Back in 1984, when Ghostbusters was first released into theatres, the film’s longevity could not have been predicted. Indeed, some of the film’s reviewers were outright scathing, dismissing it as misjudged parody (according to Variety), a bore (The Washington Post), or a comprehensive waste of Bill Murray’s considerable talents (The New York Times).
Thirty years later, from the moment of its first announcement, the Ghostbusters reboot (due to release on 15 July) has been similarly subjected to criticism, but the tenor, targets, and intensity of that scorn — all for an as-yet unseen project — has revealed both some troubling, and ironically resonant, truths about a vocal segment of the Ghostbusters fan base, and the way in which it may have missed the meaning of the very films it professes to love.
Angry ‘Fans’ are striving to protect a legacy that cannot be harmed, based on material they haven’t seen, from an offense that isn’t happening, and the irony is they are proving exactly why a female Ghostbusters isn’t just necessary — it’s inspired.
Over the past several months — literally beginning the moment the film was announced, running right through casting, preproduction, filming, post production and all the way up to the premiere — the Ghostbusters reboot has been the focus of an unrelenting torrent of hate. The film’s stars have been attacked through social media (Leslie Jones was relentlessly trolled on Twitter; some fans were so psychotically unhinged they even spewed vitriol at the stars for daring to visit a children’s hospital in costume). It’s teaser became the most down-voted trailer in YouTube’s history thanks to an organised online campaign. Every bit of advertising and dribble of information from the set has been met with ridicule and rage from a contingent of ‘fans’ who either believe that the film will ‘ruin’ their childhood, or loudly claim, to anyone they can, incessantly, non-stop, that they don’t care about it. For real, you guys.
This disproportionate backlash rose to farcical levels over the past few weeks when even the original creator of the series, Dan Aykroyd, was attacked for expressing enthusiasm about the project, and critics found a new hero in the form of a man calling himself the Angry Video Game Nerd, who considered it newsworthy to declare to the interwebs that he was going to renounce his (thoroughly made up and non-binding) mandate of ‘pop culture reviewer’ and avoid seeing the film.
In the video, which was met with rousing support from many of his viewers, the Angry Video Game Nerd declared himself offended by the upcoming release. He dismissed it as a travesty (despite having not seen it) and described it as a blight on the otherwise pristine Ghostbusters legacy (presumably he has also not seen Ghostbusters 2).
As with other recent online controversies like GamerGate (a vile, false flag operation claiming to be about ethics in gaming, that was co-opted to terrify women out of the gaming industry with rape threats and slut-shaming), it’s difficult to avoid noting a distinctly misogynistic text (perhaps that should just read: text) at work in the response to director Paul Feig’s all-female reboot. But despite all the evidence that a fear of women drives much of this backlash, commentaries like the one offered by the Angry Video Game Nerd attempt to offer several other reasons for alarm, only to reveal (albeit unintentionally) even more pathetic, counter-intuitive insecurities at work beneath the outrage.
As the Angry Video Game Nerd’s video exhibits, the first, and most frequently cited reason for critics to hate on the film is that, in their opinion, it doesn’t look very amusing. Forget that it has four of the funniest actors on the planet playing the titular roles. Forget that the director Paul Feig’s last project, Spy (which also starred Melissa McCarthy), was easily the funniest film of 2015. That the screenwriter, Katie Dippold, also wrote the hilarious The Heat (2013). Somehow, without having seen a second of the film in context, these people are already convinced that it cannot be funny. In declaring this, the Angry Video Game Nerd behaves less like a critic, and more like a drunk heckler at a stand up routine. He’s not listening to the joke, and has no idea what he’s railing against, but is sure that he’s right and insists on being the loudest voice in the room.
The most evidence such naysayers will offer is the trailer. It was terrible, they will squawk. And yes, the initial trailer was hardly fantastic (the reference to the original four Ghostbusters in a film built on the conceit that they didn’t exist sent some weird mixed messages), but by no rational definition was it the worst of all time, as the dog piling campaign of voting on YouTube would pretend. It tried to strike a playful tone; threw some goofy fluro ghosts in the mix; remixed the original theme in an effort to sound reenergised.
Perhaps it was lacklustre, but pretending that a single commercial is any kind of reliable window into the quality of a film’s final product is wilfully obtuse. Some of the best films of all time have had terrible trailers (check out the ads for the original Star Wars); even the worst films can be made to look majestic (see the trailer for any of Zack Snyder’s cinematic garbage fires).
Given that there is no actual finished film to judge, those eager to be outraged will usually then attempt to argue that the idea of rebooting the story itself is offensive. As the Angry Video Game Nerd awkwardly attempts to claim, by doing a remake the creators of the new film are devaluing, or belittling, the original. Writing it out of existence. But this is patently absurd. Making a new version doesn’t dictate that the previous one has to be destroyed. No one’s DVD collections are going to be rounded up and incinerated. For all of the Angry Video Game Nerd’s handwringing that someone talking about Ghostbusters in the future might have to take a literal half-second to clarify whether they mean the 2016 version or the original of 1984, nothing will have changed. The first film will always stand, untarnished by whatever gets released into cinemas in a few weeks. Indeed, the fact that the new film (much to these critics chagrin) is paying such heavy homage to the original is a testament to that.
It’s hard to take this indignation seriously when you realise that the Angry Video Game Nerd, and those who share his opinion, have never bothered to voice similar moral objections when Robocop was being remade, or Total Recall, or Ocean’s Eleven, or True Grit, Point Break or Godzilla. Everyone seemed fine when Batman Begins retold the Batman’s origin story, and Man of Steel Superman’s. Same when Spiderman was reintroduced to the world twice in the space of four years. Somehow, miraculously, it is only this film that has motivated ‘fans’ to revolt in the name of film posterity.
… Well, this and the time Starbuck was recast as a woman in the Battlestar Galactica television remake. Gee, I wonder why that one stirred similar blowback?
To be fair to him though, throughout the entirety of the Angry Video Game Nerd’s diatribe he is shown proudly sitting beside a display of Star Trek V paraphernalia, so his capacity to judge what constitutes damaging additions to a storied franchises might be, to put it politely, suspect.
What becomes clear is that the outrage being expressed by such ‘fans’ more often hinges upon their own personal head-cannon, which is what they fear is really being maligned. This is most evident in Angry Video Game Nerd’s description of what he believes the film should have been; what he, and fans like him, apparently deserved to see. He speaks of an imaginary Ghostbusters 3: a passing of the torch narrative, in which the original team of Ghostbusters are present to train the new recruits. That, he argues, is what audiences want.
This would be a convincing argument, if only there were any evidence of such a thing being feasible, or having any chance of success. After all, cinematic history has shown that audiences love seeing their heroes aged beyond usefulness, merely a shadow of their former glory, getting sidelined by the origin story of their replacements, right? You can sight J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek all you want, but the reality is more often Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Terminator: Genysis, and the Police Academy series – films embraced neither by critics, nor the fans who supposedly petitioned for them.
The clearest proof of this monkey’s paw wish-curse for sequels is exhibited in another of Dan Aykroyd’s beloved adventure comedy ‘franchises’, Blues Brothers 2000 — a film the Angry Video Game Nerd seem to have conveniently erased from his recollection. Because Blues Brothers 2000 delivered precisely what he claims to want in a fantasised Ghostbusters 3. A return of the original living cast members? Check: that’s Aykroyd hisself back in the suit and glasses, even if they do fit a little more snug now, and his delivery is less wiry and anarchic. Written by the original creator? Check. Aykroyd did the screenplay, and just like his Ghostbusters 2, it merely rehashes the original film’s plot with goofier set-ups and less comedy. A handing off of the franchise to a new generation? Check, check, and checkedy-check. Alongside all the other needless characters it crams in, Blues Brothers 2000 includes a kiddie Brother Blues so that the ‘generational’ thing could be literalised.
Yet even with all of these prerequisites — indeed, specifically because of them — Blues Brothers 2000 was garbage. In delivering precisely what the Angry Video Game Nerd requests of a such a sequel it becomes a redundant act of creative necromancy (literal necromancy by the end — there are actual goddamn zombies in that film, in case you’ve forgotten), one that does nothing but debase the memory of the original.
Even if it this kind of contrived fan fiction were to be indulged, coaxing the original actors into returning for such marginalised roles is a literal impossibility. After all, one of the four Ghostbusters — Harold Ramis, co-creator/writer of the original films and the actor that portrayed Egon Spengler — died in 2014; something difficult to write around in a playful comedy romp. Then there is Bill Murray, who played Peter Venkman. Murray has made it abundantly clear over multiple decades that he is apathetic at best about the Ghostbusters franchise. He might have agreed to sleepwalk his way through the voice acting for the videogame released in 2009, but a year later he described Ghostbusters 3 as his ‘nightmare’ to David Letterman, and has consistently expressed regret about even agreeing to Ghostbusters 2.
In contrast to this kind of hackneyed, unwilling participation, the makers of the reboot have actually managed to entice Murray, alongside Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Sigourney Weaver, to appear in cameos. They even all appeared in person with the new cast on Jimmy Kimmel giving them their unqualified support. But extraordinarily, rather than be heartened by this, and eager to watch the original cast, unshackled from obligation, contributing to the new project with their participation, ‘fans’ like the Angry Video Game Nerd would apparently rather see them dragged, against their will, into a sequel some of them wish didn’t exist.
At this point it becomes clear that such ‘fans’ have little interest in protecting the integrity of the original film, or the reputation of its cast and crew. After all, even the film’s co-creators have become chum for their rhetoric: Dan Aykroyd was chastised and insulted for professing his enthusiasm about the new movie; Harold Ramis’ death was revoltingly belittled by the Angry Video Game Nerd at the most infantile moment of his diatribe when he declared, ‘At least he didn’t have to see this shit.’
Gathered together, there really is no logic to this fabricated list of complaints. ‘Fans’ like the Angry Video Game Nerd are striving to protect a legacy that cannot be harmed, based on material they haven’t seen, from an offense that isn’t happening, supposedly in the name of the original creators who have all given the reboot their blessing. Clearly this is not actually about the film, its creators, or its reputation. What truly bothers them, is not the past, but the future. It is that a piece of pop culture entertainment, based on something they like, might no longer be tailored exclusively to their tastes.
Sadly, it’s representative of a selfish, pitiably entitled sentiment that has calcified in some corners of fan culture over the past few years. A film spoke once to these people on an intimate level, but now they are adamant that such an opportunity to share the work should not be extended to any new viewers — particularly viewers who may not have connected with the original work. Who perhaps didn’t find Dan Aykroyd getting a blow job from a ghost as hilarious as they did.
Nowhere is this better symbolised than in the image of the Angry Video Game Nerd himself, sitting behind a desk festooned with his pop culture paraphernalia as though it is some proof of credibility, huffing about how upset he is that a new film wasn’t made to appeal to his specific taste. The fact he felt insulted by the thought that somebody else might get more pleasure from this film than him — that he was so sure of this indignity that he needed to record a message to the world, announcing his outrage like some YouTube Unabomber — perfectly encapsulates the wilful stagnation of such reactionary fear of inclusivity, of a fan base hobbling its own capacity to express new ideas and new experiences out of spite.
It’s here that one inevitably has to confront the issue of gender. Because beneath all the rhetorical dead-ends in the argument of figures like the Angry Video Game Nerd, what clearly unsettles a large contingent of these ‘fans’ is the sight of women in the Ghostbusters coveralls. (Given the way he frets over the thought of this version becoming known as the ‘female’ Ghostbusters, thus rendering the old one the ‘male’, it clearly bothers him too.)
It’s a prejudice that such ‘fans’ have scrawled over the internet for the past several months: Women can’t be funny. Women can’t do action. Women can’t fight CGI ghosts in a make-believe film. The thought that women might even try to do these things is so abhorrent that the film presumably has to be protected from itself. Rather than celebrate that the film might disprove such nonsense and open the franchise up to potentially more fans — viewers who are still growing up in a world where skewed gender representation mean that all the cool roles are still given to men; where women on screen are presented as damsels to be saved, trophies to be bedded, or nags to be ignored; where Black Widow still hasn’t gotten her own goddamn film — these ‘fans’ would rather turn their beloved film series into an ugly, decaying bulwark of patriarchal domination.
Because ironically, the gender swap is not only legitimate, it’s inspired.
The original conceit of Ghostbusters was based around four underdogs. It’s about disgraced, disparaged academics, the laughingstock of their profession, who decide to defeat the occult and magical with science. On a narrative level they fight against the prejudices of their society; but on the thematic level they are fighting against the conventions of their own genre. They bring science to a magic fight.
This new version appears to be is exactly all of that, except that it also has the added conceit that it is women fighting the good fight. Women, who no one believes should or could be able to do it. The film therefore becomes only more thematically resonant. Not only are they fighting against academic and social bias. Not only are they scientists combating the eternal and mystical. Now they also have to contend with society’s entrenched demeaning of their gender. The Ghostbusters have to fight twice as hard to be considered half as good. As a recipe for heroism, it’s perfect.
The greater irony of the backlash this film has received is that it only confirms the premise of the films all the more; it proves how justified the creators of this new version were in using women to portray these new characters. Moreover, it shows that the only real ghosts that these women need fear are the spectres haunting the memories of the more immature members of this fan base — those so indulged that they have convinced themselves that their opinion, and their wants, are all that matter in the world.
Thirty years ago Ghostbusters arrived in theatres only to be dismissed by some critics as hollow, worthless, half-baked, unfunny schlock. It was a fitting reception for a film fundamentally concerned with a scrappy band of underdogs defying the expectations of entrenched, conventional wisdom. The saddest irony in this newest iteration of the series is that its hostile fans, in ‘protecting’ their familiar male version of the series, fail to recognise the way in which it is they who have become the backward, cynical naysayers cheering on the failure of their protagonists.
If the pattern repeats (and I certainly hope it does), it will be a delight to see this film capture, both in narrative and spirit, for a whole new generation of viewers, the unique charm of its predecessor’s conceit, an not in spite of, but because of those viewers whose prejudice has blinded them to welcoming the new. History proved the critics of the original Ghostbusters wrong over the course of three decades; the promise of 15 July is that it may be able to do the same in a single day.