Every rebooted franchise plays off our longing for the past—the implicit promise that it can make us feel just like we did the first time. We know, if only subconsciously, that this isn’t possible. Deep down, we resent it. It just won’t be the same, we say. We won’t be the same. Why can’t you just leave it alone? And this bitterness curdles into anxiety whenever someone threatens to try.
In an age when brand recognition has become a primary creative force, we get to have this crisis on the regular, every time someone decides to reach back into the closet and futz with our old toys. Although it still stokes that unease, with some franchises, maybe we can accept that it will be the same enough. Fine, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale, Val Kilmer can all play Batman; at least they’re still going to be wealthy sociopaths in latex, right? We may long for the sweaty bosom of Jeff Goldblum, but when it really comes down to it, Jurassic Park really just needs some dinosaurs and some warm bodies to feed them. And okay, sure, you can skip forward, backward, and sideways through the Star Wars saga, so long as everything in the galaxy loops back to Luke Skywalker eventually. With these, we may thrash against their casting choices, and unexpected divergences, and all the other little contemporary changes that remind us of our own encroaching death. But ultimately, we give in. We’re still lured in by our abiding love for their overarching mythologies, and the excitement for new stories to be told within those worlds we know so well.
As far as franchises go, Ghostbusters maybe doesn’t attract the sheer numbers of Star Wars, or the scorched-earth intensity of, say, DC Comics. But over the years, it’s attracted a similar volume of panicked territorial pissing. Those streams crossed all over again last week when Jason Reitman announced that he’s readying a new Ghostbusters movie for 2020. This would be the second new Ghostbusters in just four years—and notably, the first to revisit its “original universe,” where Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson once battled demigods and government regulation against a gloriously grimy, pre-Giuliani New York. And although we know little about Reitman’s film, beyond a brief teaser filled with Pavlovian sound cues and some vague hints that it will involve the elder Ghostbusters, rappin’ with some teens, the surprise news has already reignited a raging debate over what a new Ghostbusters movie should be—and whether it should even exist.
Much of that anxiety, of course, is left over from the last time the gateway to hot-take hell was flung open, when director Paul Feig tried launching his own, parallel Ghostbusters universe with an all-female cast. The debate over whether women should be allowed into the traditionally male-dominated profession of ghost-vacuuming became an unlikely flashpoint in our flaming culture war, with stars Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon decried by some as usurpers who were trying to erase our beloved Ghostbusters—and judging by the tone of some of the film’s loudest detractors, they sought to smash every extant DVD of the 1984 original, then use their jagged edges to castrate Bill Murray for sport. Ghostbusters has been irreversibly politicized, it seems, well beyond the original’s subtle nods to Reagan-era conservatism. (Even our Stay Puft President weighed in with a video that, honestly, may as well be playing in a constant loop outside the Lincoln Memorial, so perfectly does it capture our current moment.)
You could see that tribalistic divide in a lot of the otherwise-positive responses to Reitman’s announcement, many of which were couched in a lingering hostility for Feig’s film, gloating that this is the Ghostbusters movie “true fans” have been waiting for. After Jones called the proposed sequel “a dick move,” she received a fresh round of redoubled harassment. (Trump hasn’t commented yet, though future Secretary of State James Woods has.) That reinvigorated backlash has also prompted angry reactions from those now chastising Sony for caving in to these most toxic corners of the fanbase. And so this battle promises to continue for at least another year, if not long after we’ve all become rambunctious ghosts ourselves.
But there’s also a more familiar, enervated sort of skepticism this time around: Why now? Why return to these characters and rehash these stories more than 30 years later? It’s a question that’s already echoed through years of Dan Aykroyd drafting new scripts and drumming up enthusiasm in between vodka pitches, all while Bill Murray repeatedly declines and possibly even shreds his invitations. But it seems especially pointed after Harold Ramis—described repeatedly as “the glue” that held the whole thing together—died in 2014, robbing any new Ghostbusters of a crucial member of the team both on and off screen. This is the Ghostbusters that the “true fans” have been waiting for?
Again, at the root of all these reactions are the familiar “not the same,” “leave it alone” fear. And perhaps more than any other franchise, Ghostbusters preys on this fear because it isn’t much of a mythology. It may have been retrofitted with one, through years of comic-book, cartoon, and video game expansions. The iconography—all the traps and the proton packs, the jumpsuits and the wee-ahhh of the Ecto-1—has, through years of repeated exposure and Halloween costumes, achieved a totemic, nigh-mythological significance, sure. But all of this obscures the fact that Ghostbusters was a moment: a serendipitous collision of talent, at a very specific arc in their careers, released at a very specific time in our cinematic history. With every attempt to recapture this—even when it’s (most of) the original talent on board—it only highlights again just how impossible it is, and exposes what a transparently market-driven impulse it is to even try.
After all, the appeal of Ghostbusters isn’t just its concept. No one’s into Ghostbusters for the ghosts. If that were true, Aykroyd’s original, reportedly impenetrable vision of futuristic mercenaries battling apparitions in outer space might have survived, rather than being carved down into the more character-based, working-class comedy we know today. If it were just the story fans were drawn to, we would have several generations of SNL alums and Ashton Kutcher taking up the particle throwers by now, and probably none of them would have received death threats. Instead, Ghostbusters succeeded precisely because of who made it and when they did.
Murray, Ramis, and Ivan Reitman had just honed their chemistry on Stripes, itself basically a practice run for Ghostbusters’ blend of deadpan humor, high-stakes combat, and underdog camaraderie. Stripes had officially coronated Murray as the smirking voice of a generation, and while Ghostbusters’ Peter Venkman has that same, up-the-academy swagger, his almost entirely ad-libbed performance—which seemed to be dryly commenting on the ludicrousness of the action in real time—made him a new kind of postmodern hero for the TV-bred rebels of Generation Meh. Murray’s deadpan snark, bouncing off Aykroyd’s boyish enthusiasm and Ramis’ stern drollness, elevated what could have been embarrassingly silly into something that felt new: a smart bro comedy grafted onto huge, kid-friendly spectacle. Really, they could have played zookeepers, or offshore riggers, or opened up a bakery together, and it would have been arguably just as funny, if less likely to spawn a catchy theme song.
Ivan Reitman himself acknowledged that it was the interplay, not the supernatural effects, that audiences responded to, expressing his own trepidations about trying to repeat it on 1989’s Ghostbusters II. Personally, I think Ghostbusters II gets an unfairly bad rap. (It’s fun, Peter MacNicol rules, and has there been a more prescient or useful metaphor for the internet than a toxic “mood slime” feeding off negativity?) Yet even as one of its most ardent defenders, I’d still say Ghostbusters II proves Reitman was right to worry. The energy was, of course, just different the second time around—too burdened by expectation, maybe, or dampened by a palpable fear of messing with the formula.
But mostly, Ghostbusters II illustrated just how impossible it is to capture lightning in a bottle twice, even when you have the exact same people going through more or less the same motions. And as Murray has explained repeatedly over the years, its middling creative returns are why he’s often called the idea of trying to do another sequel his “nightmare,” because he knows it could never live up to the first one. “Those guys, Danny and Harold [Ramis], were at the top of their game,” Murray told Variety in 2014. “They were burning nitro at that moment. Unless you have a really clear vision, you’re always trying to recreate that.”
For what it’s worth, I’m guessing Jason Reitman does have a clear vision. He’d certainly need one to step so willingly into this fray, which he’s smartly avoided for so long. Also, Reitman is a talented filmmaker in his own right, adept at making smart comedies with unexpected gravitas—and his own personal connection to the franchise obviously trumps just about anyone else’s. I’m sure his Ghostbusters will be made skillfully and sensitively, with a genuine respect for the family business, and it will surely seek to bring some sense of closure to these characters (however thinly sketched, let’s face it, those characters may be). Again, all of this definitely has the ring of mythology. Yet at its center, it’s still about chasing a moment. As with Feig’s film—as with his dad’s own sequel—Reitman’s Ghostbusters is still based on the idea that it’s the “universe” we’re most interested in, which can’t help but clash with the movie’s very insular, inside-joke appeal.
That ironic smallness is why I loved it, anyway. Its knowing irreverence for its “universe,” with four goofballs smirking and grab-assing their way through Armageddon, is what made loving it feel so intensely personal, even as it became massive enough to spawn breakfast cereals and theme-park attractions. Despite its blockbuster scale, that small-screen-friendly, sitcom interplay is what made Ghostbusters a sort of urtext for other burgeoning nerds, an affection that was nursed by endless HBO replays and a marketing blitz pitched at an intensity that only the monoculture of the ’80s could have yielded. (Indeed, many of my younger friends, who did not grow up with Ghostbusters as part of the daily fabric of their lives, don’t really see what the big deal is.) That love is about a moment, too—a sublimated pining for when we were but innocent cherubs chasing each other around with vacuum cleaner tubes, our hands stained Ecto-Cooler green, and just beginning to figure out the awesome powers of being smart. Or smart-assed, at least.
It’s why any attempt to replicate that now, however well-intentioned, always sets off some instinctive alarm inside us, prompting us to lash out territorially at each other—even when we’re ostensibly trying to be positive. It only casts into stark relief this awful disparity between that pure, childlike joy and prideful ownership we once felt, and what we now recognize, here in jaded adulthood, as just another corporation’s wielding of nostalgia as a cynical and predatory force of consumerism.
I say all this not to prematurely disparage Jason Reitman’s movie, and I’m certainly not trying to dissuade anyone else from being excited for it. Maybe his Ghostbusters really will thread the needle, both honoring and breaking free from the past, all while opening the door for the franchise to flourish in completely new directions for years to come. Maybe it will even eventually link back to Feig’s film through some sort of Spider-Man-like multiverse, as others have speculated, and allow all of these Ghostbusters iterations to one day peacefully coexist. But even by the time Ghostbusters 6 rolls around—with a 55-year-old Oscar now the fun-loving dean of Ghostbuster University and threatened with foreclosure by Governor Slimer—I suspect the anxiety over whether this is what the “true fans” really want won’t have abated in the slightest. It will always be haunted by the un-bustable specter of the past.