It’s highly possible that, decades from now, advanced human beings will look back at the summer of 2016 and wonder how a supernatural comedy starring four women became one of the biggest cultural flashpoints of the year. Sony’s Ghostbusters reboot, which opened on Friday, was divisive long before it hit multiplexes, with an outspoken (largely male) faction of the internet swearing off the movie back in March after the trailer was released. Now that it’s actually here, having debuted to generally positive reviews and middling-to-solid box office, the question remains: Was a tentpole remake of a beloved classic starring an all-female cast too progressive for its time?
When the director Paul Feig was first approached about helming a new Ghostbusters movie, his initial response was that it would be impossible because both the original 1984 movie and its 1989 sequel were such enduring classics. “I love the first one so much I don’t want to do anything to ruin the memory of that,” Feig told Entertainment Weekly. “So it just felt like, let’s just restart it because then we can have new dynamics.” The idea for an all-female cast came to him simply because, he said, “My favorite thing to do is work with funny women.”
The backlash started almost immediately, and only grew after Feig’s cast—Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon—was announced in January of last year. “The biggest thing I’ve heard for the last four months is, ‘Thanks for ruining my childhood,’” Feig told Variety two months later. “It’s going to be on my tombstone when I die.”
Almost all of the commenters indicting the movie online insisted that it wasn’t about gender—they were simply upset that such a cherished property needed to be remade at all. And after the trailer was released, yet more disgruntled fans maintained that they were boycotting the movie not because it starred women, but because it simply looked awful. Still, the tenor of most fan reviews posted on IMDB seems to point to a larger discomfort with the film’s premise, and with the many ways in which it slyly pushes back against the sexism that permeates both internet culture and Hollywood history. One recent example:
I wish I could find positives because I dislike being so negative about a film. I understand completely the amount of work that goes into something like this. Chris Hemsworth was probably the best part of this believe or not. I could see him leading a team of his own Ghostbusters in another version if written correctly.
Paul Feig, who directed and co-wrote this travesty, shows he not only has no respect for the source material and original film, but no respect for men at all. Every male character, every single one, is either inept, a creep, or the butt of a joke. I suppose this is his version of “girl power,” by humiliating every man in the film to make the women seem superior to them. It's just a pathetic misandrist display, that only betrays Feig's own prejudices.
In some few nuggets of comedy there are moments where you laugh good, but it is a little bit oxymoron that it is Hemsworth that actually provides these moments of comedy gold. Because it is obvious that there is a a political statement in this movies, to the jokes about how stupid men to the end battle where the bad guy gets castrated.
Some of the funniest moments in Ghostbusters certainly come at the expense of men—the group’s assistant (Chris Hemsworth) is absurdly vacuous eye candy, the Mayor of New York (Andy Garcia) is a pompous and incompetent buffoon, and the primary antagonist is a disaffected loser who lashes out at the world because it refuses to validate him. In that, Feig seems to be signaling a refusal to make nice to the hardcore fans of the original franchise who’d almost certainly object to anything he tried to do in the movie. But he’s also subverting the most tired tropes of film history, which paint women as bimbos who need rescuing, power-crazed harridans, or obsessive stalkers.
Women have long been under-served by Hollywood in myriad ways, despite the fact that they made up 51 percent of moviegoers in 2015, and tend to see blockbusters almost as much as men do. At the end of last year, Fusion reported that 45 percent of the year’s movies failed to pass the Bechdel test, meaning that almost half didn’t have a single conversation between two female characters that wasn’t about men. Among those that failed were Oscar-winners and box-office hits alike: The Big Short, Creed, Ex Machina, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Revenant, Spectre, Spotlight, Straight Outta Compton, Terminator: Genisys.
With this in mind, any big-budget action movie that stars an all-female cast is going to be political whether it wants to be or not, simply by virtue of being a rarity. And the new Ghostbusters will, in all likelihood, suffer for the ground it’s breaking: Although Sony is reportedly “giddy” about the fact that it took $46 million in its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada, it still opened at #2 behind The Secret Life of Pets, and may struggle to recoup its $150 million budget, with a possible $100 million more spent on marketing.
Nevertheless, there’s already speculation about a sequel. And whether or not Feig gets the chance to make another Ghostbusters movie, he’s pointed to a cinematic future where four women—three of whom are over 40—can open an action movie that’s funny, smart, and necessarily subversive.