Sunday Smackdown: Ghostbusters (2016) vs Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

Two movies enter the arena, each with a different idea of what made the original Ghostbusters work. (Some spoilers for Afterlife)

At this point, there have been three attempts to make a movie follow-up to Ghostbusters that captured everything that made the original such a classic. None of them have managed to do it.

But it’d be unfair to be too critical of them for that, since the original Ghostbusters was such a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of ideas, execution, and timing that it’s impossible to pick the one trait that made it such a classic. Back in 1989, when I was feeling so betrayed by Ghostbusters II, I probably should’ve kept in mind how completely surprised I had been by the original.

I’d gone in expecting it to be another Meatballs or more likely, Stripes: a movie built around Bill Murray’s charmingly lecherous, rebellious, screw-up persona that somehow became an engaging action comedy. It was only after the opening sequence, with a genuinely scary library ghost, that I realized this wasn’t “just” a comedy.

If the decades of behind-the-scenes accounts and making-of stories and frequent retellings are to be believed, that dichotomy was present in the project from concept all the way through to filming. Dan Ackroyd supposedly had a concept that went all-in on the lore, and Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman came in to steer it back towards family comedy. I’m skeptical that it was as clear-cut as all that, but it is evident in the movie, which has way more plot and world-building than a comedy needs, even in the golden age of movies that 1984 turned out to be.

(Case in point: possibly my favorite line in the movie is when the under-appreciated MVP of the whole project, Rick Moranis as Louis Tully, is foretelling the coming of Gozer the Traveler. From IMDb: “Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!”)

So any attempt at a follow-up inevitably has to decide what it was that made the original work so well. Ghostbusters (2016) decided that it was a special-effects-heavy comedy featuring SNL alumni as wacky, hapless outcasts crackin’ jokes while bustin’ ghosts. Ghostbusters: Afterlife decided that it was a lighthearted supernatural adventure whose strength came from its characters and their discoveries.1Ghostbusters 2 decided that Ghostbusters had made Columbia Pictures a lot of money, so bringing back the entire cast with more studio interference and a smaller budget couldn’t help but recapture lightning in a bottle.

Honestly, neither one is wrong. But neither one is quite able to encompass everything that made the original work, either. Is it better to be entertaining in the moment but ultimately forgettable? Or to be more earnest and emotionally resonant at the expense of much of the comedy and action?

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    Ghostbusters 2 decided that Ghostbusters had made Columbia Pictures a lot of money, so bringing back the entire cast with more studio interference and a smaller budget couldn’t help but recapture lightning in a bottle.

Sunday Smackdown: Aquaman vs Shang-Chi

Two movies, four worlds, one winner

I really, really enjoyed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I think Simu Liu is a revelation, everything with Michelle Yeoh is automatically interesting (even if not necessarily good), and it did a phenomenal job of bringing a martial-arts-and-magic based hero to the MCU without losing the character moments that make the MCU work in the first place.

I surprisingly enjoyed Aquaman. Not nearly as much as Shang-Chi, but more than I’d expected, which was none enjoyment. For a while, it’s been my example of how modern cinema is failing me: even as big, dumb spectacle, it didn’t have enough draw to compel me to go to a theater. But after watching it on HBO Max, I was pleasantly surprised. It still felt as if it were made up predominantly of the Zack Snyder version of the Justice League, combined with a movie exec in 2016’s idea of what bros want from a super-hero blockbuster, combined with Geoff Johns’s idea of what bros want from a super-hero comic book.

But there were enough moments of self-aware goofiness, and a willingness to poke fun at itself, that made it a lot easier to let everything else wash over me. If this were a “One Thing I Like” post, I’d choose the scene in which a bunch of guys approach Aquaman to start a bar fight. It captured exactly the tone I liked seeing peek through the rest of the bullshit that’s too insecure and defensive to let comics and comics-inspired properties just be fun.

Shang-Chi and Aquaman have more aspects in common than just “blockbuster super-hero movies built around lesser-known or disrespected characters from the comics.” Both of them establish that their main character is of two worlds, and both of them try to build up to a climax in which the hero is going to have to bring together both of his worlds to overcome his obstacles.

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Sunday Smackdown: Skyfall vs Spectre

When you like a worse movie better than a better one

Let’s try yet another intermittent weekly series on this blog: pitting two pieces of art or entertainment against each other to decide a “winner.”

All of my parasocial friends on YouTube and the rest of the internet have been optimizing their SEO by talking about James Bond movies to capitalize on No Time To Die. Even if I felt comfortable going to theaters again, that movie is around two hours and 45 minutes long โ€” somebody on Twitter more clever than I am called it No Time to Pee โ€” so I’m not going to be seeing that until it comes to streaming services or cheap rentals.

The movie looks interesting, but Black Widow and Shang-Chi both satisfied my action-spectacle-on-a-big-screen quota for 2021. Honestly, the most compelling part of the movie for me is Ana de Armas, who I thought was fantastic in Knives Out and is so preternaturally beautiful that it’s hard to believe she isn’t a digitally-created person. I like Daniel Craig a ton, and the only reason he’s not my favorite James Bond is because the Sean Connery movies exist, but honestly, I’d much rather see him in Knives Out sequels, except where they find an excuse for him to spend most of the movie with no shirt on.

And while Craig is pretty great, the movies post Casino Royale have been pretty disappointing. Skyfall has been near-universally praised as one of the best in the series, but I was so turned off by it that I didn’t even bother watching Spectre until last night, as a compromise: if I can’t watch the new Bond movie, I’ll watch the new-to-me one.

So I was pretty surprised that I kind of enjoyed it. To be clear: it’s absolutely absurd, even frustratingly so in parts. But then, that’s true of almost all of them. I think the franchise is best when it leans into the absurdity, with the important qualifier that everybody in the movie has to act as if the absurdity is genuinely cool. That’s why Roger Moore came across as too silly, and Pierce Brosnan came across as too eager to be in on the joke, while Sean Connery could be in situations that were ludicrous and even downright offensive, but still somehow retain an aura of cool.

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