The 2016 Ghostbusters reboot has been one of the most controversial movies of all time - even before anybody saw it! Today, I had the chance to see the film, and - as a fan of the originals, who rewatched those classics just yesterday - I have news for you: I loved it. All of this leaves me asking one single awkward question: why has the film been so very, very controversial?
1. IT ISN'T THE FILM FANS WERE EXPECTING
James Rolfe made Internet history when he posted the above YouTube video. It's not unusual for people to post video reviews of movies, but Rolfe went one step further. He produced a video no-review, in which he explained - at length - why he refused point-blank to review the Ghostbusters reboot. Incredibly, the YouTube video runs to a whopping six-and-a-half minutes, but it can all be summed up in six words: This wasn't the film I expected.
The idea of a third Ghostbusters movie is nothing new, you see. In the 1990s, Dan Aykroyd scripted a third film, in which the team of four had become a massive organization. The central roles belonged to three of the original cast, who would train a new generation of Ghostbusters to take up the mantle. The idea rumbled in the background for decades, almost getting to the point of being made, but the main problem seems to have been the fact that Bill Murray just wasn't interested in doing a sequel. In 2014, Harold Ramis - who played Egon Spengler in the original movies - sadly passed away, further complicating matters for this third Ghostbusters film.
This is the film that Ghostbusters fans were expecting. When Paul Feig's all-female Ghostbusters was announced, many fans were furious and began lashing out in anger. That anger's only built over time, and the positive reviews have simply infuriated these fans. One Redittor fumed:
"Ok, so obviously the reviews aren't as bad as we had hoped. So what more can we do at this point to make sure that the public knows it's terrible so that it bombs?
We were doing a pretty good job of filtering out positive reviews, but they consolidated them into a mega thread and now people are starting to say maybe we were wrong. Is there any way to easily get the word out on social media that the positive reviews are probably all paid for?"
The sad truth is that sometimes fandom goes wrong, and becomes something quite toxic. In these situations, fandom seems to have a sense of entitlement, as though the fandom itself owns the concept or character. This is the kind of fandom that's been described as broken. Ghostbusters has become one of the worst cases because fans essentially kept the brand alive during the long decades where Sony paid it no attention. Now they feel they're owed something.
The Redittor campaigning against Ghostbusters is wrong. I can say with absolute confidence that the positive reviews won't be paid for because I've seen the film and I enjoyed it. As a fan of the original Ghostbusters, I consider it a worthy successor. In the interests of fair disclosure, no, Sony is not paying me to say that!
2. THE FILM STARS FOUR WOMEN
One aspect of Ghostbusters generates more discussion than anything else: the film stars four women. Now, it's important to qualify that this criticism isn't necessarily misogynistic. Paul Rudoff, who runs a Ghostbusters fan-site, told the BBC that he sees the all-female leads as nothing more than a gimmick. He argues that:
"If a Ghostbusters group were to, realistically, form today, it would likely be of mixed-gender."
I have a degree of sympathy with this argument, although I can't help noting that none of the complainants tend to make an issue when all the heroes are men (as in, for example, the original Ghostbusters). Sadly, though, not all of the critical fans have been as fair-minded as Paul Rudoff. The Mary Sue collected some of the most graphic responses to the first Ghostbusters trailer, which became the most-disliked trailer in YouTube history:
The original Ghostbusters was essentially a 'male space', with four male Ghostbusters and women relegated to the secretary and the love-interest. While the franchise as a whole has been much bolder - one animated series featured a much healthier male / female ratio - the reboot inverts this. Some critical fans have reacted sensibly, but others have clearly felt threatened by this inversion.
3. SONY REMAINED CONFIDENT IN THEIR VISION
Part of the issue is that Sony's representatives have stuck to their guns. Paul Feig has publicly fumed at the way the film is treated:
We still get called, in the press, a 'chick flick.' We are never not referred to as the ‘all-female Ghostbusters,’ which makes me crazy."
Few have been more vocal in supporting the film than Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s motion picture group. Rothman told The Hollywood Reporter:
"Everybody says I'm making the female Ghostbusters, but I say, 'No, we're making the funny Ghostbusters.' Yes, it happens to be four women. It's original. You get p***ing and moaning on the Internet — sexist comments – but, you know, f*** 'em."
Feig and Rothman are right; the film industry has been implicitly misogynistic in the way it's treated the Ghostbusters reboot, and the very fact that four female leads is seen as a 'gimmick' suggests just how serious the problem is. That said, this combative tone - which risks tarring all critical fans with the 'misogynist' brush - is hardly an approach that's likely to win people over.
What's easy to miss, though, is that the provocative stance is deliberate. Asked about the Ghostbusters backlash, Rothman answered:
"It’s the greatest thing that ever happened. Are you kidding me? We’re in the national debate, thank you. Can we please get some more haters to say stupid things?"
Sony is gambling that the furious online reaction will only draw more attention to the film. The bet is that countless websites will produce articles discussing the uproar (like this one), that critics will enjoy the film (they have), and that moviegoers will become curious to see what all the fuss is about (we'll have to wait and see). So the controversy has practically become a marketing strategy, and Sony representatives haven't troubled to dial down their rhetoric, instead fanning the flames.
It wouldn't be the first time an over-heated social media reaction has helped a product succeed. Just recently, Marvel Comics released Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, which revealed Steve Rogers to be a secret HYDRA agent, and implied that he'd been one since his childhood. The Internet went wild (with some pretty sinister death threats issued against Marvel staff). As a result of the furore, the comic went for a second printing - the outrage on social media actually encouraged people to head out and buy the comic! Sony's hope is that the same will happen with Ghostbusters. We'll soon find out whether or not they're right.
So there you have it. Ghostbusters is, in my view, an excellent and enjoyable film, although it's been mired in controversy all along. It doesn't deserve it, but my hope is that it will benefit because of it. This weekend, we'll begin to learn whether or not Sony's gamble has paid off...