The ‘Ghostbusters’ Mess: How Did It Come To This?

I’m worried about Ghostbusters. Not the 1984 movie. It’s a classic and it’s not going anywhere. And not the 2016 Ghostbusters, either. It will be great. Or it will be terrible. Or it will be somewhere in between. What worries me is whether or not we’ll even be able to see it for what it is — great, terrible, or whatever — when it comes out in July, given the atmosphere in which it will be released. Has any movie in recent memory arrived to such hostility before anyone has seen it? Can we take a step back to ask why?

The preemptive backlash to the 2016 Ghostbusters has been building pretty much from the moment it was announced and hasn’t changed all that much since. On August 2, 2014, The Hollywood Reporter published an item with the headline “‘Ghostbusters 3′ Targets Paul Feig As Director.” An update filled out the details thusly: “Sources say the film will be a reboot focusing on female Ghostbusters.” And we were off. Here are some select comments posted below the article:

“So basically I can ignore this? Because no Ray Stantz, Peter Venkman, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddemore means no Ghostbusters”

“Also, making the leads women instead of our classic heros? [sic.] That’s an insult to this franchise.”

“Why stop at an all-female cast? Toss in a talking dog and maybe a gregarious orangutan. Oh, and make sure to have a cameo by the Spice Girls, screaming ‘GIRL POWER!'”

Depressingly, nearly two years later, the discourse hasn’t changed even if the details have. Since the release of the film’s first trailer, the focus has shifted to some hard “evidence” that the movie will be terrible. It became the most-disliked trailer in YouTube history, and a magnet for more negative comments. Most of them vary on the themes laid out above, differing only in intensity and obscenity.

The trend reached new heights a few days ago with the much-passed-around Cinemassacre clip “Ghostbusters 2016. No Review. I Refuse,” in which host James Rolfe (a.k.a. Angry Video Game Nerd) took what he seemed to believe was some kind of principled stand against the film by refusing to see or review it, a declaration delivered with the squinty, clenched-jaw righteousness of a protester standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square while offering a series of increasingly fragile justifications: that it shouldn’t be called Ghostbusters because this might confuse children; that it wasn’t the movie he wanted, a direct sequel in which the original cast handed off the Ghostbusting business to a new generation; etc.

With the clip, Rolfe became the public face of Ghostbusters resistance. He has plenty of unsavory allies. It’s quite possible that Rolfe’s objections have nothing to do with Ghostbusters being remade with female leads, but there’s no denying the unvarnished misogyny of others, or the way objecting to the film opens the door for, in Devin Faraci’s phrasing, a lot of “soft sexism.”

“What about THIS movie is different from, say, the movie that featured the third reboot of Batman (depending on when you start counting) against the third reboot of Superman (same),” Faraci asks. “Or the movie featuring the third reboot of Spider-Man? How about the movie last year that soft rebooted Mad Max? Why not boycott these movies? Why wasn’t there a wave of angry, militant men on message boards, Twitter and making YouTube videos in their basements about how they were boycotting the remake of Total Recall?”

There’s a lot of unabashed sexism directed at the film, but also a fair amount of barely coded sexism. A while back, a Trump spokesperson said they would “chase the raccoons out of the basement,” barely cloaking what he was really talking about. It’s a bit like that, only with the honor of the jumpsuits and proton packs in a big-budget comedy at stake instead of the fate of the entire country

Maybe it is that first trailer. (Which, to be honest, didn’t do a lot for me. The second trailer looks a lot more promising.) But haven’t we learned by now that trailers really reveal nothing. Everybody Wants Some!!! has a trailer so unpromising looking that it prompted The Awl to ask if it contributed to its lackluster performance at the box office. It’s also one of the year’s best movies. I hated the 2005 version of Fantastic Four. In spite of the fact that its sequel featured the same cast and creative team, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer had a trailer promising enough to make me think, “Hey, that might be good!” (It wasn’t.) You know what trailer brought a lump to our collective throats in 1998? Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. We all know how that worked out.

Consider this: Ghostbusters comes from Paul Feig, a director with a great track record who co-wrote the film with Katie Dippold, with whom he also worked on (the very good) The Heat. It stars four extremely funny people — Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones. None of that guarantees it will be good. Effects-heavy action comedies are tough to pull off and the list of the ones that work is pretty short: Ghostbusters, the first Men in Black, Galaxy Quest, Big Trouble in Little China, Mars Attacksare there others? And as a remake of a beloved film, it also has to contend with the past, never an easy matter. But surely there are enough reasons here to be optimistic that the 2016 Ghostbusters will be worth seeing.

Yet there’s so much more up against this movie. Remakes already have a high bar to clear. A remake of a movie like Ghostbusters has a higher than usual bar. But all this extraneous sexist nonsense means it has to be undeniably as funny as one of the most beloved comedies ever made. Or else. And the “or else” here is serious business. Specifically, it means it will be even harder for women to anchor tentpole movies or head comedies (never mind that McCarthy has proven she can open a movie over and over). It’s already an environment in which CBS reportedly declined to pick up a Nancy Drew series because it “skewed too female.” Where the concerns of a toy company changed the sex of a Marvel villain. And on and on. It’s an impossible situation.
Again: How did it come to this? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe we should consider this: The roll-out for the Ghostbusters remake didn’t create all this sexist animosity so much as it has exposed what was already there. Maybe it was already like this all along and the toxic reaction to Ghostbusters is just a symptom of a larger problem. To some extent, all this internet bluster may be just that: a lot of noise without much in the way of real-world consequences. But even if the ugly response represents just a fraction of the film’s potential audience, and that most moviegoers are willing to give Ghostbusters a fair shake — and the eternal optimist in me believes this to be the case — it’ll still have been an ugly journey to get to that point. Along the way, some have even mistaken the idiotic declaration of “I’m not even going to watch it” as a valid stance.

We can do better. Because if all it takes is a new version of a movie about funny scientists fighting ghosts to divide us and to draw out all the ugliness and bad feelings waiting beneath the surface like some kind of, I don’t know, sewer-dwelling pink slime powered by bad feelings, that’s scarier than any supernatural threat I can imagine.