When Jason Reitman first announced Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the Oscar nominee (and son of original director Ivan Reitman) promised his iteration would “hand the movie back to the fans.” Unfortunately, it seems that the film being “handed back” is a little lackluster.
Reitman’s description of the project in 2019 raised eyebrows, given the sexist backlash that had kneecapped Paul Feig’s female-led Ghostbusters just a couple years before. Feig’s Ghostbusters debuted in 2016, and cast some of the most popular comedians at the time: Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kristen Wiig. But that didn’t stop the twerpiest corners of the fandom from ruthlessly disparaging the film, its cast, and creators even before its release. Leslie Jones received the vilest comments of all, as racism—and a hateful campaign from alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos— compounded so-called “fans”’ horror at the idea of women leading the franchise for even one movie. The controversy surrounding the film, along with middling reviews and producers’ failure to secure a Chinese release, hampered its performance at the box office. Especially given the film’s bloated budget, the box office tally was a severe disappointment. Sequel plans quickly fell apart while critics attempted to predict what this could mean for the future of female-led franchise films.
Then, in came Reitman. The Oscar nominee, whose films include Young Adult, Juno, and Up in the Air, announced his own Ghostbusters in 2019, and promised it would be set in the universe of the original films. (Feig’s rendition was a reboot.) As Reitman told Entertainment Weekly at the time, “I’ve always thought of myself as the first Ghostbusters fan, when I was a 6-year-old visiting the set. I wanted to make a movie for all the other fans.” Regarding Feig’s version, Reitman added, “I have so much respect for what Paul created with those brilliant actresses, and would love to see more stories from them. However, this new movie will follow the trajectory of the original film.”
Weeks later, during a podcast appearance, Reitman accidentally made his point a little more explicit: His film, he said, would “go back to original technique and hand the movie back to the fans.”
The implication that Feig’s Ghostbusters had not been “for the fans” felt like a dog-whistle—especially after months of sustained, misogynistic hostility. Leslie Jones encapsulated the apparent message best: “Like, fuck us.”
Sequel fatigue and resentment from fans who would have preferred to watch the long-discussed, still-unmade Ghostbusters III certainly dampened Ghostbusters (2016) at the box office, as did the notion that the film was a mere “cash grab.” But as Feig himself pointed out, Hollywood has never exactly made movies for altruistic reasons, and plenty of other reboots have come and gone without much incident. Reitman’s promise to return this franchise “back” to fans validated the notion that Feig’s film—which included numerous callbacks to and cameos that tethered it to the original—was made for someone else. Perhaps even worse, it played into Donald Trump’s incessant whining about female-led reboots.
Reitman has said that he hadn’t thought about making his own Ghostbusters until recently. At a fan event in 2019, he told the audience that the idea for Afterlife came to him as something of a vision: “I thought I was going to be this indie dude who made Sundance movies, and then this character came to me,” he said. “She was a 12-year-old girl. I didn’t know who she was or why she popped into my head, but I saw her with a proton pack in her hand. And I wrote this story… It started with a girl and all of a sudden it was a family. And eventually I knew this movie that I needed to make, that I needed to write.”
Reviews for Ghostbusters: Afterlife have been a mixed bag, and many harp on its over-reliance on Easter eggs and nostalgia. While 2016’s Ghostbusters has been accused of straying too far from the original’s nostalgic legacy, it seems this film’s biggest shortcoming is hewing too closely. At least it seems to be enjoying the benefit of a troll-free release. (Gee, I wonder why!)
The controversy surrounding these films, or really any film to come that claims it ain’t afraid of no ghost, mostly feels indicative of where we’ve arrived as a culture. The Ghostbusters mishegas foreshadowed a wave of hateful online “fan” campaigns to come—like Star Wars “fans” harassing The Last Jedi star Kelly Marie Tran, that attempt at a Captain Marvel boycott, and the racist fake-news campaign that alleged white Black Panther theatergoers were being racially targeted and attacked.
In many ways, however, the 2016 dust-up feels the most ridiculous. While most franchises court reverence and emphasize their cultural Importance, one would think that Ghostbusters’ devout irreverence would preclude audiences from developing such a preciousness toward it. Then again, are these conflicts ever really about the actual “fans?”