When I look back at the decade, I think of one event that polarized the country across extreme political lines, bringing massive cultural implications and a profound sense of loss for those who ended up on the wrong side: the 2016 all-women reboot of the classic ’80s comedy Ghostbusters. Ostensibly a modern vision of a beloved intellectual property (which is about the movie industry’s only idea these days), the reboot, directed by Paul Feig and starring Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones was instead pilloried by adult virgins who decried the film’s focus on women, opposed to a rough n’ tumble group of male slobs just trying to have a good time without making any statements about feminism, or white supremacy, or abortion, or whatever.
Adding to the monumental nature of this, all the intransigent pushback happened before the movie even came out. Its trailer, released eight months before the Donald Trump was elected, collected 1.5 million downvotes and deeply telling YouTube comments such as “‘Garbage movie that should not exist’ — my wife, mother, sister, and daughter (three of which have not seen the originals)” and “Is this movie all about women and feminism only ?” A clash might have easily emerged — the put-upon progressive cultural property fighting against the regressive whims of a fascist-adjacent fanbase, as happened with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Captain Marvel, and several other movies for children — except for one inconvenient fact: Ghostbusters wasn’t actually very good, adhering to the beats of the original too faithfully while somehow forgetting to include any jokes. By the time it was released, the momentum was gone; it was enough of a financial bomb to scuttle plans for a sequel.
However, the sustained anger proved one thing: There was organic interest in seeing a Ghostbusters reboot done “right.” Earlier in 2019, it was announced that Jason Reitman would be directing and co-writing a new film in the franchise, which would elide the fact that the 2016 movie ever happened. From the beginning, Reitman was clear about his desire to avoid futzing with the formula. ““This is gonna be a love letter to Ghostbusters... I want to make a movie for my fellow Ghostbusters fans,” he said in a February podcast.
On the surface, Reitman might seem like an unconventional choice: He’s an alternately sentimental (Juno) and bracingly cynical (Young Adult, Thank You for Smoking, Tully) filmmaker whose best work skilfully demonstrates how we can never return to our past, and how the optimism of the young quickly curdles into adult bitterness, and thus fuck it. But most importantly, he is the son of original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, and thus the right choice to steward an appropriately nostalgic movie, at least for all the angry adult babies. His movie is set up as a sequel to the 1984 original, with the grandchildren of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis, who died in 2014) picking up his legacy to bust a new outcrop of ghosts. Original cast members, including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Sigourney Weaver will also join, reprising their roles.
The emotional antecedents of the first trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which was released Monday morning, aren’t from the first Ghostbusters, but one of its spiritual sequels: Stranger Things, the Netflix series that packaged cultural yearning for ’80s into original content about what it was like to live in them. This is partly because the new movie repurposes footage, costuming, and set design from the original Ghostbusters; it’s also because floppy-haired Stranger Things actor Finn Wolfhard is one of the new movie’s child leads. But above all, the trailer endeavors to create reverence for a very irreverent film, in which Dan Aykroyd gets his dick sucked by a ghost, among countless other indelible gags. Paul Rudd plays Wolfhard’s teacher, whose role in the trailer is literally to tell us about how cool the Ghostbusters were. The tone might seem necessarily pretentious and blowhardy — that is, unless, you wanted to appease one of the people irate about how unfaithful the 2016 reboot appeared to be.
The new Ghostbusters can’t pay homage to the original in a vacuum; thanks to the blowback against the 2016 reboot, all its creative choices seem like explicit political decisions. Sick of lady Ghostbusters? Well, here’s two white guys in lead roles. Sick of new stuff? Well, here’s a bunch of the old. Declaring that your movie will be a “love letter,” as Reitman did, suggests that the previous movie was made with no heart or respect. Saying that you intend to “hand the movie to the fans,” as Reitman also has, is pandering.
Nonetheless, this is just how a lot of shit works these days. As we’ve seen with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Captain Marvel, and several other movies for the little humans in your life, a greater number of our political battles are fought online by cultural proxy. The clash of forward-thinking representative liberalism against retrograde, revanchist conservatism doesn’t just happen at the polls, but at the box office, the Grammys, Comic Con, and high school newspapers. If this Ghostbusters fails financially, it’s not difficult to imagine the industry tugging the franchise back into the leftist future (perhaps a reboot that’s half men, half women, and subtly pro-ghost), and if that movie fails then we’d go back into the rightward past (all men, all adults, split between Biden and Trump, and explicitly pro-ghost genocide), and back and forth and back and forth until one side finally makes an un-critiqueable amount of money.
It feels metaphorically beneath us — you’re telling me I need to support or boycott fuckin’ Ghostbusters in order to declare myself politically? — and yet unavoidably prevalent in modern culture. Back in 2016, even Trump weighed in on the ideological battle (“They’re making Ghostbusters with only women — what’s going on!?”), during the campaign he’d eventually win. I know where I stand, but I want to be clear: I won’t be seeing the new Ghostbusters because it looks stupid, not politically stupid, just stupid-stupid. It’s a franchise in which Dan Aykroyd got his dick sucked by a poltergeist. It’s not that serious, and it doesn’t need to be.