Paul Feig first made his mark in Hollywood by creating the TV series Freaks & Geeks, a one-season wonder that became a cult hit long after its cancellation. He’s since become one of the biggest names in comedy film, directing blockbuster hits like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy, often successfully blending high-octane action with broad humor. So he was a logical choice to reboot the Ghostbusters franchise with an all-female cast, not just because of his track record as a director, but also because he knew the headaches that awaited him. Speaking to the Daily News last year, he put it succinctly: “Geek culture is home to some of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met in my life.”
Feig’s Ghostbusters isn’t out until July 15, but since the project was announced in 2014 as a reboot of the hit 1984 film, starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon, a vocal minority of movie fans have come up with specious reasons to criticize it. Hollywood does too many reboots; the sacred legacy of the original film is under threat; the jokes in the trailer aren’t funny enough. Things reached a fever pitch yesterday when James Rolfe, host of the popular “Cinemassacre” YouTube channel with over 2 million subscribers, announced that he wouldn’t even deign to watch the film. His reasoning dances around the simple fact that has set this innocuous-seeming movie apart from its fellow blockbusters this summer—that it’s a tentpole genre film starring women.
The Ghostbusters trailer is currently the most “disliked” movie preview on YouTube; some 800,000 fans have clicked the thumbs-down button, indicating an organized campaign against the film (for comparison, the Captain America: Civil War trailer has only 12,000 dislikes). Its comments thread is filled with fans defending their down-votes as being “on merit alone,” as if a major Hollywood studio film has never had shaky advertising before. Rolfe’s justification for skipping the movie focuses mostly on the arrogance of remaking a classic. “This isn’t just any franchise, this is Ghostbusters,” he intones, invoking the memory of the original film’s deceased star Harold Ramis.
Here are just some of the major franchises Hollywood has rebooted in the last decade: Batman. Superman. Spider-Man. James Bond. Star Wars. Planet of the Apes. Halloween. Friday the 13th. The Evil Dead. The Thing. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Robocop. Every Disney animated classic, starting with Cinderella and continuing with The Jungle Book this year. The list could go on endlessly, even without counting TV spinoffs. All have some provoked fan consternation, but final judgment is usually withheld until after the movie hits theaters. Ghostbusters, by contrast, has become a rallying cause for a swathe of fans who are beginning to resemble a movement not unlike the Gamergate nightmare that continues to plague the world of video games.
The vitriol directed at Ghostbusters seems to come in two forms: angry screeds in comments sections and people’s Twitter mentions, and videos like Rolfe’s, which try to justify the pushback as an idealistic defense of the original franchise’s legacy. Others look to dismiss the female cast as some sort of reverse-sexism, a “marketing gimmick” that diminishes the stars by turning them into tokens. “What offends me about this film isn’t that there’s women in it. Or even that the women are the protagonists. It’s that it’s going backwards 30 years in time and calling itself progressive,” one Cinemassacre commenter wrote. “I think the biggest reason this film will suck is they tried to shoehorn in a PC ideology instead of just telling a good story,” said another. Even the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump joined the pile-on last year, the substance of his criticism amounting to “What’s going on!?”
Embedded in all of these preemptive and logically flimsy complaints is an obvious subtext: that the issue of appearance matters more than actual quality, and that the idea of a female cast taking up the mantle of a very male film series is just somehow wrong. The 1984 Ghostbusters is indeed a memorable touchstone of the era, an endlessly rewatchable sci-fi comedy that similar films should strive to imitate. Its 1989 sequel, however, is not worth defending, and efforts to make a third film sputtered out over creative differences and star Bill Murray’s outspoken disinterest in every script he was presented with. In short, it’s exactly the kind of franchise film studios look to revive: a well-remembered product that for one reason or another has fallen dormant.
Unlike many Hollywood reboots, Feig’s revival actually offers something different from what came before it. The prospect of a large-scale genre film starring only women (with men such as Thor’s Chris Hemsworth in supporting roles) was shocking enough that it prompted the announcement of an all-male Ghostbusters remake starring Channing Tatum last year. It seemed the film was intended as a kind of counter-balance to Feig’s film, but the idea was eventually scrapped because of its sheer irrelevance, as was any talk of a “Ghostbusters cinematic universe.” It’s impossible to know what Cinemassacre would’ve made of a Ghostbusters sequel starring Channing Tatum rather than Melissa McCarthy, but it’s likely there wouldn’t have been quite as much vitriol.
Rolfe’s video currently has more than 530,000 views on YouTube; it’s the latest and loudest addition to an outcry that’s been growing for more than a year, from the initial casting news to every new trailer and clip from the film premiering online. The film’s cast has largely ignored the toxicity online, but Feig has remained steadfast in trying to call out, debate, and refute criticism on his Twitter. When The Verge’s Emily Yoshida visited the film’s set last year, she asked him why he bothered to engage with such single-minded trolling. He said he simply didn’t want to give in.
“It’s the same thing that the women went through with Gamergate,” he said. “They were just getting hammered, and everyone says ‘Well, why don’t you just go offline?’ But it’s like getting chased out of your neighborhood ... I don’t want to get chased off the Internet.” For all the hate, Ghostbusters can’t be chased out of theaters; for all the YouTube dislikes, the film is tracking to be one of July’s biggest openers in a summer clogged with reboots and sequels. Fans will surely debate the film’s quality for years to come, but for a sad subset, that question has already been settled.