To our 2021 eyes, the original Space Jam was pretty modest in its ambitions: Reinvent the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies characters by teaming them up with fictionalized versions of real NBA stars like Michael Jordan. That, of course, was before Warner Brothers owned about 33% of everything ever conceived of by humans. Now, worlds that lawyers would never have allowed to collide interact freely…or at least with minimal licensing fees. The new movie adds in references to Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.
It might be among the more spectacular multiversal mash-ups, but it’s hardly the first. Filmmakers have enjoyed throwing together disparate properties since the very beginning — though largely lost, a 1910 serial set Maurice Leblanc’s popular thief Lupin against Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. And copyright hasn’t always been a barrier: Sometimes, as in Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, a take on Dracula, you just change the name and hope no one sues (the Bram Stoker estate absolutely sued).
These are instances when separate universes come together — characters and concepts that weren’t meant to collide dovetailing into one world, at least for the length of a movie. Some are modest in their ambitions, others are absolute IP orgies.
Space Jam (1996)
The big crossover here is between the classic Looney Tunes characters and…the NBA. Pro-basketball was at the forefront of the zeitgeist in the early/mid-1990s, in large part because some of the hottest names in the history of the sport were all playing around the same time: Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird — and none hotter than Michael Jordan.
You didn’t even need to be into basketball to be well aware of their cultural relevance and larger-than-life presences, as proven by Space Jam’s plot, which stars a real-life Jordan playing a fictionalized version of himself, explaining what he was doing in between his first retirement in 1993 and his comeback two years later. It doesn’t draw upon the entire cross-franchise Warner Brothers catalogue as the sequel does, but there’s plenty going on, regardless. How much does the real Jordan have in common with the character Jordan? Only he knows for sure.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
This was the first (and best) of what Universal called its “monster rallies,” films that brought together its horror properties into a (fairly) cohesive shared universe. It’s also kicked off the first true cinematic universe, with individual, originally unconnected movies getting ret-conned into a shared world.
Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man (a creation of screenwriter Curt Siodmak) had been introduced a couple of years earlier in a solo origin story, while the more prestigious Frankenstein series (based, of course, on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel) had largely run its course in the 30s. Here, Chaney’s Talbot is resurrected and goes hunting for the notes of the late Dr. Frankenstein, hoping that they might (somehow or other) help him discover a cure for his excessive hirsuteness and inclination to midnight murder. Instead, he finds the monster (!) right where we left him in The Ghost of Frankenstein — but now played by Dracula’s Bela Lugosi. In that previous Frankenstein movie, the monster had been played by none other than Lon Chaney Jr., so the monster roles were largely interchangeable by this point. Nevertheless, this crossover gave the series a much-needed kick in the pants, even if its glory days were well behind it.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Not just Frankenstein, though (and, for the scolds out there: It’s technically the monster we’re talking about): Dracula (Bela Lugosi), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.), and the Invisible Man (Vincent Price) all take their turns freaking out a couple of baggage clerks who come upon some very strange cargo (it’s monsters). The movie nails its tone perfectly, letting the monsters be scary while the reactions from Bud and Lou provide the comedy. In bringing back Lugosi, the original Universal monster, for one last spin in the cape, it provides a bit of a grace note to the entire series. They did a few sequels in a similar vein, but none worked nearly as well as this.
The Monster Squad (1987)
Back in the 30s, the copyright status of Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a little iffy, but by 1987, most of the classic Universal monsters were planted firmly in the public domain. So we’re treated to this Goonies-esque mash-up in which a club of young horror movie fanatics discovers the journal of the real Abraham Van Helsing, and with it, learn how to defeat Dracula. To counter the threat, the vampire gathers his own pastiche squad, consisting of the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Wolf Man, and, of course, the Gill-man. It’s a lot of fun, and the movie has a well-deserved cult following.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit might not even come to mind when you think of movies with big IP crossovers, only because it does what it does so damn well. Not only a still-impressive technical achievement, Roger Rabbit does a great job of channeling noir tropes into something both fun and inventive. And, unlike several of the movies on this list, the cameos and callbacks were never the point, but instead blend almost seamlessly into the movie’s world of Hollywood animation come to life.
Those cameos were a big deal, though, with producer Spielberg using all his pull to get the necessary clearances (he’d pull a similar trick a couple of decades later with Ready Player One). Here were characters owned by Disney, Warner Bros., King Features, Felix the Cat Productions, Turner, Fleischer, and Universal all hanging out together — from a legal perspective, putting Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse onscreen together is every bit as impressive as the movie’s groundbreaking special effects.
She’s Having a Baby (1988)
You’re going to have to stick around for the credits for this one — it ain’t exactly Avengers: Endgame. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the movie follows Elizabeth McGovern and Kevin Bacon from the day of their wedding to their pregnancy, but things only get multiversal when the film concludes. The end credits sequence sees a variety of characters from unrelated properties popping up to offer baby name suggestions: John Candy and Dan Aykroyd appear as their Great Outdoors characters Chet and Roman; Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Kirstie Alley, and John Ratzenberger all represent Cheers; Bill Murray’s there as Frank from Scrooged; and Matthew Broderick pops in with a suggestion as a post-shower Ferris Bueller.
It’s hard to figure out how Star Trek: TNG’s Wesley Crusher fits in, and there are several cameos from other celebrities playing themselves, but it otherwise suggests a broadly interconnected universe of 1980s movies and TV shows. Which, of course, little Tommy Westphall already showed us (go ahead and look it up).
Dollman vs. Demonic Toys (1993)
Full Moon Features was a pioneer in the direct-to-video scene, churning out B-movie-style horror films that you could grab down at the local video store (kinda like a Redbox with Raisinets and a porno section). The company is still around — and is prepped to release a 15th Puppet Master movie — but this first multiversal crossover popped up during the glory days.
Dollman is a 13-inch space cop transported to the Bronx. The Demonic Toys are…toys that are also demonic. They fight. You’ve stepped into the wrong Blockbuster if you’re looking for much more than that, but the low-rent charm is part of the point. The company began doing this sort of thing cross-catalogue, in what became (probably) the first and largest modern film universe — I’m sure there’s a film-school thesis to be written on the ways in which Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong ties into Curse of the Puppet Master.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
The graphic novel series from Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill is a high-concept romp through Victorian-era literature. The film, on the other hand, is a fairly generic action movie with some modestly clever steampunk trappings. Still, it’s really the only movie in which you’ll find H. Rider Haggard’s adventurer Allan Quatermain, Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, Bram Stoker’s Mina Harker, and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey (among others) sharing the screen together, and that novelty alone lends it a bit of cred. They’re all public domain at this point, but it’s still a unique gathering of 19th century IP.
Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
The slasher crossover was teased back in 1993. The awkward (and deceptively) titled Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday was not only the ninth film in the classic Friday the 13th series, it was also the first to be distributed by New Line, longtime home of the other great slasher franchise of the era, Nightmare on Elm Street. A tag at the end of the movie saw Freddy Krueger’s unmistakeable glove reach up through the dirt to drag Jason Vorhees’ mask down…to hell, presumably. Turns out it was development hell, and it took over a decade and an endless number of script drafts before a finished product made it to the screen. The finished result is…fine. Better than it has any right to be, really, when considering how far past their primes each franchise is. There was talk, inspired by a Necronomicon cameo in Jason Goes to Hell, of a sequel that would have invited Evil Dead’s Ash Williams to come and hang, but that only ever came to life as an apocalyptic comic book miniseries (worth tracking down for those of us who’ve seen way too many of these things).
Aliens vs. Predator (2004)
Though they’re both 20th Century Fox properties, they were never really intended to go together. And probably never should have. Based (sort of) on a (pretty great) comic book series from 1989, the story takes the Aliens out of their dystopian future and drags them down to Earth where they fight some Predators inside a pyramid. It was pretty cool when an alien skull popped up in Predator 2, but the tease was better than the full monty. AvP is a perfectly fine, occasionally engaging monster slugfest, but it doesn’t really do either of its franchises justice.
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
Godzilla’s 50th anniversary film earns a spot here only because of a legendary bit of shade. The Japanese Godzilla movies have generally taken a relaxed approach to continuity, picking up threads from earlier films when desired, and rebooting without a lot of fanfare. The 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla film was different, though. Licensed to North American distributors, this movie was intended to be its own thing, and (optimistically) the beginning of its own series. It pretty well flopped, not interesting American audiences in monster movies nor impressing Japanese fans. So this slugfest includes a very pointed nod to “Zilla,” as, in the middle of a round-robin monster fight, Godzilla meets his digital American counterpart…and beats him in about two seconds, smashing that American licence along with him. At least for a time.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Our modern media hellscape, in which a small handful of mega-super-omni-corps own all of the intellectual property ever conceived by man…has helped to generate some pretty fun movies! Yay? In the case of Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, arcade villain Ralph hopes to become a hero, travelling across multiple games to do it. There was a time when this sort of thing would involve pastiche characters that were sorta similar to video game stars that you might recognise (see: The Monster Squad, which did that kinda thing with Universal Monsters). Not here, though: The game characters Ralph visits are familiar and specific, representing over a dozen different licensors and manufacturers: Bowser, Sonic the Hedgehog, Ken and Ryu, Pac-Man, Lara Croft, Frogger, Q*bert…the list goes on and on. The sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, does something similar by adding in Disney characters and internet memes.
The LEGO Movie (2014)
See the Wreck-It Ralph entry for commentary on the very mixed blessing of single companies owning everything…but aargh this movie’s just so damn cute. Even before this, LEGO was a cross-media franchise with TV and direct-to-video specials starring Star Wars and DC characters (among others), but here they made a big investment and it paid off at the box office, and in awards. Here we get (among others): Batman (prior to his own LEGO movie), C-3PO, and Shaquille O’Neal…Space Jam having proven that NBA stars are extremely bankable when playing characters based on themselves.
Sadako vs. Kayako (2016)
If you’re only familiar with the American films based on these characters, the tallies might surprise you: the Ju-On (aka The Grudge) series, created by filmmaker Takashi Shimizu and starring vengeful ghost Kayako, has produced 12 movies (not counting this crossover), as well as books, comics, a TV series, and a video game. The Ring series, which began life as a series of novels by Koji Suzuki, also has 12 movies and counting to its name (alongside similar ancillary products). They were bound to team up, with results as creepy as they are goofy. Still, it’s pretty much required viewing for J-horror fans.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
We’re looking at universes that weren’t originally intended to join up, so why throw in a Marvel movie full of Marvel characters? Only because the legalities here are so unexpectedly wonky. In the late 90s, a cash-strapped Marvel sold the film rights to Spider-Man to Sony for pretty much nothing. Unlike other properties that had either never been sold or had reverted to Marvel in time for the creation of box-office behemoth Marvel Studios, Sony held on to the Spider-rights following the very successful Tobey Maguire/Kirsten Dunst trilogy. And still has them, though a couple of Spider-flops convinced them to licence the character to Marvel Studios in time for this 2016 hero-on-hero fight flick…which is the current arrangement. Essentially, Marvel has Peter Parker on loan while Sony makes it’s own Spider-adjacent films like Into the Spider-Verse and Venom.
Ready Player One (2018)
Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel is set in a dystopian 2045 and follows Wade Wyatt, whose obsession with a global virtual reality game is primed to pay off when he learns of an Easter egg that will grant its finder the keys to the entire kingdom. Finding the necessary clues requires a deep knowledge of games and movies, and Wade is well-prepared. It’s sort of a wish-fulfillment scenario in which all that otherwise useless knowledge will finally pay off. Likewise, Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation includes dozens, if not hundreds, of pop culture callbacks: references to Back to the Future, The Iron Giant, Gundam, The Shining, Jurassic Park, Batman, etc. So many, in fact, that the movie could likely never have gotten made without Spielberg-level pull in getting all of the rights’ clearances. In the world of the OASIS, four-quadrant multi-billion-dollar global franchises are, apparently, niche concerns, and only the nerdiest of nerds would ever be able to identify.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
In much the same vein as Wreck-It Ralph, the sequel has plenty of video game references while adding in Disney characters and internet memes. It’s a movie that puts Grumpy Cat on the same screen as Cinderella, which is as horrifying as it is cute.
Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)
This is actually the second time that The Eighth Wonder of the World and The King of the Monsters have thrown down, having slugged it out in Godzilla’s third film appearance way back in 1962 — that one was big in Japan, but made under slightly dubious circumstances, at least as regards the Kong IP (original Kong animator Willis O’Brien thought he was making a Kong vs. Frankenstein movie, but the producer handed the outline to Godzilla’s home studio, Toho, behind his back). No such concerns with this latest version. King Kong is, historically, a more heroic (if not tragic) rampaging monster while Godzilla’s alignment is a little more fluid, and that all holds true here, with Kong being recruited to take down Godzilla as part of a centuries old war of Titans…until a common enemy makes its mecha-presence known.