The Passion of The Plumbers
What if the Super Mario Bros. movie isn’t actually just a terrible movie? What if it was actually one of the bravest acts of filmmaking in living memory?
I have reviewed this film before, so if you want to know what I thought of it a few years ago, please give it a read.
Times have changed. Deadpool showed that superhero movies can be R-rated and also hugely successful. Batman V Superman surrounded the world’s most popular superheroes in darkness, anger and violence. What if I told you that the first video game movie ever had already walked this path of grimy realism, bypassing all the Superman 4’s and Batman & Robins it took other franchises to get there.
That’s right, Super Mario Bros, a 1985 video game about a pair of plumbers navigating a colourful mushroom kingdom in order to rescue a princess from monsters, was adapted into a film set in 1990’s Brooklyn, and an even darker, scarier alternate dimension version of it.
Let’s do a quick comparison.
Straight away, you get the feeling that something's not quite right...
I won’t get too deep into the story. It’s a mess, and that’s attributable to the now-legendary problems this movie had during production. There are themes of industrial sabotage, alternate dimensions, evolution, fighting the establishment, police brutality… but mostly it’s a quest for a macguffin. A rock which Daisy wears around her neck is somehow the key to merging dimensions so that Koopa can live somewhere nice. It goes from Daisy to Luigi, who gets mugged by an old lady, who gets beaten up by this woman…
…who escapes with the rock, while the Bros get arrested and taken to the police station from Robocop, where the booking cop is getting massaged by the foot of a female cop who looks like she’s undercover vice or something. It’s never explained, because who cares, kids aren’t paying attention to this shit. At least I’m guessing that was the note scribbled next to this in the script. I’m also guessing there was a script.
The Brothers then get jabbed with cattle prods, and de-fungussed, while a lighthearted tune tells the children this is comedy, rather than police brutality. This ends with Mario and Luigi - MARIO AND LUIGI - chained up before what we’re led to believe is a firing squad, only to have it revealed as a stupidly misleading way to take mugshots.
Imagine Sonic The Hedgehog cuffed with a sack over his head, forced to endure a mock execution on his way to free some rabbits from machines. You can’t can you?
Daisy and Mario’s girlfriend (Mario dates a random woman called Danielle) get kidnapped and threatened (and you thought only Lois Lane did that), Koopa tries to gouge Luigi’s eyes out (in a scene more vicious than anything Doomsday did to Superman), and Toad gets irreversibly de-evolved into a Goomba, and later set on fire, long before Zack Snyder had Jimmy Olsen mercilessly executed in the desert.
Alternate New York is a hellhole, worse than the worst parts of Gotham. Locals resemble circus freaks, inter-species erotica plays in porno theatres and monsters roam the streets, stalking our protagonists from the shadows.
There isn’t much here to appeal to the child who wants to jump on cute turtles and grow big after eating a mushroom. Even the obligatory car chase is performed in the dark, with only explosions to light the way as our boys escape the police in a vehicle that wouldn’t look out of place in Mad Max, or the Batcave.
The filmmakers reverse our heroes’ roles, making Luigi the hero and Mario the cynical voice of caution. As I said in my review, he is basically dragged kicking and screaming through this adventure by his brother. He spirals into an angry rage at the drop of a hat, snapping at anyone who doesn’t help him out. It’s a jarring change from the character known at the time for platform games and Saturday morning cartoons.
The classic appearance of virtually every character from the games is disregarded in favour of a humanoid equivalent. Yoshi is the only dinosaur who gets to be a dinosaur, but do the writers let him meet Mario, or breathe fireballs? Don’t be stupid, this ain’t no game. Iggy and Spike turn out to be double agents, working against Koopa. Daisy even dresses like Peach, just to irritate the purists.
It takes 66 minutes for the Brothers to get into anything resembling their famous outfits. Even then, they need to utilise industrial jumping boots to perform their trademark leaps.
Like BVS, This film teaches that violence gets results. Plungers and wrenches are used to beat enemies, and tying them up also helps Mario and Luigi get the answers they need.
As weird as it is that Mario and Luigi are in a nightclub in one scene, it gets creepy when, after literally getting punched in the face by the woman he’s trying to seduce, Mario says “Maybe she’s a little shy”, and goes back to work on her. His persistence pays off (great message, guys!), and we get another cleavage shot of the rock around her neck, before Mario gets a whole lot more than Mario should ever get…
In the last 20 minutes, the film just gets weirder, so I’ll try to provide a rundown of key moments.
Here’s Mario riding down a pipe on a mattress with a bunch of women in a scene that I’m not going to try to justify.
After surviving a mauling by Yoshi(!), here’s a character getting electrocuted, but don’t worry, she’s a bad guy.
She survives that, but don’t worry, she’s ended within the next five minutes.
The World Trade Centre gets messed up.
Player 2 gets the girl, then has to leave her behind.
Daisy shows up at the end, with a massive gun.
What can we learn from this madness? Batman V Superman portrayed extreme versions of the titular characters, focussing on anger and violence. While critics were not kind to the dark, serious film, a lot of fans liked the bold take on the characters, and the chance to see some things from the comics they never thought they’d see on the big screen. I never thought I’d see Superman die at the hands of Doomsday on screen, and regardless of how well you think they handled it, the fact remains they went through with it.
It was a bold move, but not as bold as the entirety of Super Mario Bros. the movie. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the games could tell you that this film bears so little resemblance to its source material, that it’s almost unrecognisable. To take a property made for children, and turn it into… this… is unthinkable. I mean this wasn't long after the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, and while that was pretty dark, it was consistent with the tone of the original comics. This movie ignores everything that what was known about the characters and story, and just does its own thing, going down in a fascinating blaze of dark, cynical glory.
While it would be a stretch to call this a good film, it is kind of amazing to think that it even got made in this guise at all. Mario and Luigi get battered, bruised and abused in this movie, which is something that just doesn't tally with the source material one bit. If this film was never made, and all we had was an unfilmed script floating around the Internet, gamers would be calling it the most badass thing ever! There would be Kickstarter campaigns to get it made! Some kind of cyberpunk, film-noir take on the family-friendly plumbers from the Mushroom Kingdom? Where they bicker and fight the whole way through? Who wouldn’t want that? Well, be careful what you wish for.
Visually, the film reminds me a little of Blade Runner (please forgive me, Sir Ridley Scott), while thematically it’s more a cross of Rush Hour and Dumb & Dumber. But it’s still the most adult film for children I’ve ever seen (twice now). Did the filmmakers not understand the characters? Had they never played the games? Did they purposely change everything fans loved, or was it accidental? Or did they just not care? One thing that bothers me about the movie is that technically, Mario never becomes Super Mario, as he never eats a mushroom and grows. But it's still called Super Mario Bros. So no, the filmmakers didnt' care.
Super Mario Bros. exists, ironically, in its own alternate dimension. Ever since Nintendo's first visit to the set during production, they have tried to distance themselves from the film as much as possible. No original aspects of the film ever made it into a subsequent Mario game. It will forever remain the company's most embarrassing misstep. Apart from the Wii U. Oh and Virtual Boy of course.
It’s no secret that Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo hated this movie, even while filming it, and got drunk on set to get through it. It only stands to reason that you should do the same, should you choose to revisit it for yourself. Embrace the strangeness! Give Super Mario Bros. one last chance to entertain you!
And vote Koopa!
My name is Iain and my addiction is making pixel bead art. My main inspirations are comics, video games and movies.