The rebooted “Ghostbusters,” starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon as an all-female squad of ectoplasm fighters, sold $46 million worth of tickets in North America over the weekend, making it the second-best earning film behind “The Secret Life of Pets.” But even before any tickets had been sold, “Ghostbusters” was already surely the most argued-about movie of the year, attacked by angry male fans on the internet and hailed as a new milestone in Hollywood diversity. Wesley Morris, critic at large for The New York Times, joins its chief film critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott to survey the state of the debate now that people have actually seen the movie. The discussion may include spoilers.
A. O. SCOTT The pre-emptive backlash was another of those reactionary anti-feminist boy-tantrums that have become a fixture of our culture and our politics lately. The wounded man-children will keep on whining about their ruined childhoods, but meanwhile the debate has moved in other directions. The movie’s feminist bona fides have been questioned, notably by Alyssa Rosenberg in The Washington Post, who wrote that she was “more dismayed by the idea that the uproar around ‘Ghostbusters’ has pushed feminists into championing Paul Feig’s remake” than by the misogynist outrage over the all-female cast.
And why is Leslie Jones’s character, the only nonwhite Ghostbuster, also the only nonscientist?
I have to say it makes me very happy when big commercial movies provoke serious political arguments, but before we dive into that particular fray I want to make a few statements I trust will not be terribly controversial. 1) Kate McKinnon should be in every movie from now on. 2) The new “Ghostbusters” is like the old “Ghostbusters” in that it gives comic performers who gained popularity on television and in more provocative projects a chance to widen their appeal and increase their earning potential with a mainstream action-comedy. 3) The old “Ghostbusters” isn’t that great to begin with.
WESLEY MORRIS You’re right on all counts. Kate McKinnon joins my personal Taraji P. Henson/Emma Stone “more, please forever” club. But the politics around this movie have nothing to do with the politics in this movie, of which, to Mr. Feig’s credit, there isn’t very much. His “Ghostbusters” isn’t defensive so much as pro forma and strangely sedate compared with the original movie and to what else these women can do (and have done). My favorite moments involved the characters being let off their leashes, like when Kristen Wiig is running around New York trying to tell the mayor and whoever else won’t listen that terror is afoot. That’s a great mode for her.
As for Ms. Jones’s given occupation as a transit worker, it leaves me, once again, annoyed by the optics. If the other Ghostbusters were, say, Ms. Henson, Jada Pinkett Smith and Gabourey Sidibe as the scientists, and Ms. Jones’s Patty was still the subway worker, who’d care? But under the circumstances, it just seems like the same questionable, stay-in-your-place choice that movies have always made for black performers — and an excuse for the plot to ride the subway. But, look: She’s an equal member of the team and black people work in public transit. Politics!
What do we make of the movie’s fetishization of Chris Hemsworth? He’s very funny as himbo man-meat. But somebody involved with this movie clearly thinks he’s utterly captivating — or politically necessary, too. A lot of the plot hinges on him being against-type funny. And I actually found the comedic material to be there for him in a way it wasn’t for almost everyone else, especially Melissa McCarthy, who, maybe, shouldn’t be a straight man after all. I wanted gonzo from this movie and got dutiful. What’s wrong with me?
MANOHLA DARGIS Gonzo is tough to find in the current big-studio landscape, which is radically different from what it was when the first movie opened in 1984. Given this, I think the new “Ghostbusters” succeeds on its own fairly narrow commercial mainstream terms, but with some dividends, including a pretty, ditsy secretary (Mr. Hemsworth) and the new Bill Murray (our collective crush, Ms. McKinnon). The only thing I would add is that Ms. McCarthy was already a significant box-office draw in 2014 when Mr. Feig tweeted that he was making an all-female “Ghostbusters.” Oh, and one more thought: The most interesting thing about the reboot isn’t the movie itself but the misogynistic discourse that has swirled around it since this project was announced.
I did my best to ignore the anti-reboot chatter before I saw “Ghostbusters” just because I avoid reading anyone else’s opinion about a movie before seeing it. I knew that there was a contingent of angry male fans; of course there were. There are always men enraged by women’s autonomy, whether women are starring in a comedy reboot or “Thelma & Louise”; playing rock or video games; demanding their reproductive rights; running for president; or, you know, doing anything that some men don’t want them to do. The depths of this rage betray a deep fear about a loss of male power that’s been central to the cultural, social and political landscape for decades.
“Ghostbusters” turns on the threat of one apocalypse; the irrational hatred toward it turns on another end time.
SCOTT I think what pleased me most about this “Ghostbusters” was how matter-of-fact — how chill — the movie was, notwithstanding the bombast of the climactic battle. I think we all agree that it has a generic, middle-of-the-road quality. That’s something it shares with the original, by the way, which far from being a transcendent masterpiece of cinematic imagination was a nice paycheck for the artists involved and an easy, inoffensive night out for the audience. Sorry if I ruined anyone’s childhood.
Mr. Feig, like Ivan Reitman before him, has assembled a workmanlike action-comedy about people at work. Professionalism may be the opposite of gonzo, but I think there’s something (dare I say it) radical about how job-focused this story is. Here’s a movie about female friendship and collegiality — which, of course, also entails rivalry, miscommunication and shifting allegiances — that feels no need to entangle any of its heroines in a heterosexual romance plot. Ms. Wiig’s character is distracted by the hotness of her secretary (I was reminded of Zero Mostel in the original “Producers”), but the real emotional stakes are between her and Ms. McCarthy. We don’t know if any of the Ghostbusters are gay, bi, straight, married, single, celibate, polyamorous or whatever. It’s not relevant.
Any more than it would be in a western or a platoon picture or a Mafia epic or a movie about a bunch of tech bros building a start-up. (Follow-up think-piece assignment: “Ghostbusters” is actually a remake of “The Social Network.”)
“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and “Spy” may have had naughtier (and funnier) jokes, but they were also careful to include rom-com flourishes and semiplausible love interests. “Ghostbusters” doesn’t do that. Nor does it pander to the male gaze.
And it’s not really out to prove that women can be strong or funny or handle powerful weapons. In most movies, such offers of proof are accompanied by reassurances that the women in question are still sexy or maternal or eager to settle down with the right guy — that they fulfill some kind of conventional idea of femininity. “Ghostbusters” doesn’t bother with any of that, and in the process seems to be on the verge of inventing a new set of archetypes.
MORRIS Well, the movie does pander to this male’s gaze, at least in its appreciation of Mr. Hemsworth’s presumed hotness. There’s a randomness to this movie, much of which is devoted to him. (Why does he decide he wants to bust ghosts, too? What’s with all those cheesecake, shirtless head shots that keep showing up?) Still, the more I think about it the more I feel like every word of opprobrium or defense — every profane or besotted emoji — has been in some ways unfair to a movie that just wants to be. But Tony, your ascribing meaning and value to the workplace dynamics really struck me. These women are small-business owners who love their jobs. (To paraphrase the eternal Ray Parker Jr.: Bustin’ makes ’em feel good.) That’s a strong contrast to something like “9 to 5” (1980), whose women hated work because their boss was a pig. Now there’s no boss, just an endless supply of ghosts. Progress!
My objection to this movie is purely an exasperation with remakes of stuff that no one needs. (People of the world, for the love of Netflix, your childhoods are still available on demand!) Nonetheless, Manohla, your enthusiasm — and my friend Katie’s — won me over, at least in this case. This is an elastic concept that can withstand all kinds of reconfigurations.It’s not sacred. And to the girls in the audience, who know nothing about the battles roiling their parents’ Reddit feeds, the comedic quartet of McCarthy, Jones, Wiig and McKinnon is just business as usual. But that’s a difference that feels entirely generational, no?
DARGIS Maybe it’s generational but it’s also a matter of awareness. Because while a female-driven blockbuster may seem like business as usual to some, reams of data prove that movies like this remain an exception in the male-dominated industry. To cite (again) just one bummer study: From 2007 to 2014, women made up 30.2 percent of all speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing fictional films released in the United States. And while there’s certainly awareness about this sexism, at least in some quarters, that hasn’t translated into real industry progress.
For a big studio like Sony, and in an industrial climate in which male superheroes keep studios going, “Ghostbusters” is a gamble. The studio tried to revive “Ghostbusters” for years. In 2009, when Dan Aykroyd talkedto The Los Angeles Times about what was then “Ghostbusters 3” (meaning another sequel, not a reboot), female Ghostbusters were part of the story. This iteration would star the original cast and involve the older Ghostbusters passing the proton torch to a new group that included some women. Mr. Aykroyd specifically mentioned Alyssa Milano and Eliza Dushku, casting that was eagerly greeted on some entertainment sites.
“Why don’t they have BOTH of them in the movie? That way they can towel the slime off each other,” wrote one commentator on Screenrant. “Slime her!” a writer for Cinemablend enthused about Ms. Milano. Entertainment Weekly even ran a story — “Pick the New ‘Ghostbusters’ Girl!” — with a photo of Megan Fox, who it suggested could be “The Sexpot” alongside Zoe Saldana (“The Geek Queen”), Emma Watson (“The Touch of Class”) and Charlyne Yi (“The Wild Card”), who has “just the right nerd-girl charm for the Ghostbusters crew.” The stars of the new “Ghostbusters” are adult women — three over 40 — they’re not girls or especially charming. And while some moviegoers may not need this particular remake, I think there are plenty of girl and women moviegoers who would say, yes, we do.