Pop Optics: Mario Mario Mario!

Over the weekend of July 15th I was hanging out with friends and we decided to embark on a journey 30 years in the making: we watched the 1993 Super Mario Bros film. One of my friends got his hands on a DVD release, inspired by some conversation we had some weeks prior. So this decision wasn’t entirely spontaneous but I also wouldn’t call it inspired either. This was more an opportunity to determine how worthy of the reputation it has developed it truly was. A film plagued with a histrionic production and drunken shenanigans. Production that forced Dennis Hopper to halt everything so he could admonish the directors for a few hours. A film that made Nintendo have no desire to license any of its titles for cinematic adaptations for three decades.

Was Super Mario Bros pure folly, fueled by hubris or a weird experiment in pushing boundaries to be the breakthrough for video game films?

Pictured: Footage of an audience member watching Super Mario Bros opening night.

It’s definitely a touchstone for most of those things, even if for a good while it was just a blip then forgotten when only a short time after another cinematic marvel was released and not only ate its lunch but also kicked it out of their own home and stole their spouse as well.

“Are you the one they call… Mario?”

The nightmare of the production has been documented elsewhere and there’s nothing new to reveal. Everything about how the film was made is now in the pop cultural ether and is no longer impressive to dispense leisurely at parties to anyone paused to refresh their drink.
Thirty years ago I don’t recall being hyped for the Mario film and I don’t think I even saw it in theaters. I have no memories tied to outside of home video rentals and the scene of the Goombas dancing and Dennis Hopper being Dennis Hopper. I was definitely more excited to see Jurassic Park as a six year old child. And given the just-touching middle class status my family had at the time, if there was a budget for one spectacle of the summer, then it would have been that dinosaur movie and not the other.

Lookit how adorable it is! We’re gonna merchandize the hell out of it!

1993 was the year for dinos I suppose.

There’s a sour note on the Mario film that causes everyone to existentially retch when the subject is mentioned. The reputation not only precedes it, but it lays down a red carpet and sends out a jester to make a proclamation of its presence. It has become synonymous with failure to the point that you’re a fool to seek it out. It isn’t obscure, just hard to come by but also wanting to come by it is seen as questionable. The assumption is that the quest to find and watch it is a masochistic endeavor. There’s no need to watch it if it never got a proper release (in North America) but why would you want to watch it given that it’s such a piece of shit?

Well… is it though? Is it really all that terrible?

Kids love gimps!

Internet culture has this ability to transform hyperbole into stated fact, flattening things to a compact size that’s easy to fit in your pocket and pull out when needed, like a business card that states “This sucked and that’s final.” You can’t argue with business cards – someone paid good money to produce those and no one would do so maliciously, right? That would be a waste of time and money. Just like the Super Mario movie!

John and Bob’s first day on set and the last time they were sober for the whole production.

The 1993 film has more in common with nothing than the video game it is supposedly adapted from. It would have been better suited to have put a disclaimer before the credits reading “Any resemblance to IP owned by Nintendo is purely coincidental” and allowed the film to play out as is. It takes established characters from the video games and brings them into the real world before transporting them to a parallel dimension that exists in an urban dystopia that is evocative of cyberpunk aesthetics. You could confuse some scenes and shots for being from Demolition Man or Johnny Mnemonic.

Kids love cyberpunk dystopias!

It is of that style that seemed to be injected into sci-fi films of the early 90s and the film itself is about as good as any of those I mentioned. That it’s a Super Mario property is what hurts I think. It has lofty expectations to live up to, and those expectations have evolved over time as we’ve seen Hollywood adapting established IP as the norm. Veer too far from the source material or stay too close, there’s a chance it will not be lauded and banished to a bin for eternity.

Pictured: The CEO of Hollywood Pictures after seeing the final cut of the film.

For my money, of which there’s not much, I think it is a perfectly cromulent film. It takes characters we are somewhat familiar with and puts them in an environment that resembles our own but is obviously not akin to either our reality or theirs. There’s an unpolished charm that rests over every shot that makes it feel subterranean in every sense of the word.
The story is maybe only conceptually similar to the Mario games, and as someone who only ever played the first NES game in their childhood, I recognize only so few things without a doubt that they’re meant to be the cinematic equivalent. So I trusted my friends to say that as an adaptation, it doesn’t hit the mark but that doesn’t detract from being able to enjoy the film, because as a film, it’s pretty fucking nuts.

“I’m not crazy! Poor people are crazy! I’m eccentric!”

What the film accomplished is it took a story about a plumber who must rescue a princess from the clutches of a reptilian tyrant while dodging all manner of fantastical forces and twisted it into a tale about class struggles in an urban environment on the verge of expansion and gentrification, and it does it in two different dimensions!

There’s a recurring motif that the Mario Bros are routinely being beaten to the plumb by a rival company that has deeper resources than they do, thus losing their share of the market. Meanwhile, the same mogul who runs the rival plumbing corporation is also trying to grab up as much land as possible because real estate is a lucrative investment only for the already rich. When they’re transported to the dino dimension and enter the alternate New York reality, they find themselves being hunted by the police for the crime of being plumbers (no, seriously, their profession is the crime). The city is under the fascist rule of King Koopa, who bears a striking resemblance to a man who once said he could kill someone in public and he’d get away with it.

At least this guy has better tailored suits.

There’s also two bumbling henchmen, Iggy and Spike, relatives of Koopa, who eventually undergo “forced evolution” in effort to make them smart enough to follow Koopa’s orders without failing. However, they still fail but only because their newfound intelligence causes them to act like college freshmen who just took their first philosophy course and now they’re questioning their role in the system, the system itself, and what it means to have free will in a society that forces you to pledge blind allegiance to authority. Ladies and gentlemen, Super Mario Bros is pro-communist.

The Marx and Lenin of the Dinosaur Dimension

It’s a sloppy commentary about how capitalism goes hand-in-hand with fascism, and that those who have the authority will abuse their power to suppress those who are threats to their dominance. That unchecked power is equal to corruption, and if you can’t think for yourself, you’re just a mindless follower. Afterall, we witness what happens to Toad, who in this universe is a street punk singing protest songs, as he undergoes “de-evolution” and becomes a hapless, dim-witted Goomba. Post devo, he has lost most of that ambition to fight the power and is now just docile and compliant.

“Toad only pawn in the game of life. No, wait… wrong movie!”

While not particularly subtle and only slightly clever, why the film works for me is simple: it is not boring. It is disjointed and manic due to constant editing and script revisions, but thanks to the one-two punch of wild set designs and inspired casting, the film is elevated just one level up from forgettable disaster to majestic disaster. This film does not deserve to be scrubbed and flushed down the toilet of cinematic history. It should be more readily accessible. This isn’t about nostalgia because, as stated earlier in this essay, I have none. I have no affinity for Mario products and any and all memories of this film are imprinted from other sources discussing just how fucked up everything was behind the scenes. Yet, I didn’t hate the film as I was expected to when I watched this for the first time in 30 years.

Super Mario Bros being snapped out of existence for thirty years.

So this brings to my mind an important question to ask yourself: Do you not like the film because you do believe it is a bad film or is it because you were told not to like it?
Pop culture discourse would dictate that if the film has been deemed bad by committee (either official or just a loose collective of random people), then we should accept that the film is bad and should be avoided. Thus, its lack of availability is justified as an action to protect people from witnessing a crime against cinema.

Pictured: The Internet when you have an independent thought.

I don’t agree with such an argument. It’s flimsy. It’s also fallible. We assume that enough people have said it is a bad film and does not warrant viewing, but the reality is that since the release of the film in various formats is so limited that it is nil, and every retrospective article has deemed the production a folly worthy of metaphysical exile, it was easy for the public to reach a consensus that it might not be worth watching. Yet, bad films of other kinds abound and are not only accessible but celebrated in their own ways. We have blogs, podcasts, and web series dedicated to discussing the merits of bad films, dissecting them (if not eviscerating), mocking them, and even admiring them for their one major contribution to society: failure.

We lament failure only if it isn’t entertaining. It’s perhaps a greater sin to be both a failure and boring than to be a failure and spectacular wreck. It’s why The Room has managed to persist as a cult film; its reputation for being terrible is qualified by the lack of depth in the story and the limitations of performance by the actors, combining in a way that transcends mere awfulness. It isn’t mediocre, and neither is Super Mario Bros. It’s inexplicable and convoluted, but I wasn’t nodding off during my viewing. I was watching with intent. It held my interest. Whatever its goal was, I’m not sure, but I’ll vouch for it and say it accomplished something. What exactly that thing is is up for debate. I know divorcing the film from the source material is an impossible task because for more than 30 years, the name Mario has been synonymous with a mustachioed shroom-chomping, goomba-stomping plumber in a distinctive hat storming pipes and castles to rescue a princess. This film has had to languish for decades in exile, letting its reputation fester as what killed films for Nintendo and setting back the game to movie pipeline a couple of years. If anything, it set the benchmark for all others in its wake to point and say “well, we won’t be that bad!” except those other films quite possibly were that bad, or maybe we’re selective in what we choose to demonize. Is it loyalty from the early days of the console wars? Familiarity borne from pumping quarters down at the arcade? Preference for strongman violence over cunning skilled labor? I have no answers to those difficult questions. I just know that there are things I like and things I don’t and Super Mario Bros falls into the camp of things I like.


Pictured: John and Bob leaving the set after filming the final scene.

I don’t intend for people to feel the same way I do, but I would hope that people rethink their beliefs and challenge themselves to answer why they don’t like something. Maybe the answer stays the same but maybe you adjust the stance just enough to allow the light to shine down on a once pitied subject.

You after having read this article.