What Sony's 'Ghostbusters' Universe Needs Is … Less Ghostbusters (Opinion)

If Sony wants to follow the Marvel model, it needs to look at the latter's diversity of offerings.
Columbia Pictures/Courtesy The Neal Peters Collection

Despite what the Internet might believe, the problem with plans to expand Ghostbusters into its own "cinematic universe" a la Marvel Studios' superheroic saturnalia isn't that the Paul Feig-directed, female-led movie will be "spoiled" or overshadowed in some way by the all-male team appearing in the Joe and Anthony Russo-directed release a year later — although, admittedly, that's not not a concern — but something more basic: Does the audience really want a Ghostbusters universe?

Even before Ghost Corps or the Russos' project had been announced, the revival of the Ghostbusters franchise had a particularly problematic task at hand — namely, convincing audiences that there's more to Ghostbusters than the talents of four particular actors, and that it was worthy of a new take 30 years later. Sony's selection of talent for the first new film — Feig, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon — was bold and unexpected enough to make many at least more open to the idea, but adding a second movie and the announcement of a "cinematic universe" to the mix changes the mental math considerably.

That's the core problem for Sony — beyond, of course, the response from fans and industry watchers that announcing the Russos' project at this point steps on the enthusiasm for and legitimacy of the Feig movie. Somehow, Sony has to convince audiences that there is a "universe" capable of supporting several potential movies there, instead of just one series.

To put it another way, while the Marvel superheroes are all, well, superheroes, they also have things to differentiate themselves from each other and offer different stories to the audience at large: Captain America is a superpatriot who gives Marvel the chance to tell politically tinged tales as well as war stories; Thor gives the chance to produce overblown melodrama on an epic scale; Iron Man gets to do all the visually spectacular tech stuff; Guardians of the Galaxy opens up space opera, while the upcoming Doctor Strange does the same for supernatural stuff.

That product diversity is what makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe work. Yes, each movie coexists with the others and hews to the same basic genre, but the variations in flavor allow them to be more than carbon copies of one another. So far, what we know about the differences between the two Ghostbusters movies is that one team will be all women, the other "male-centric." And … that's it.

Of course, there will be more differences between the two movies — there has to be, if only for Sony to make releasing the two so close together seem like anything other than an attempt to flood the market with identical product. But having the first two pieces of your "cinematic universe" be disconnected yet conceptually identical, at best, risks persuading audiences that there's nothing more to the Ghostbusters universe than people catching ghosts for a living, or because bustin' makes them feel good. If you're trying to build out a universe, shouldn't the second entry in the series be farther removed from the first than simply swapping the genders of the leads? (Seriously, no one suggested a Slimer movie?) Marvel wouldn't have become quite so big if it only offered Iron Man and Iron Woman, after all. 

There is a lot of potential in building out a universe around the Ghostbusters series, but the Ghostbusters should only be one part of it, instead of the link between each movie. To use the Marvel comparison again: You replace "superhero" with "supernatural" and go from there. What becomes the common thread is a world in which ghosts and ghoulies are real, not the heroes who fight them.

It's early enough in the proceedings that the Russos' project could go in that direction — Channing Tatum doesn't have to be a Ghostbuster in name, surely. (I admit, I'd love it if this project turned out to be the third 21 Jump Street movie that was rumored to be merging the series with the Men in Black franchise, as unlikely as that may be.) In a universe where there's something strange in neighborhoods all over the world, it'd only make sense that the Ghostbusters would have some competition — both in the fictional universe Sony hopes to establish, and in the real-world business sense as well.

Maybe someone at Sony should be thinking about finding the ghostly equivalent of the Weapon Plus supersoldier program …