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How we've lost the ability to criticize Ghostbusters

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How internet hate crushed useful discussion of an upcoming film

Paul Feig's new Ghostbusters movie comes out this weekend, and I'm not really excited about it. This movie has been at the center of a nasty political fight on Twitter for months and, at this point, that controversy has overwhelmed the discussion of Ghostbusters as a work of art or entertainment.

Many complaints about Ghostbusters are unquestionably misogynist

The Ghostbusters franchise, which starred four men in its first two films, has been rebooted with a cast of four women. Some fans of the original movies are unhappy about the reboot, as are activists, from movements like GamerGate and the alt-right, who believe the film's casting decision is evidence that "social justice warriors" have corrupted geek culture with progressive politics.

The anti-Ghostbusters backlash brewed for months in the corners of the Internet frequented by these factions; places like the KotakuInAction subreddit and on Breitbart's tech vertical, but the Ghostbusters haters gained a lot of mainstream media attention in May when the film's first trailer became the most disliked video in the history of YouTube.

Inevitably, there was a backlash to the backlash. There's a natural inclination among many people to support women who are being subjected to sexist harassment online, and the outpouring of hatred over the Ghostbusters reboot looked to many observers like harassment on a massive scale, thanks in part to selective amplification of the most outrageous anti-Ghostbusters tweets and postings by outlets looking to stoke the controversy.

As a result, Ghostbusters has become a referendum on long-simmering controversies about the status of women in film and the status of women in comedy.

A considerable percentage of the negative social media response to Ghostbusters was odious, misogynistic and harassing. On the other hand, fans have a right to be upset when they feel the properties they love are being mishandled. Some of that outrage was, at least arguably, valid, even if the current atmosphere makes a reasonable discussion all but impossible.

There are reasons to dislike this movie that have nothing to do with gender

Many fans who are unhappy with the new movie claim no affiliation with the alt-right or with GamerGate, and they deny having any problems with women in heroic roles; they are just unhappy because they think the new movie looks shitty. And it kind of does.

Hollywood studios love reboots. By associating a new movie with a classic or beloved property, they get instant name recognition and can tap into the goodwill that the original already earned. Sometimes these properties fall into the hands of passionate fans who are also talented, and cool things result. But remakes and reboots are mostly cynical exercises that tarnish rather than enhance the franchise they're affiliated with.

Even worse, fans have been waiting for a new Ghostbusters movie since Ghostbusters 2 came out in 1989, but Feig's version isn't the one they wanted. Ivan Reitman and Dan Aykroyd, the creators of the original film, tried for years to reunite the cast for another sequel. Aykroyd wrote several different screenplays, and rumors about the status of various sequel plans appeared constantly on blogs and in magazines, stoking fans' hopes and expectations.

But Bill Murray was famously unsatisfied with the scripts and reluctant to participate in a third Ghostbusters movie.  After Harold Ramis, who played Egon Spengler, died in 2014, plans for Ghostbusters 3 with the original principal characters were permanently shelved. That was when Reitman handed the franchise off to Feig.

A lot of fans felt like Ghostbusters should have been left alone after Ramis' death, and that a film without Murray in a leading role isn't really Ghostbusters.

Also, the famously disliked YouTube trailer did not inspire confidence in the movie. It was a two-minute teaser for a movie that is supposed to be a comedy, whose vapid punchlines included "Aw, hell no!" and "That's gonna leave a mark!" For a sequel anticipated for more than 25 years, the dialogue the studio's marketers chose to showcase was on the same level as a bad CBS sitcom.

The obvious counterpoint is that numerous other beloved 1980's properties and franchises have been remade and rebooted recently without spawning the vehement, organized backlash that Ghostbusters has seen. Yet plenty of remakes and reboots have still spawned more diffuse backlash movements. Lots of people complained on Twitter and Facebook that Total Recall or Robocop looks shitty, for example, and that something special had fallen into the hands of people who don't understand or appreciate it.

However, when the Ghostbusters trailer elicited that kind of response, arguably justifiable, those grumpy fans got conflated in marketing and PR responses and in media coverage with the misogynist alt-right culture-warriors who were also campaigning against the film.

Most negative feedback about Ghostbusters has been branded misogynist

In mid-May, critic James Rolfe, who posts videos about retro gaming on his Angry Video Game Nerd channel and film reviews on his Cinemassacre site, posted a YouTube video explaining that he was so disappointed with the trailers and pre-release marketing of the new Ghostbusters movie that he had decided not to see it or review it

The content of the video wasn't hateful, overtly misogynist or particularly unreasonable. His complaints were mostly what I laid out above: He had wanted a new film from the original principals, and he felt Feig's reboot was a poor substitute. He thought the trailer exhibited bad jokes and bad special effects, and he didn't want to spend two hours watching a movie that he believed would disappoint him.

As one of the most prominent figures complaining about the Ghostbusters reboot, Rolfe caught the full brunt of the outrage that the misogynist Twitter eggs and anime-avatars had justifiably earned.

There are a couple of inconsistencies in Rolfe's position: First, his contention that Ghostbusters should have been left alone out of respect for the memory of Harold Ramis seems a bit absurd since the reboot had the blessings of Reitman and Aykroyd, and since Ramis' heirs will likely benefit financially from the new movie.

Second, Rolfe's position that Ghostbusters is not worth seeing because it is an inferior reboot of a beloved property from his childhood would have a lot more bite if Rolfe hadn't reviewed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows shortly after he took his stand against seeing Ghostbusters. It seems like a lot of Ghostbusters haters have a lot more tolerance for shitty reboots, remakes and sequels that aren't recast with women.

Third, to believe, as Rolfe seems to, that Ghostbusters is worthy of greater reverence than other 1980s and 1990s franchises like the Ninja Turtles, you have to ignore all the ways that brand has been adulterated in the past: Numerous lines of shitty toys; shitty breakfast cereals; years of cheesy Saturday morning cartoons focusing heavily on a friendly Slimer; a radioactive green Hi-C drink that wasn't as good as you remember it being; and the 1989 sequel Ghostbusters 2, in which the Ghostbusters used dancing ectoplasm to animate the Statue of Liberty.

But most of Rolfe's detractors didn't argue these points with him. They just called him a pants-shitting man-baby, expressed disbelief that he'd been able to find a woman willing to marry him, and mocked his "noisy, thick-saliva swallowing." Rolfe isn't a GamerGater, but as far as people on social media, and in many professional media outlets were concerned, he might as well have been.

Which raises another problem.

In an increasingly toxic and polarized social media atmosphere, assessing a work feels like picking a side

Ghostbusters opens Friday, July 15, and early reviews started rolling in Sunday, July 10. The film is earning about a 60 out of 100 in Metacritic's average. Those who were looking for vindication in a positive reception for this film are declaring victory based on these notices but, in fact, reviews have been mixed.

Drew McWeeny at HitFix declares it "above all else, a real Ghostbusters movie." Polygon's Julia Alexander says it's "the film we were hoping for," and, in a review that targeted blistering criticism at Internet haters, Nigel Smith at the Guardian declared "Fanboy ire can't stifle the defiant energy — and frequent hilarity — of this terrifically inventive comedy."

However, David Edelstein at New York Magazine describes the film as "misbegotten" with jokes "dematerializing into the void." David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter called it "an unfunny mess," and Richard Roeper at the Chicago Sun-Times declared it "raggedy-looking, thuddingly unfunny, utterly unnecessary."

The Hollywood Reporter noted that the film scored well among top female critics, but that male critics hadn't warmed to it. But you could also point out that it got stronger reviews from online outlets where writers and editors are plugged into social media and are intimately familiar with how culture wars play out on Twitter. These are the critics who might have viewed their position on this controversial movie as picking a side in that battle.

Meanwhile, the critics who reviewed Ghostbusters less favorably seemed to be older, well-established film reviewers; the sort of writers who might hold themselves aloof from flame wars and Twitter food fights, who might think GamerGate is a kind of bug, and who might consider these controversies extraneous to their job of assessing the movie on its merits.

Or maybe those patterns aren't really meaningful, and this is just the range of critical opinion you get for a mainstream studio comedy; Feig's The Heat has a similar metascore, and similarly mixed reviews.

Regardless, it's very difficult, in such a conflict-centered and polarized social media environment, to suggest that Ghostbusters can be both the target of a gross sexist hate campaign and also a disappointing film.

It's difficult and risky for writers and critics to take positions that are associated with hate campaigns

I haven't seen Ghostbusters yet, but unlike Rolfe, I plan to. I'm not expecting it to suck as much as recent Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, and I am not expecting a mess like Batman vs. Superman. But I'm not expecting anything revelatory, either. Paul Feig's recent track record includes two hits in my estimation: Bridesmaids and Spy, and a miss, The Heat. I think he makes reliably above-average comedies, but he hasn't yet produced anything on the level of an Anchorman, a 40 Year-Old Virgin or a Superbad.

I think women can be funny, and that Feig has directed funny movies starring these funny women. However, I don't think the best way of exhibiting the talents of funny women (or funny men, for that matter) is to saddle them with a PG-13 rating and 30 years of franchise baggage. Based on the trailers, I expected this to be a competently executed summer comedy, but also the weakest film Feig has made, and the reviews suggest this is likely to be the case.

But I've been afraid to state any opinion about this movie up until now, when I have reviews from critics like Edelstein and Roeper to hide behind, because I have been afraid that speaking negatively about Ghostbusters would result in me being falsely associated with an activist movement that I disagree with and disapprove of.

Actual discussion of the film feels impossible, which is a bit depressing. Films with middling scores and a talented cast and crew can sometimes be the most interesting movies to pick apart. We've lost that interesting and fun conversation for this take on Ghostbusters, and it may be gone forever.