This year is the 80th anniversary of Batman, and his epic existence, as well as the 30th anniversary of Tim Burton’s classic take that brought the Dark Knight back to his roots and into the modern era. Batman movies then paved the way, ushering in today’s form of superhero filmmaking and action — from the production design and sweeping scope to the plot, villain origin, and its ensemble cast. Everyone is looking back now at how Burton, Michael Keaton, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker changed the game.
I’m not here to talk about any of that, though. Yes, caped crusaders, web-slingers, mutants, creatures of the night, costumed heroes, and men who defy gravity are responsible for the genre (and not to mention a big part of what we do here), but the Bat didn’t bring all that makes comic book movies what they are to the table — and neither did Superman for that matter.
Spirit of the Times
You see, 2019 is also the 30th anniversary of another franchise movie, a sequel, and the 35th of its preceding installment that gave birth to a hot property, its fandom, and most importantly a litany of tropes that live on in entries in shared cinematic universes. When you consider what a Marvel movie, say, entails — especially Avengers — it’s hard to miss the parallels.
Think about it: a team (usually) that barely gets along assembles against an alien or supernatural menace (be it from space, mutated, or from another dimension) attacking a major city (normally New York) in an apocalyptic scenario. Monsters abound in what amounts to a smattering of visual FX layered with light comedy. You’ve seen the same formula repeated in Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, the last two Ninja Turtles movies, Justice League, and so on.
But it played out in other films decades before. Bryan Singer’s X-Men is one but you can go back further to the 1980s, a few years before Burton’s Batman. Look over that list again: an imperfect team, monsters, New York, VFX, a threat that brings Armageddon of “Old Testament” proportions, comedy. Sound familiar yet?
If so, something strange is in your neighborhood. Who you gonna call? That’s right (cue theme), Ghostbusters is where the trail leads back to. Almost every summer blockbuster is a comic-book adaptation eyeing follow-ups and prolonged profitability, and they all borrow from the Ivan Reitman flick in some way.
Oh, Superman, Where Are You Now?
A case could be made for Richard Donner’s Superman instead, maybe. It was, after all, the first major comic book adaptation to take the world by storm.
The thing is Christopher Reeve played a Man of Steel who faced world-shifting odds that merely moved tectonics. Lives were endangered, but the only cost was on a numerically small, personal scale. Turning back time or not, he didn’t face the kind of world-ending, extinction-level event Michael Shannon’s genocidal Zod brought in Zack Snyder’s version.
What of Superman II? Terrence Stamp’s Zod had a touch of class and was more like a bully than a mass murderer. Conquest and intimidation were his MO as opposed to repopulating the planet and harvesting Kal-El’s genetic code.
Each sequel, and this goes for Batman too, featured enemies of varying power levels with evil plans that, while having potential to spread destruction far and wide, were contained and didn’t cross dimensions or planets. Ghostbusters differed with its doorway to Zuul and the ghost dimension that unleashed spirits behaving as if they were Chitauri.
Then there is that iconic image of a spire, often accompanied by if not itself a beam of light, at the foot of the passage between worlds. 21st-century audiences skewing on the younger side would be quicker to associate Stark Tower in Avengers with that description, but Dana Barrett’s apartment building was the first complex notably serving the same purpose.
Ghostbusters visibly inspires elements of Marvel and DC cinema, but some stoop to ripping it off wholesale. Take Suicide Squad, for instance: the clearest and most recent example of lifting from the former’s text.
Exhibit A, the relationship between Rick Flagg and June Moon, a meek woman whose possession by the witch Enchantress and status as one of Amanda Waller’s pawns complicate things between them. Their romance is a darker, and less organic, take on the subplot coupling Peter Venkman and Dana Barrett. At the culmination of both, the dame turns femme fatale out to ruin the world by proxy.
We’re led to exhibit B: Suicide Squad’s climax. Enchantress’ power has leveled up and she’s ready to trigger the end of life as we know it. Harley baits her, cuts out the enchanted heart, averting disaster, and June emerges from the husk of her former self. Compare that with Ghostbusters’ climactic finale, where Dana is possessed by Zuul, the end is nigh, the gang crosses the streams, and she crawls out of a demon-dog husk in one piece, back to normal. She and Peter get together and live happily ever after — until the sequel, at least.
I Am Iron (Venk) Man. No, I’m Peter Venkman.
And if there is an exhibit C, it would be Venkman who mirrors a bigger fish than any member of Task Force X or of the cast. His analog isn’t even a DC character; he’s more akin to Tony Stark, bringing Ghostbusters even closer to Avengers territory.
Stark and Venkman are cut from the same cloth. Both are arrogant and cocky, they think they’re the smartest guys in the room, and have a quick-witted one-liner for every situation. Just as Stark is the nexus of the MCU, Venkman is very much the glue for his team and the film series. The only difference is Stark cracked under the pressure after the attack on New York. Venkman kept on doing his shtick, never really changing or getting any comeuppance.
Beyond archetypes, Marvel also draws plot points from Ghostbusters to make it the heart of one movie that causes a ripple effect. Captain America: Civil War is the best illustration. After Age of Ultron, governments wanted to regulate superbeings so they drafted the Sokovia Accords. Binding, well-intentioned or not, bureaucrats were getting in the way of the mission and tore the Avengers apart.
The same thing played out in Ghostbusters when the EPA and their man, Walter Peck, literally sought to shut the guys down for political reasons. Peck manages to pull the plug on their power grid — the only thing keeping the hellion spirits at bay — and the entire city is placed in jeopardy. Fortunately, Ray, Venks, Egon, and Zeddemore stood together instead of duking it out amongst themselves on an airport runway. They went back, saw Gozer, and kicked its ass.
Part of what keeps Ghostbusters going in some form all these years, just like Avengers or X-Men, is the team component — which has had an appeal that sold books and merchandise since The Fantastic Four hit shelves. It was all the more fitting to see them branch out into comics, toys, cartoons, and Halloween costumes to become their own brand.
They even cultivated the devoted, and meticulous, fanbase to match; one which has been waiting decades for the third movie. Comic readers waited the same amount of time for their favorite heroes to grace the big screen in quality productions.
I’m not simply submitting an exhaustive list of comparisons that make Ghostbusters the same as something from Marvel. The point is to draw the comparison and give credit where it’s due, and otherwise seldom remarked on, if ever.
In an era of franchises dominated by comic characters that can be traced back to the 80s, the first real or definitive superhero/-team movie doesn’t have to be based on a comic at all. Adaptations generally walk a line crisscrossing a jumble of genres — typically sci-fi, fantasy, and action adventure. Light comedy and moments of horror are thrown in to create the fusion that is the modern superhero flick.
The first Ghostbusters checks all those boxes and its the earliest example you can find in 40 years of big-budget romps. Now it can be watched with a new perspective and a refined appreciation. Didn’t like Paul Feig’s 2016 remake? No big deal: you can be thankful we can pretend Joss Whedon remade it, bigger and better, in 2012.