‘Ghostbusters’, Culture Wars, and the Reboot Cycle
Nostalgia does strange things to the brain, but its status as the defining emotion by which our modern entertainment industry does business is an especially curious phenomenon to behold. We can complain all we want about how Hollywood never seems to make anything original these days but when the billion dollar diamonds of the box office are sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes, and Disney’s near shot-for-shot live-action recreations of their animated classics would give Gus Van Sant’s Psycho a run for its money, it’s tough to deny that we don’t always practice what we preach. If there’s a recognizable brand name or intellectual property that can be rebirthed for a new age and hopefully inspire a multi-film franchise, then you better believe that some studio executive is greenlighting it as we speak. So the news that yes, we’re getting another Ghostbusters movie wasn’t all that surprising. Director Jason Reitman, son of Ivan, was announced as the new man in charge, and this one will be the official third part of the original films. A 2020 release date has been tentatively set, and of course the internet erupted in a fit of rage over the prospect of their beloved original film being sullied by this latest addition, just like they did with the 2016 reboot… Yeah, I can’t even finish that joke with a straight face. Of course they didn’t. This one will probably be about men.
It remains fascinating that people keep trying to make Ghostbusters into its own cinematic universe because its batting average is suspect at best. The 1984 original film was a big hit in its day, becoming the 2nd highest grossing film of that year ahead of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. On top of that, it was ubiquitous in terms of merchandising and marketing. Remember, that song was nominated for an Oscar! For kids growing up in that era, the film and its accompanying animated series were inescapable parts of the pop culture landscape. There’s a reason the Stranger Things kids dress as Ghostbusters for Halloween in season 2. Nostalgia makes it all too easy to attach important parts of ourselves to fleeting fads or ethereal qualities. It’s not hard to see why so many young boys would connect to a story of outcasts who use their smarts to save the day.
The second film, however, was less successful. It made less money - and at a time when the blockbuster stakes were getting higher - and the reviews were decidedly mixed. Siskel and Ebert, like many critics of the time, noted how the sequel merely re-treated the first film, hitting the same story and character beats with little growth or reason to be. Even Bill Murray admitted he was disappointed in how the film became too focused on special effects over character and jokes. Ghostbusters 2 isn’t all that bad - it has a truly scary villain, a glorious display of camp from Peter MacNicol, and those effects are admittedly impressive - but its weird rewrite of the first movie so that it can repeat that film’s narrative regarding cynicism about ghosts drags things down considerably. A third film was discussed but left to languish in ‘what if’? territory for many years, in part due to Murray’s hesitance to sign on for more.
Ghostbusters is a high concept story that, in an abstract sense, should be a slam dunk with every iteration: Snarky geeks fight ghosts and save the world. You can swap in new teams, change the settings, maybe switch up the eras or genre stylings - Ghost fighting in space! Victorian ghost busting! - and explore various ideas of the supernatural. I truly thought we’d get that with the 2016 movie, but, well…
The Paul Feig movie is funnier than it gets credit for. It has all the upsides of that Judd Apatow style improv looseness but without the bagginess his films are typically hesitant to trim down. The cast have great chemistry (and Chris Hemsworth’s breakout performance as the goofball we always knew him to be was a genuine game changer for his career), there’s a nostalgic flair that isn’t wholly reliant on lifting elements from the original film, and there’s a sly message about toxic masculinity being the thing that will probably destroy the world. It never should have cost as much as it did but the central idea works and should have kickstarted a new era for this franchise. But we all know what happened.
Now, Ghostbusters is forever shrouded in reminders that its status as a nostalgic favourite was used as a convenient battering ram to attack women and exacerbate a misogynistic hate agenda rooted in right-wing extremism. Of all the things to set off a war against feminism in pop culture, it was a movie where women make jokes and bust ghosts. The film was accused of ‘ruining childhoods’, of pushing a radical feminist agenda, of erasing men from their own culture, and further notions that never made any sense. But they didn’t need to make sense. This hostility could have been sparked by any film, I’m sure. I don’t think Ghostbusters is all that important in the grand scheme of pop culture history, as funny as it is.
The problem is that now, whatever follows in the aftermath of the 2016 remake and everything that poisoned it will be viewed either as a U-turn on the part of the producers or a win for the hate groups that made this their cause. It didn’t stand a chance: Reddit and 4Chan groups targeted the film with organized downvote campaigns on sites like IMDb and YouTube, think-pieces were spewed out regarding how this was the film that ‘took feminism too far’, and star Leslie Jones was briefly driven off social media by a racist and sexist harassment campaign mounted by a self-serving bigoted narcissist who got famous by jumping on bandwagons dedicated to hate. And it worked for the bullies. Regardless of the context and how Hollywood actually works, the narrative will forever be that the Ghostbusters reboot failed because it starred women. They get to claim victory, even though there were so many other factors at play. Bullies will always find ways to twist a narrative to fit their preconceived notions of self-victimization, but in this instance, the media willingly followed suit, and that’s left a nasty stain on the discourse we’ll never truly get over.
And that makes getting excited for this new movie kind of hard for me. Regardless of Sony’s intent - and I don’t think it’s malicious because this sort of cold hard business decision seldom is - this reads like a reboot that will erase all memory of the 2016 film from the conversation. A movie that meant a lot to many people, that was loved by so many young girls, and one that was resilient enough to withstand such hate, will just be another studio oopsie, further proof that those damn women just don’t sell movies. Sony aren’t exclusively catering to those bullies but it can’t help but feel like that in some way, at least to me. It’s the quiet implication of, ‘Sorry, we screwed up, let’s try again’ that is hard to overcome, with the screwing up part being the mere existence of women. Why were those women excluded from the narrative of nostalgic silliness and joy?
Header Image Source: Columbia Pictures // Sony Pictures
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