and co-starred in but that is written by newcomer Alex Convery. Convery penned the script on spec after watching the Michael Jordan docuseries, The Last Dance, during the pandemic. Inspired by the bizarre and unlikely story of how Jordan’s iconic sneaker line at Nike came into existence, Convery’s script follows down-on-his-luck shoe salesman Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who works at a Nike that barely has a basketball shoe division. So Sonny bets everything on building a shoe line around a rookie who was entering the NBA before finishing even his senior year at UNC.

The movie is thus awash in nostalgia for ‘80s culture and the brands that defined it, from Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” ads to Ronald Reagan’s claims of it being “Morning in America.” And through it all, the true people beneath the brands are intentionally kept aloof and at arm’s length, with Jordan himself being treated like the messiah in an actual Easter movie. For like Ben-Hur (1959), you never really see him. Instead Jordan’s presence is felt through the negotiations of his mother Deloris (Viola Davis). In this way, Affleck is able to explore how branding and IP were used to create something that has eternal sentimental value for generations of children who grew up wanting to “be like Mike” while also showing how the sausage got made. In Air the business of selling sneakers and the business of selling movie tickets are interchangeable, each waiting to be elevated by a once-in-a-lifetime talent like MJ.

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The film is also striking because as any ‘90s kid will tell you, it’s practically begging for a sequel that would touch on how one of the first truly modern corporate synergy masterstrokes came into being: Air, by accident or design, perfectly sets up a movie about the making of Space Jam (1996).

Picture this: One of the antagonists working against Damon’s Vaccaro is suddenly a hero as Michael Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) is pitching Warner Bros. executives about doing a movie where Michael Jordan teams up with Bugs Bunny for a 90-minute live-action/animation hybrid, a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)… and the first round of WB execs don’t get it. Affleck’s longtime collaborator Messina (who also starred in Argo and Live by Night) could make a meal out of the sequence, in which the guy who tried to turn Nike down is now the one who’s attempting to wed Nike’s Air Jordan ads with Hollywood IP that could play in a theater.

That’s more or less how it went down, too, with Space Jam coming into existence largely because of Nike and Jordan’s early ‘90s Air Jordan commercials. In truth, it began even before that when Jordan partnered with Spike Lee in 1989 for a series of Nike commercials. The same year that Lee would release his masterpiece Do the Right Thing, he reprised his character of Mars Blackmon from She’s Gotta Have It (1986), appearing as the fast-talking wiseacre Mars opposite Jordan’s stoic on-the-court king. That ad campaign, in turn, inspired Wieden+Kennedy ad executive Jim Riswold to pitch one of the most popular Super Bowl commercials of all-time: 1992’s “Hare Jordan,” which you can watch below.

The ad is essentially an old Bugs Bunny routine where the beloved, anarchic cartoon character turns the table on some bullies with a ridiculous ace up his sleeve—in this case pulling Michael Jordan out of thin air to be his teammate when some jerks challenge him to a game of basketball at a local gym. It’s silly, high-concept, and goofy enough to help shape what modern Super Bowl ads became in the ‘90s. It would even spawn a sequel at the following year’s Super Bowl, “Aerospace Jordan.”

It also was the impetus for Jordan’s agent, Falk, to finally see the potential in doing a movie with Michael Jordan. Up to that point, Falk had turned down multiple film offers and tried to constantly dissuade Jordan from acting. 

“I always used to tell him when we’d turn the deals down, ‘You can’t act. There is only one role for you,’” Falk told The Washington Post in 2016, ahead of Space Jam’s 20th anniversary. That changed after “Hare Jordan” though. A movie where Jordan plays himself and lets Bugs Bunny do all the talking? What’s not to love?

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Apparently quite a bit. According to Falk, WB initially balked at the idea in the early ‘90s, as the studio remained reticent about how to best use their Looney Tunes IP in a new decade. While Bugs and most of the rest of the Looney Tunes gang made cameos in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, there hadn’t been new Looney Tunes shorts since 1969. The characters were still appearing on reruns of The Bugs Bunny Show and the like, as well as in WB’s update Tiny Toons Adventures, but the original anarchic Bugs, Daffy, and co. were largely kept in the background of new material.

“Hare Jordan” mastermind Risewold even recalled to The Post that there was some debate around that first Nike ad because “I wanted to use the Bugs Bunny from the ‘40s, which is not very P.C… There’s certain things they didn’t think Bugs should do anymore.” And after Jordan retired to pursue a baseball career following three NBA championship wins—and losing his father—it seemed like the end for a Jordan-Bugs Bunny movie.

Of course, like any good movie plot, a stroke of fate intervened. After Jordan’s (debatably average) baseball career was eventually put on pause due to the MLB strike of the 1994 and ’95 season, Jordan’s desire to return to the Chicago Bulls and build an ultimate dynasty overcame his reluctance to play again without his father watching. He didn’t even wait for the ‘94/’95 NBA season to end before rejoining the Bulls in March. He likewise refused to equivocate while the ink to the deal Falk got for him with WB was still drying. Instead he’d return to the NBA and film Space Jam at the same time.

If the concept of Air is born out of Convery watching The Last Dance, any other viewer of the series can recall the remarkable turn of events that accompanied Jordan’s comeback. In 1995, Jordan rejoined the Bulls just in time to help them dominate the Charlotte Hornets in the First Round of the NBA finals… only to then lose in the Conference Semifinals to the Orlando Magic. The man in the Air Jordans was furious. Still, less than two months later, he was spending his days surrounded by actors in greenscreen bodysuits who stood in for Looney Tunes characters—a nightmarish harbinger of the CGI sea change that was beginning—and his nights and down-time between takes training for his comeback at a tented and air conditioned basketball court that WB built in the adjacent lot. NBA friends and rivals would fly out to L.A. just to play some pick-up games with the star every evening after he spent all day “acting” in Space Jam.

This also could make for an interesting evolution of the concepts of Air. Just as Davis’ portrayal of Deloris Jordan gave the movie its soul, with a woman knowing exactly how much her son’s talent is worth and insisting that Nike change how the celebrity endorsement business works, a film about how Jordan used his Hollywood payday to fund his summer of training before heading back to the NBA for three more consecutive NBA championships would give all the naked capitalistic ambition some heart.

It would also mean facing the impossible task Affleck avoided in Air—casting someone to play Michael Jordan. Admittedly, this might raise the question of why not just make a true Jordan biopic instead? That is probably the wiser move.

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Still, there remains an irresistible overlap between branding and creation, art and commerce, running through Air. And Space Jam is the exact kind of IP project that Affleck has become outspoken about avoiding going forward, a film dreamed up by a sports agent after working with Nike executives to sell sneakers by way of nostalgia for 50-year-old cartoons. They even got the “Hare Jordan” director Joe Pytka to helm Space Jam! (Also of interest is that Spike Lee offered to do a pass on the screenplay and Warners turned him down, apparently still furious at how he funded his second masterpiece at the studio, 1992’s Malcolm X.)

We admit it’s a strange idea for a film, but arguably so was the one about how a group of salesmen convinced the greatest basketball player of all-time to wear a pair of their sneakers. Yet it’s lifted everyone up.