Why ‘Wonder Woman’ Soared and ‘Ghostbusters’ Sagged

One film ignored gender politics while the other tried to capitalize on it — and audiences made their choice

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 06 Jun 2017 at 12:37 PM

“Wonder Woman” earned more than $100 million on its opening weekend, which makes it the highest box-office debut for a female-directed movie ever.

The film will likely have box-office legs as well, since it has over 90 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and is getting nearly universal praise from audiences.

Part of the success of “Wonder Woman” can be attributed to the fact that it broke new ground: This was the first major comic book movie release led by a female character in a post Marvel/universe-building world.

The movie cashed in on the untapped market of young females looking for a superhero to admire, and it paid off — 52 percent of the opening weekend audience was female.

There was, however, a movie that attempted to kickstart an expensive franchise on the backs of female leads before "Wonder Woman." It was a flick that many would probably like to forget: 2016's "Ghostbusters."

It was essentially the same proposition, as director Paul Feig attempted to tap female moviegoers' wallets by taking a franchise everybody knows and letting actresses sell the poster instead of the usual muscle-clad males.

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It didn't work. The Sony movie was reported to have lost over $70 million, and audiences hated it. There's been no talk of sequels or spinoffs, even though the studio announced a plethora of related projects before the release of the summer movie. All are considered DOA at this point.

So why did "Wonder Woman" succeed and "Ghostbusters" fail? It comes down to a few basic points.

Politics. Few movies have had releases as politicized as that of "Ghostbusters," a fact that killed most excitement for the project and made it a divisive piece of entertainment before it even hit the screens in the plumb month of July.

The filmmakers promoting it took a negative stance in their marketing and were aggressive with consumers. After a very disliked trailer hit the web, fans were confused: How could a movie directed by the man behind "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat" and starring four impressive women look so unfunny? And why did the makers decide on a remake of the beloved classic instead of a continuation?

Instead of acknowledging the valid concerns of "Ghostbusters" fans, everyone thought it would be a good idea to play the gender card and claim that any and all negativity was because critics were misogynists.

Headlines like "'Ghostbusters,' the bros who hate it and the art of modern misogyny" and "How misogyny impacted 'Ghostbusters' opening weekend — and its future" appeared in newspapers such as The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. There was no mention that the film was lackluster or that fans didn't want to see a movie accusing them of misogyny if they didn't like it.

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The filmmakers played right into it. The cast even appeared on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show in an segment that also included then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that addressed online "misogyny." Clinton's campaign Twitter account also endorsed the movie. People typically prefer not to make a political statement when they buy a movie ticket, which is what the purchase of a "Ghostbusters" admission became.

Story first. "Ghostbusters" was bad — plain and simple. Taking the remake approach of a still-popular classic movie meant there was little new, original or funny material in Paul Feig's movie.

The studio assumed that a talented director plus a strong cast meant a good movie. Wrong. You need a solid script and a story worth telling.

"Wonder Woman," on the other hand, has earned raves from critics and audiences. Warner Bros. and DC put their trust in a critically praised director, Patty Jenkins, who had a solid vision for telling a story that hadn't yet been shown on screen.

Feig and company never developed anything that hadn't been digested before. They created what was barely a shadow of the original "Ghostbusters." "Wonder Woman" took the time to create a film that stood out from the plethora of other superhero movie releases today, including the mostly darker-in-tone DC films to which it's connected.

The audience score for "Ghostbusters" on Rotten Tomatoes was only 53 percent — that's 20 percent lower than that of critics who were ready to champion the movie no matter its quality.

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"I find it hard to believe that after having sat through that dreck ... three quarters of the critics out there really saw that as a fine example of a reboot of a pretty classic, legendary motion picture. It was just bad," said movie critic Richard Roeper on "The Adam Carolla Show" last year about reviewers' grades for "Ghostbusters" on a curve.

By comparison, "Wonder Woman" has a matching 93 percent score from critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes.

Love for the fans. "Ghostbusters" and "Wonder Woman" had very different approaches to dealing with fans prior to their release. The former seemed to be ashamed of its brand name — while the latter embraced it wholeheartedly.

The biggest mistake "Ghostbusters" made was ignoring the original films. For years, fans had clamored for a third installment in the franchise and they thought the female-led reboot would be it. No one knew it was a remake that didn't acknowledge the originals until the first lackluster trailer.

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To make matters worse, the film stuck the original surviving cast members in hapless roles that had nothing to do with their original characters — further ensuring that they were separating themselves even more from the "Ghostbusters" legacy.

Meanwhile, "Wonder Woman" was able to be part of a bigger world and bigger franchise, and was unique enough to stand out organically rather than by waving off the things fans love.

The character had already been introduced in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" and next will appear in November's "Justice League." The makers felt no need to cast aside this connection. They embraced all DC fans. They even added in elements from the 1970s Lynda Carter television show and comic series that other filmmakers might have brushed off, such as Wonder Woman's lasso and costume.

In the end, "Wonder Woman" was able to build on what had come before it, which fans appreciate. "Ghostbusters" wanted to stick its nose up at the very name it was trying to profit from. It thought that having female leads was enough of a selling point. The box-office losses of that movie and canceled sequels prove that studios should be a little more mindful of their fans and product quality, no matter what gender their lead characters happen to be.

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