‘Ghostbusters’ 2016 Cast Controversy: Sexism Aside, Plot Solution Offered By Critics Is Terrible


The original Ghostbusters cast “passing the torch” to the new Ghostbusters cast would suck.

The Angry Video Gamer Nerd James Rolfe’s pledge not to see the new Ghostbusters movie injected new energy into the ongoing controversy over the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. Right-wing anti-feminists have used the movie as a rallying point against what they see as a creeping feminist agenda absorbing and transforming genres they treasure. For progressives, the 2016 Ghostbusters is another baby step toward the gender parity that has been utterly lacking in movies and video games.

While it’s trivially easy to find misogynists who hate the new Ghostbusters for explicitly sexist reasons, Rolfe’s video became a flashpoint precisely because it uses the same talking points as the anti-feminists and misogynists without being explicitly anti-feminist. Both sides of the debate love this. The progressives can point out the creeping “soft sexism” evident in drawing the line in the sand with an all-female Ghostbusters, when franchise reboots and remakes have been Hollywood standard operating procedure for decades. Meanwhile, right-wing critics can play victim, claiming they’ve been smeared as misogynists and anti-feminists for nothing more than disliking a movie trailer.

But let’s set all that aside. Even if the 2016 Ghostbusters hadn’t become a proxy battle over the future of cinematic inclusivity, the solution most often proposed by people on Rolfe’s “side” (though battle lines are clear, there remains room for nuanced middle positions) is a terrible one. Here’s Rolfe describing what he wants out of a new Ghostbusters movie:

“I know I’m biased, Ghostbusters is something that a lot of us grew up with and we wanted to see the original cast back together for one last time while they were still alive. And then maybe introduce a new, younger cast, work with them, win us over and then pass it on for a new generation.”

This “pass the torch” sentiment has become a central plank for Ghostbusters critics dinging the 2016 reboot.

There are a lot of assumptions bundled up in the “pass the torch” Ghostbusters model, including the underlying and persistent idea that franchises have obligations to fans before audiences. That Bill Murray had repeatedly refused to return for Ghostbusters sequels because Ghostbusters 2 sucked doesn’t seem to have entered their equations. But while the premise of “pass the torch” is steeped in movie nerds’ perennially inflated sense of their own importance, it’s also just wrong narratively.

Movies that pass the torch almost always suck, because passing the torch is a narrative demand imposed from outside the story that services brand over narrative. Most movies explicitly about torch passing are disasters: Star Trek: Generations, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Hook, Blade: Trinity.

Successes are scarce and succeed for qualities that are anathema to comedy. Creed manages to pass the torch by heavily investing in an emotional throughline from one generation to the next. The attributes that make it a rare “pass the torch” success are those exact qualities that would make a comedy not funny, like, at all, sacrificing laughs and sprightliness for meta-narrative sentiments.

Since passing the torch properly takes major investment, most of the comedy’s torch-passing moments are instead obnoxious fan service, as the original cast members make a joyless appearance that immediately pops you out of the movie. Ghostbusters will have that (Aykroyd’s cameo is especially eye-rolly), so, uh, you’re welcome?

Outside of a select few dramas, passing the torch is often a disastrous narrative choice. Looking at two successes could help explain why.

In 21 Jump Street Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise reprise their roles from the 21 Jump Street TV series, only to be killed off in a hail of bullets. Their appearance is more than mere cameo (I’m looking at you, Starsky & Hutch) because it underlines how the new 21 Jump Street is a subversion of the old. It’s taken something serious and made it silly, Depp and DeLuise’s romantic death underscoring the change from melodrama to comedy. The torch passing transcends fan service by proving that this remake is not for the original fans at all. This is the exact opposite of the slavish worship of the old Ghostbusters demanded by critics of the new.

In 2009’s Star Trek Leonard Nimoy’s Spock passes the torch to Zachary Quinto’s. It’s a move that could only be accomplished in sci-fi, where multidimensional phlebotinum carves room for the reboot universe out of the decayed star material of the old. Nimoy is given the heavy-handed stuff, telling our young heroes the meaning of Star Trek and making it work because, well, this Leonard Nimoy we’re talking about here. Accomplishing this relatively modest torch passing requires ludicrous plot holes and coincidences, working only by the skin of its teeth. Nimoy’s return in Star Trek Into Darkness disastrously lampshades the movie’s fatal similarities to Wrath of Khan, proving just how narrowly the first one got away with it.

The Star Trek fandom hates J.J. Abrams’ reboots. They are derisively known as Abramsverse — rather than “real” — Star Trek. Even getting a “torch passing” moment largely right doesn’t placate people who can only accept a franchise as they originally encompassed it.

Wasting a series entry passing the torch is the kind of demand that comes from a specific movie mindset that’s widespread among those angry at the Ghostbusters reboot, Rolfe included: the complete dissolution of the border between the larger franchise and its discrete narrative units. It’s understanding Ghostbusters not as a single, fantastic movie, but as a beloved universe. This has long been a nerd fandom virtue, with fan films, conventions and enthusiasm breathing constant life into old movies, assuring their continued relevance. But preferring the conception of a whole franchise over its constituent films has its downsides, like insisting that you really should have read all the Star Wars novelizations if you want to understand the movies.

Movies are distinct from one another. We are capable of evaluating Star Wars independently of The Empire Strikes Back. By it's nature, fandom blurs the separation between the two, enriching a fictional universe. But it has no business predefining the story's boundary; fandom exists outside of the movie.

Stories go wrong when they become beholden to concerns outside of the narrative. We've all learned to identify and loathe fan service (not the creepy anime kind), preachiness, sequel hooks and flagrant product placement. The desire that one cast "pass the torch" to the next deserves to fall under the same skeptical gaze, because, even if well-intentioned, it comes from considerations external to the good of the story (and the comedy).

With Ghostbusters we see it curdle into a possessive inflexibility that demands a new Ghostbusters comports to the grand vision of a nebulous franchise. Rather than seeing Ghostbusters as a movie and Ghostbusters 2016 as a different movie, the two are treated as one vast continuum, with a bad reboot reverberating through the entire franchise spectrum. In this schema the most overriding concern is not that the new Ghostbusters be a funny movie, but that it slots in with the existing Ghostbusters universe, complementing their Ghostbusters of the mind. But if there’s ever been a way to ensure the immediate irrelevance of a movie, it’s to sacrifice good storytelling for what audiences think they are owed.

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