Every 'Ghostbusters' Movie Ranked, from the Original to 'Frozen Empire' – IndieWire

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You probably already know what will be number one on this list. The “Ghostbusters” franchise has gone through its ups and downs, reboots and legacyquels. But as the first film approaches its 40th anniversary this June, there’s little doubt in anybody’s mind that it remains the definitive ghost-catching movie of them all.
In the early ’80s, Dan Aykroyd — then just fresh off his stint as an original “Saturday Night Live” cast member — was inspired by his own belief in the supernatural to write a script about a group of eccentric academics who start a pest-control business where the “pests” they’re catching are malevolent spirits. Recruiting former “SNL” castmate Bill Murray to star, comedian Harold Ramis to help rewrite the screenplay, and “Meatballs” and “Stripes” filmmaker Ivan Reitman to direct. The final film, which hit theaters in 1984, starred Aykroyd, Murray, Ramis, and Ernie Hudson as the four Ghostbusters, along with Annie Potts as their secretary and Sigourney Weaver as a woman possessed by an ancient demigod that the small-time heroes are forced to defeat. This entire heroic tale is told with its tongue firmly in its cheek, as a comedy more interested in laughs than action or scares.
“Ghostbusters” was an immediate and massive success when it first came out, grossing $252 million worldwide; its iconic theme song from Ray Parker Jr. reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Naturally, its success made Columbia Pictures eager to launch a franchise. But the followup, 1989’s “Ghostbusters II,” was met with negative critical and fan reception, and performed slightly worse at the box office than the original movie. This effectively killed the potential for a third film, and the franchise lay dormant for decades, give or take iconic Saturday Morning Cartoon “The Real Ghostbusters.”
In the 2010s, as the kids who grew up with the original film became a very lucrative group of ticket-purchasing adults, the franchise was reborn again as Sony attempted several relaunches of the property. The first was a total reboot of the first films from director Paul Feig that featured a few original cast members in cameo roles, but otherwise tried to repeat the magic of the first film by repeating its formula of “Saturday Night Live” stars busting ghosts and making raunchy jokes. The main difference was that in the 2016 “Ghostbusters” those “Saturday Night Live” cast members were women — Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, plus non-“SNL” player Melissa McCarthy. This change generated a lot of sexist and right-wing backlash against the film, especially online, which (probably) didn’t have that much to do with the film’s underperformance at the box office. But again, the film underperformed, and Sony quickly pivoted.
The current “Ghostbusters” series kicked off in 2021 with “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” directed by the late Ivan Reitman’s son Jason. Rather than try and recapture the comedy of the original, the film is essentially a nostalgic, fan service filled blockbuster, telling the story of the grandchildren of the late Ramis as they carry on his ghostbusting business, and featuring most of the original cast in supporting parts. The film received mixed reviews, but was a relative success financially, and Sony continued the series with direct sequel “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” which arrives in theaters after a three-year wait.
With “Frozen Empire” in theaters now, IndieWire is taking stock of the franchise to determine which of its sequels and reboots most succeeded in recapturing the magic of the original, and which are best left to the graveyard. We won’t be including beloved “The Real Ghostbusters,” although rest assured it would place high if we did. Read on for our list of all five “Ghostbusters” films, ranked from worst to best.
With editorial contributions from Kate Erbland.
In Ivan Reitman’s 1989 sequel ‘Ghostbusters II,’ a river of psychomagnotheric slime zipping underneath New York City gets charged up by the collectively angry feelings of the city’s addled citizens which, in turn, helps power up various evil spirits (ya know, ghosts). A similar idea is at play in Gil Kenan’s ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,’ itself a sequel to (we’re already guessing) a more-liked first film (2021’s ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’), in which a nasty spirit attempts to kill off the human population by the power of, essentially, bad vibes.
Of course, that basic baddie bit isn’t the only similarity between Kenan’s film and the rest of the original ‘Ghostbusters’ franchise. Such is the world of the legacyquel. But it provides the best roadmap for what Kenan and co-screenwriter (and ‘Afterlife’ director and, of course, Ivan Reitman’s own son) Jason Reitman were attempting in their first follow-up to a mostly amiable reboot. A little winking and nodding to what came before? It’s to be expected, perhaps even enjoyed. But a twisting on a relatively simple plot for ends that can most generously be termed ‘confusing’ and ‘joyless’? No one wants that. No one needs that.
The vibes? Oh, they’re bad.
At the end of ‘Ghostbusters II,’ that awful supernatural slime river (and the absolutely deranged 16th-century tyrant and baby-snatcher it helps empower) is defeated by the shared goodwill (and the temporarily animated charm of the Statue of Liberty) of an entire city. It’s a neat little conceit: Good guys win, stories can be somewhat convoluted and still deliver an understandable punch, you can animate the Statue of Liberty if you have a good enough reason. But it’s one ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ can’t effectively ape, let alone with the kind of joy the original films so effortlessly captured. This franchise might not be entirely dead just yet, but its latest resurrection doesn’t make nearly enough good arguments to keep pumping life into it. —KE
Read IndieWire’s complete review of ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire.’ 
The most charitable interpretation of ‘Afterlife’ is that the film is the result of Jason Reitman — who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Gil Kenan — paying tribute to his father’s legacy and what’s arguably his most beloved work. The uncharitable interpretation is that it’s a pandering, derivative, and unimaginative act of fanservice intended to give the sexist fans who hated the 2016 reboot exactly what they want, appealing to their nostalgia without offering anything new. The story mines all the props, characters, costumes, and aesthetics of the original film, while throwing out all of the raunchy comedy that made the film successful in favor of a coming-of-age story about a bunch of pre-teens in small-town Oklahoma — led by Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace as Egon from the first film’s grandkids — taking up the Ghostbusters lineage. One can feel the ”Ghostbusters’ meets ‘Stranger Things” pitch that probably got the film made while they’re watching the film, which trots out references to the original as a way of masking how deeply unengaging and derivative the characters in the center of the story are. All of the worst trends in reboots and legacyquels coalesce in ‘Afterlife,’ more the conjured spirit of another movie than a real film with its own identity.—WC
Comedy sequels are difficult to get right; too many of them are broader, staler, and simply less memorable than the original film that captured the audience’s imagination. Even still, the decline between ‘Ghostbusters II’ and the first film is startlingly steep. The entire original cast and Reitman returned for the four-years-later sequel, which aggressively repeated and recycled ideas from the original to diminishing returns. The status quo gets a hard reset after the events of the first film, as the public (somehow, after a giant marshmallow mascot rampaged across the city) denies the idea that the ghosts from the first film were real and the City of New York sued the company out of business for property damage. Again lovable losers, the group reunites and gets back to busting when a mysterious river of slime powered by negative emotions emerges in the New York sewer and produces new spirits, while Peter’s (Bill Murray) ex Dana (Sigourney Weaver) deals with her boss at the museum she works at getting enslaved by the spirit of a 16th century magician.
The film, essentially, recreates the arc of the first movie to the letter, and unsteadily attempts to soften the crudeness of the original’s humor for a more consciously family-friendly tone. The result is a stale, largely unamusing comedy that simply can’t recapture the magic again. Still, the cast is largely game, and there are some inventive special effects. You’ll certainly remember the Statue of Liberty coming alive in the climax, which is more than you can say about anything that happens in ‘Afterlife’ and ‘Frozen Empire.’—WC
Enough time has passed since the 2016 ‘Ghostbusters’ and the embarrassing right-wing culture war that was fought over it that we can probably all just admit that it was fine. It was fine! Paul Feig’s 2016 reboot is arguably truer to the actual heart of the franchise in its attempt to recapture the set-up of gross-out comedy starring four comic actors, most of whom are/were on ‘SNL.’ And the cast gives good performances — Kristen Wiig is an appealingly nerdy kook woman, Melissa McCarthy is amusingly snarky, Leslie Jones grounds things as the straight woman of the group, and Kate McKinnon damn near steals the show as a hyperactive mad scientist. Then there’s Chris Hemsworth, who gets some of the best bits as the dim-witted hottie hired as the group’s receptionist. It’s a fivesome that has genuinely good comedic timing and chemistry with each other, and if they don’t quite reach the heights of the original cast they come closer than you might predict. Unfortunately, they’re let down by a messy, poorly paced, and often uneven script, that doesn’t give them the material they deserve. And Feig, who shot a decent action comedy with ‘Spy,’ is in poor form here, turning in a garish-looking film and underwhelming ghost-busting sequences. All this adds to a film that is just generally fine, but credit to it for being more truthful to its source material than a legacyquel could ever be. —WC
Why the original ‘Ghostbusters’ works in a way no other sequel has managed is a question and a riddle that filmmakers will be attempting to crack for as long as movies still exist. But the easy answer is that when Ivan Reitman filmed the cheesy, funny supernatural ghost story back in 1984, it didn’t have any source material it was trying to ‘honor.’ Every single ‘Ghostbusters’ film that has come since has been hobbled by expectations and hang-ups about what people want from ‘Ghostbusters,’ but the first film was able to be its own, scrappy thing. Beyond the trappings of the iconic jumpsuits, Slimer, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and the earworm theme song, the original ‘Ghostbusters’ is ultimately a showcase for an incredible comedic cast. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson are all hilarious separately and together, and the script from Aykroyd and Ramis gives them memorably cynical, often raunchy jokes to make a meal out of; it’s a movie that appealed to both kids and adults. There’s a decent share of thrilling action, and the arc that takes the ‘Ghostbusters’ from lovable losers to heroes of New York is satisfying, but ultimately the original ‘Ghostbusters’ was lightning in the bottle for one reason: it was funny as hell. That sharp freshness is what the rest of the franchise lacks, and the reason why the original will always be the best. —WC
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