A few weeks ago I was showing a friend of mine Kevin Feige’s Marvel Phase 3 announcement, and we got to talking about identification, privilege, and how changes to characters affect fans. His specific point was that as a kid he always identified with She-Ra more than He-Man, so he assumed growing up that girls also identified with male characters I had always provided a helpful example for him, since, as a kid stuck in a town I didn’t much like, craving adventure and excitement, I identified wholly with Luke. Leia, the beautiful, self-assured royal diplomat, was not someone I felt in tune with, despite our similarities in name and gender.
So he was a bit taken aback at my excitement for the upcoming Black Panther and Captain Marvel films. He certainly isn’t against them, but he was surprised when I talked about how important it was that superhero movies, and SFF in general, was finally becoming more diverse. And the more we talked, the more I realized that I always identified most with characters like Indiana Jones, Peter Venkman, Raphael (the turtle, not the painter), Al Calavicci, Arthur Dent… I spent most of my childhood thinking my way into perspectives that were all male, and usually white. Of course, I’ve thought about this before, but the conversation put it back in the front of my brain. And then Paul Feig announced his Ghostbusters reboot cast.
I’ll admit, I’ve only dipped into #Ghostbustersgate slightly, because it doesn’t take much to tip me into a Travis Bickle-style HUMANITY NEEDS TO END ALREADY rage, but the little bit that I’ve seen has been predictably disgusting, and the counterattack of humor has been predictably fun to watch. Personally? Yes, Ghostbusters was a huge part of my childhood; yes, I identified with Venkman; and no, I didn’t care that Venkman was a dude. (What really bugged me was that Egon was transformed into a blonde for the cartoon, but that’s a whole other thing.) But I still think it’s awesome that a new generation of kids will get to see women busting ghosts. I think it’s slightly beyond awesome that a generation of boys will see it, and my hope is that the new film is awesome and funny and that today’s children will have THREE WHOLE GHOSTBUSTERS MOVIES to choose from, and that they’ll like all three of them for different reasons. (What? There’s great stuff in 2! The toaster scene alone is worth it.)
Humans tend to like retelling certain stories over and over again. Every once in a while a story comes along that becomes a cultural touchstone to the point that bits of it get repurposed and recycled, and it finds new resonance with people. So why does it freak people out so much when stories are rebooted? I mean, I’ll admit that there are certain things that upset me, too (I may have yelled “Aw, hell NO” the first time I saw the new Ninja Turtles, for instance) but in general, I’m confused by the furious reaction to a new take on a classic story. I also understand the instinct to want new stories, but why the kneejerk hatred for recasting old ones? I have an idea about what all this recasting is doing to us as a people, but I’ll get there at the end.
Another friend talked about a relative of hers who was initially upset by the Samuel Jackson version of Nick Fury—not for any racially-motivated reasons, but simply because Sam Jackson isn’t his Nick Fury, nor is the Ultimate Marvel Nick Fury, Jr. / Marcus Johnson his Fury. His Nick Fury is the crew-cut, cigar-chomping, grizzled, WWII-era Howling Commando he grew up with. I know several people who, for similar reasons, are violently opposed to the rumor of Chris Pratt as a new Indiana Jones, and a few who are mad about Jurassic World.
I guess resistance to reboots could also be standard case of memento mori—when you’ve grown up with strapping Harrison Ford, and then suddenly he’s replaced by newly-strapping Chris Pratt that can be a shock. Bill Murray can be a sprightly trickster character in his actual life, crashing engagement photos and bartending at SXSW, but as an actor he’s portraying the mentors to Jason Schwartzman and Jaeden Lieberher. Luke Skywalker will presumably be a more Obi-Wan-esque figure in the Star Wars sequels, and usher in a new crop of young Jedi. And this is good! Allowing fresh blood into the world will reinvigorate it, if they do it well. So why then do some people tip over into actual anger, right from the start?
Over at The Dissolve, Nathan Rabin points out one of the elements that goes into reboot fury:
There’s an unmistakable element of generational chauvinism to these complaints as well. I want my son, who is now just under four months old, to watch and love Ghostbusters the way I did when I was eight years old.
Now I don’t have a kid, and that may actually be part of this…my childhood was my childhood, and it sits there in my brain with all the memories of Luke and Venkman and Raphael, and I don’t need to worry about trying to somehow shove those exact memories into my child’s brain. I’m mostly excited to see what new people can do with these stories. But I do think that creators need to put serious thought into why they’re retelling certain stories, and how they can expand the stories into new areas. It was the thing I kept yelling about after I saw Ridley Scott’s Exodus: why are these stories still important? If we’re choosing to make changes, what purpose do those changes serve? Each DC reboot has changed Superman a bit—the 1978 film with Christopher Reeve was charming and sweet, while Bryan Singer’s reboot took some of the mythological imagery that was always a subtext in the Superman story and made it text. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, meanwhile, gave us a dark, troubled, extremely alien Superman. What—if anything—about this version speaks to us now? What does turning the Ninja Turtles into aliens, rather than mutants, achieve? And why does it still say “Mutant” in the title? What can a new Ghostbusters cast do that hasn’t already been done?
This question also leads me to my next thought. The reboot turnaround time is shrinking pretty rapidly. We’ve had three different Superman franchise attempts since 1978, two different Batman series (with four different Batmen, two Robins, and three Catwomen) since 1989, and we’ll soon have two different Fantastic Fours (I’m ignoring this one) since 2005. Each of these iterations at least attempted to explore a different angle, though, so it makes sense… but then you get to Spider-Man. I happen to prefer Raimi’s even with the problem child that is Spider-Man 3, but my frustration is more based in the fact that Amazing Spider-Man didn’t do anything new! If they’d pulled from a different plot, rather than giving us the mentor turned bad story with the Lizard instead of Otto Octavius, or, um anything other than Peter’s dad’s secret lab, I’d have felt better about it. What if they’d used it to explore Miles Morales, and his particular relationship to the Spider-Man mythos? That would have been amazing.
If a Chris Pratt-led Indiana Jones reboot takes us on new adventures and introduces us to more of the world, while staying true to Indy’s character? I’ll be ecstatic. If we get the Abner Ravenwood story that Chronicles didn’t give us, with a solid role for a young Marion? I’ll be extra ecstatic. If the new film leaves more room for a diversity of explorers, rather than just, um, white guys? I will be super ecstatic. If Jurassic World gives us a look at a functioning dinosaur park and also looks at ethics and science in a ridiculous context, all while Chris Pratt leads the team of specially-trained velociraptors that all of us have wanted since childhood? ECSTATIC. But if it’s just a retread of Jurassic Park III, and if Indiana Jones Redux is just a bunch of white dudes? …Less ecstatic.
The same day that people were losing their ectoplasm over the Ghostbusters reboot, Jonathan Chait wrote a much-discussed article about what he believes is a rise in PC language. I think he’s getting at something interesting, but he’s coming at it from the wrong direction. We’re at a fascinating moment in culture when people are trying to redefine terms, and while it can be debated how successful these redefinitions will be, what’s sure is that people who have traditionally had little or no power in the US, and have spent much of their histories being defined by those in power, are pushing back. Emily Asher-Perrin wrote an essay yesterday about headcanons, and how they can be used to empower people, and I think one of the greatest things in fandom is that those personal interpretations are coming out into the world.
Naturally people who are used to having power are frightened by this, and Chait’s essay, though it makes a few good points, mostly reads as a reaction against change. As Ian Malcolm taught us, paradigm shifts are scary. But our language, the words we use for each other, are the building blocks of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—and sometimes those words need to change so the story can grow.
In the context of Ghostbusters, given who’s attached to the project, I’m pretty optimistic. Paul Feig has made some excellent, heartfelt work over the years, in TV, movies, YA novels, and memoirs. Co-writer Katie Dippold did great work on The Heat and Parks and Rec. And Feig loves the OG movies, as has been made abundantly clear. In updating that, Feig has found four women who will have very different chemistry with each other. We’ll have four women of different races and body types, who are all well over 30, starring in a film that isn’t about marriage or weddings or babies. This is fantastic enough, but the thing that no one’s mentioning is that they’ll also have four different comedic styles. If you’ve seen Bridesmaids or watched any recent episode of SNL, you can see that the four actors have different styles, just as the original four did, and meshing them into one film will be amazing.
Ghostbusters was in many ways a synthesis of the snobs vs. slobs ethos that Reitman, Ramis, and Murray popularized in the early 80s. Where Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack, and Animal House were about brash outsiders sticking it to the Man, Ghostbusters is about a pair of nerdy scientists and a shlubby charlatan who work within the elitist structure of Columbia University before being kicked downtown. Even after that, though, they stick to their nerd cred—the human villain is a humorless, unthinking bureaucrat, whom they defeat with wit, the supernatural villain is a god named Gozer, whom they defeat with research and scientific inquiry. This is the core story, I think: four funny, creative people using their wits in the face of death. As long as Feig and his actors remain true to that, we’ll get a film that will expand the universe, and allow more people to play in it. Plus maybe this won’t come up first when you type the words “Female Ghostbuster” into an image search.
So…allow me to hit you with my crazy theory. I think all these reboots, and becoming comfortable with them, is changing our wiring, and I think that’s an incredibly important thing. I think this might be the thing that saves us as a species, actually. This sounds…stupid? I’ll admit that. But, as has been commented on ad nauseam, these stories are our modern myths. These are the stories we’re choosing to tell ourselves, and they’re changing at an extraordinary rate.
When Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie came out in 2000, ushering in the new era of superhero films, we had a group of primarily white mutants, and it was marketed to the default nerd stereotype of white, bespectacled middle-class boys. The story could be read as a parable of racial segregation, and the sequel hung a lampshade on the gay rights aspect, but other than that? We had Storm, whose African-ness is actually muted in the films, and we had the other three women, Rogue, Jean Grey, and Mystique, who were tossed around between the male characters like hackysacks.
Now? We have a much more diverse X-Men cast, we have Mystique as a fully-formed character who breaks away from both Charles Xavier and Magneto to forge her own path. We have a Captain America who went from being an idealistic, red-blooded, WWII-era American kid from Brooklyn, to a slightly more cynical man who relies on on two African-American men and two women (one of them a Russian defector! Gasp!) to fight evil. Nick Fury is no longer a white, cigar-chomping guy—the character who was once played by David Hasslehoff (yup.) is now embodied by Samuel Jackson.
We have diverse casts for Flash, Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., promises that Black Panther and Captain Marvel will get their own movies. The current Spider-Man thinks it’s Miles’ turn. We went from an all-white Fantastic Four in the mid-00s to the biracial Storm family that we’ll get later this year. In the comics, Nick Fury, Jr. is now the (black) man in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain America is African-American, Ms. Marvel is a Muslim woman, Thor is a woman, and there are characters who fall on every part of the gender and sexuality spectrum. We have a trans Magic card now.
The latest edition of D&D was partially inspired by Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler. And as for Star Wars, if the sequels and spin-off films are half as diverse as they look so far, children coming to the SWU for the first time won’t need to choose between the one white girl and the two white guys like I did (I’m assuming that no little kid identifies with Lando) and they also won’t have to deal with the problematic politics of the prequel trilogy. Between The Clone Wars, Rebels, the new trilogy, the standalone spin-offs, and all the books and comics, they’ll have a whole galaxy of characters of different races, cultural backgrounds, and genders to choose from.
Kids won’t have to do the emotional gymnastics that I did, or the far worse mental contortions that people further from the “mainstream” than I am have had to do. They will see themselves everywhere. But maybe even more importantly, they’re growing up in world where change is the norm. Anyone can be anything. And their brains are being trained to accept that as the default. What are their stories going to look like? Will reboot fury itself be a thing of the past, if stories are in a constant state of flux?