Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter published a story projecting that this summer’s Ghostbusters reboot will fall some $70 million short of profitability, making a continuation of the film franchise unlikely. The report may or may not be accurate; Sony Pictures, for the record, has argued that it left out important revenue streams from merchandising and promotional partnerships. Nevertheless, it was greeted with much schadenfreude from the very vocal contingent of the new film’s detractors.
And that’s a shame; because, as often seems to be the case these days, the people who could learn the most from the 2016 Ghostbusters are the same ones who most stubbornly and vociferously refused to see it. The film, directed by Bridesmaids‘ Paul Feig, is many things: a progressive step in the direction of more diverse casting, yes, but also a fun popcorn movie and a more-than-decent resurrection of a franchise that, as someone born in the summer of 1984, I literally grew up with. But it’s also a parable about toxic geek culture that, frankly, the mid-2010s desperately needed.
(Editor’s Note: I’ll be talking about the film’s plot from here on, so if you’re the kind of person who worries about having a goofy action-comedy “spoiled” for you, then proceed with caution. -Z.H.)
If you’ve been paying any kind of attention on the Internet, you already know that Feig’s Ghostbusters has engendered “controversy” (a quaint euphemism for “virtual lynch mob”) due to the decision to cast four women in the roles of the titular parapsychologists. Never mind that three of those four women–Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones–come from the same Saturday Night Live pedigree as original Ghostbusters Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd; or that the fourth, Melissa McCarthy, is arguably the most talented physical comedian of her generation. They’re women, and every true Ghostbusters fan knows that the proton pack is a sensitive tool operated solely with the user’s penis.
What you probably don’t know if you haven’t seen the film is that the anti-Ghostbusters brigade are actually in it. Literally, the filmmakers worked in a scene during production where McCarthy’s character Abby reads sexist comments left on the Ghostbusters’ fictional YouTube page. But the more interesting, figurative response to the campaign was in the portrayal of its villain: “Rowan North,” played with an air of sallow, nerdy pomposity by former SNL and Inside Amy Schumer writer Neil Casey.
The Ghostbusters series is of course no stranger to nerdy characters with ties to the dark side of the supernatural. Rick Moranis’ nebbishy neighbor character, Louis Tully, was possessed by the demonic “Keymaster” Vinz Clortho in the first film, which directly resulted in the resurrection of primary antagonist Gozer. Meanwhile, Ghostbusters II had Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol): the creepy, Renfield-like art restorer obsessed with the malevolent sentient painting of Vigo the Carpathian. But there’s something about Casey’s characterization of Rowan that feels notably distinct from its predecessors. Louis, aside from his brief stint as a vessel for occult forces, was mostly benign comic relief; in the second film, he even ended up joining the Ghostbusters team. And Janosz, while socially awkward, reads less as a traditional nerd than as the much scarier ’80s movie trope of the effeminate European. But Rowan is basically the incarnation of toxic geek culture, circa 2016. His faux-elevated comic book villain rants are delivered with the querulous nerd rage of a thousand Reddit posts; his vindictiveness against a world he is convinced has wronged him should be instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with Gamergate.
More than anything, there’s a chilling sense of entitlement to the character that is strongly evocative of the real-life Ghostbusters purists currently hijacking the discourse around the new film. Toward the end of the movie, in an obvious homage to the original’s Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, a supernaturally-powered Rowan transforms himself into a monstrous version of Michael C. Gross‘ iconic Ghostbusters logo. The low-hanging fruit observation is that the scene is an unintentional metaphor for the new film’s desecration of the franchise: the new Ghostbusters see the classic ghost, whip out their proton packs, and promptly waste it. But it can just as easily be read the opposite way. Rowan’s ghost, after all, is a hideous corruption of the logo: he starts out as something cute and friendly, then quickly grows into a monster that terrorizes the city. In other words, he’s the spitting image of the fanboys who rage at the idea of girls playing in their toybox, and end up twisting something fun and benign into a bitter, ugly culture war.
And that’s really the moral here. Geek culture has a tendency to think of itself as the good guys, the underdogs, like life is just one long Revenge of the Nerds marathon and we’re all Robert Carradine. And look, I get it. I lost my virginity at 19. Most of my childhood memories involve some iteration of the Nintendo Entertainment System (including that godawful Ghostbusters game). I’m now almost 32 years old and still blogging about pop culture. Ich bin ein nerd. But at what point does the underdog become the hegemony? Probably, I would say, around the same time it starts doing the dirty work for right-wing agents provocateur like Milo Yannipopopolis. Of the things the new Ghostbusters does well–and sorry, haters, there are a few–arguably the most important is its dramatization of that shift. Somewhere between Louis Tully and Rowan North, the geeks turned into the bullies, and a lot of us still don’t want to admit as much.
The irony, of course, is that the new Ghostbusters isn’t the enemy–or at least, it shouldn’t be. Have any of you nerds actually seen Paul Feig? I wasn’t even a jock in high school, and I want to give him a swirlie. Nor are the film’s stars some cabal of haute Hollywood elites infiltrating your precious geek movie; this may come as a surprise, but you don’t become a comedian, male or female, if you had an active and fulfilling social life as a teenager. Indeed, the essential dorkiness of the new Ghostbusters is an explicit plot point in the film, as the central duo of Abby and Erin (Wiig’s character) bond over their feelings of being marginalized for their interest in the paranormal; the film’s message is ultimately one of empowerment and community, not just for women, but for anyone whose interests may put them outside the mainstream.
But it’s the other side of that message that I wish the anti-Ghostbusters forces of the Internet would take note of. Because, while Abby, Erin, and Rowan all feel like they don’t belong, it’s only Rowan who wants to raise an army of ghosts to wipe out human civilization. The real conflict here isn’t between men and women, or geeks and normals, but between people who find strength and solace in their individuality and people who use it as an excuse to attack others. In this era of doxxing, targeted harassment campaigns, and endless, poisonous hostility, that’s a lesson I think we could all stand to learn. It’s too bad so many aren’t paying attention.