Opinion: The character I missed most while watching ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’

Editor’s Note: Patricia Grisafi, PhD, is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in The Guardian, Salon, NBC, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Mary Sue, The Daily Dot and elsewhere. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

“Ghostbusters” is synonymous with New York City. In the original 1984 film, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) puts his arms triumphantly into the air after the team saves the day and shouts, “I love this town!” It’s such a New York specific feel-good moment.

Patricia Grisafi - Courtesy of Patricia Grisafi
Patricia Grisafi - Courtesy of Patricia Grisafi

With the exception of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (2021), which took place in Oklahoma, the films have always felt more like stories about New Yorkers and their community spirit — and less about supernatural spirits. The New Yorkers of the 1980s-era “Ghostbusters” films (the original and the 1989 pink-slimed sequel) might be strange and cantankerous, but they would do anything to protect each other and their city.

Along with the message about diverse communities rallying together for the greater good, “Ghostbusters” was always also about found families — outcasts finding other outcasts, lonely folks making connections and people building nontraditional clans. In the original film, for example, scientific outcasts Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) and their practical-minded new hire Winston form a brotherhood embraced by a city on the brink of destruction. In the sequel, their brotherhood becomes a collective surrogate dad to the baby son of newly single mom Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver).

With the emphasis on the living instead of the dead, the humor that defined these films always felt natural and delightfully weird. I still cringe when in the original, Rick Moranis’ socially awkward character Louis Tully throws a party at his apartment — and not because a demonic dog is hiding under the bedroom coat pile.

Unfortunately, the wackiness and warmth that permeated the first two films have been difficult to recapture. Misogynist complaints plagued the release of an all-female 2016 reboot that was fun but didn’t live up to expectations. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” extracted the action from its quintessential urban setting, with divided critical reactions.

The main story became more about biological family than found family as a new generation of Spenglers — Callie, Trevor and Phoebe (Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace) — struggled to adjust to rural life and accept their destiny as ghostbusters. “Afterlife” was about inheriting the family business and making peace with generational trauma — including literally repeating the past and learning from it.

With the newest film in the franchise, “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” we return to New York City. The Spenglers and kind-of-stepdad Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) have moved into the iconic firehouse and are making a go of it. They’re trying to spruce up the place as well as fight ghosts without causing too much damage to bike racks and businesses, which proves difficult.

There aren’t a ton of new ghosts — most are contained in the firehouse’s old storage unit or a new, fancy lab courtesy of Winston. The problem for me is that there isn’t a ton of New York City, either. The movie visits some beloved landmarks, but the interactions are shallow. (Although Fortitude, one of the New York Public Library’s famous stone lions, does get his very own action sequence.)

Ernie Hudson in 'Ghostbusters II' - Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection
Ernie Hudson in 'Ghostbusters II' - Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

How does a movie that takes place in New York City, with the history of this beloved NYC franchise behind it, have virtually nothing to say about New York City or the people who live there?

In “Frozen Empire,” we are missing the tangible love of the city and its people that the first “Ghostbusters” instilled in us. We’re missing the people — the raucous crowds that refuse to mind their own business, the very specific types of characters that could make us nod our heads in recognition or laugh at the exaggeration. With a few exceptions, “Frozen Empire” feels like it could take place in any city, like New York City is a background prop instead of the main character it rightfully deserves to be.

On the plus side, the movie gets a lot of personality from slacker sneaker dealer and surprise hero Nadeem Razmaadi (Kumail Nanjiani). Eager to make money, he’s gone and sold his recently deceased grandmother’s stuff after discovering a secret room behind the spice cabinet that looks, as one character puts it, like a warrior’s “sex dungeon.” To be honest, a hidden room filled with weird stuff in an otherwise ordinary apartment in Queens is probably one of the most New York City things about this film.

Aside from Nanjiani, the character of Phoebe also lends heart to the film. A 15-year-old genius who is lonely and searching for meaning, she is the emotional center. After being sidelined from the action for being too young and reckless, Phoebe finds connection with a teenage ghost named Melody (Emily Alyn Lind). The relationship is quietly coded as queer but nothing really romantic happens — which is a missed opportunity for a franchise about outcast communities discovering their power and people.

Fun, thrilling movies don’t need to be overtly political, but they should have some kind of message to ground the action. While the original message of “Ghostbusters” — “I love this town” — seems so simple, it’s actually a bold proclamation of pride. In the 1980s, New York City had a reputation for being seedy and dangerous. Now, people talk about how gentrification is destroying the city’s cultural life. My older neighbors in the East Village pine for the “good old days” when they say the neighborhood felt like a neighborhood. There’s a sense of loss that I can’t understand.

Maybe that’s why newer “Ghostbusters” films never seem to find their place. There are ghosts everywhere, but not the kind you can see. And certainly not the kind you can bust.

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