Why ‘Super Mario Bros.’ Is Still Fascinating 25 Years After Flopping

The first commercial for 1990’s Super Mario Bros. 3 didn’t have any game footage, just hordes of people cheering “Mario! Mario! Mario!” The game would go on to gross $500 million in the United States alone. Nintendo shows, like 1991’s Super Mario World, The Super Mario Bros. Show and Captain N: The Game Master dominated Saturday morning TV. But if the Mario mania of the late 80s and early 90s feels a little familiar in the era of international, billion-dollar blockbusters, the Super Mario Bros. movie offers a rebuttal. Never again would a pop culture titan be simultaneously so hegemonic and so haphazardly managed.

25 years ago this week, Super Mario Bros., starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as the Mario Brothers, premiered in theaters. It was an instant flop, pulling in less than $10 million its opening weekend and swept away when Jurassic Park came out two weeks later.

 

Nintendo wasn’t caught by surprise. In Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World, David Sheff describes Nintendo of America marketing guru George Harrison discussing the movie with NOA president Minoru Arakawa after a painful screening attended by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. They briefly entertained the idea of buying out Disney’s distribution deal and burying the movie. “The good news is it’ll be in and out of theaters so quick, no one will notice it. So we’re better off to just let it go and die then to pay a king’s ransom merely to stick it on a shelf somewhere.”

“Very good. Then we move on,” Arakawa replies.

But something this strange doesn’t pass unnoticed, no matter how hard it may be to find streaming. Super Mario Bros. may have been barely a blip in the pop consciousness, but its nightmarish interpretation of the Mushroom Kingdom is impossible to fully forget, not just because the movie reconfigures what was once colorful, bright and bucolic into an urban hellscape (thanks in part to production designer David Snyder, art director for Blade Runner), but also because it so radically differs from how we consider adaptations today.

The torturous process of bringing Super Mario Bros. to the big screen has nearly overshadowed the movie at this point, thanks to dedicated archivists like Ryan Hoss and Steven Applebaum of Super Mario Bros. The Movie Archive, who cataloged the fascinating process of movie studios working to translate the Mario games into their own storytelling idiom.

“I t hink we’ve both lost count of how many times we’ve seen the movie,” Hoss told Newsweek . “It has to be in the hundreds.”

The movie’s prologue reveals the meteor strike that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs instead knocked them into a parallel dimension, where they evolved into humanoids much like us. In present-day Brooklyn (and oh boy, are there are a lot of Brooklyn jokes), Mario Mario and Luigi Mario head out to a plumbing job, but instead stumble upon a plot to kidnap a young paleontology student, Daisy (Samantha Mathis), then chase her through a portal and into President Koopa’s (Dennis Hopper) Dinohattan.

In Super Mario Bros., the fanged mushroom goombas become towering, broad-shouldered, scaly pinheads in fascist uniforms. Sweet-faced toadstools give way to fungal goo. Yoshi isn’t salamander-smooth, but clawed like a velociraptor. And instead of kidnapping princesses (though he does that too), King Koopa (Dennis Hopper), demoted to President Koopa, creates loyal subjects with a de-evolution chamber.

Where comic book adaptations tend to justify every minor change to their characters as they were originally constituted, Super Mario Bros. is freewheeling with its alterations. In 2014, Rocky Morton, who co-directed Super Mario Bros. with Annabel Jankel, described their approach to Nintendo Life. “We were going to tell the real story and that the game itself was a perversion of the original story,” Morton said. “In history, myths get distorted—this would be the same thing, the origin of the myth, and then it got reinterpreted by the Japanese.”

 

This isn’t a post-hoc rationalization, either. In a post-credits scene, Japanese businessman gather testimony from Iggy and Spike, President Koopa’s main goons, for their proposed game adaptation of the movie’s outlandish events. “Of course, that pissed a lot of people off,” Morton admitted. “But that’s what we decided to do.”

But it wasn’t just Morton and Jankel’s desire to put their own creative stamp on Super Mario Bros. that doomed it. Instead, their approach and its strangely literal interpretation of the game’s biology was cobbled together atop a pile of other possible futures. After Nintendo sold the movie rights to independent producers Jake Eberts (Dances with Wolves) and Roland Joffé (director of The Killing Fields and The Mission) in Oct. 1990, swayed by their more adult take on the material, the movie went through a dizzying cycle of conceptualization and reconceptualization, passing through the hands of nine screenwriters over seven scripts.

After Nintendo rejected Dustin Hoffman for Mario and a treatment from Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow, the more serious take on the Mario Brothers was dead. The first script produced was a fairly faithful fantasy story, somewhere in the Willow zone, full of game characters like Hammer Brothers, Chain Chomps and Koopa Troopas. Later drafts would add Die Hard parodies (complete with a cameo possibility for Bruce Willis), a version with Mario acting like Peter Venkman of Ghostbusters, a post-apocalyptic Mario Kart death race and a last-minute Disney draft directors Morton and Jankel did their best to unwrite during filming.

“ The directors were kind of going for a highbrow direction,” Applebaum said. “You can appreciate that after the fact, but at the time that wasn’t what people wanted.”

There are a million what-could-have been stories throughout the making of Super Mario Bros., prompted by the piecemeal worldbuilding and other possibilities presented by the big-name casting efforts—Danny DeVito turned down Mario and Nintendo rejected Tom Hanks as Luigi, while Michael Keaton and Arnold Schwarzenegger each turned down King Koopa. But it was a chimeric assemblage in other ways too, including the special effects.

“It was made in a very interesting time when practical effects were at their height and CG effects were at their infancy, so the film has a blend of the artistry from both,” Hoss said, pointing out the movie is a special effects landmark of sorts, the first time a film was scanned to a digital intermediate, allowing for the compositing of over 700 visual effects shots. A digital intermediate is now the industry standard, used in both digital editing and the omnipresent color grading that allows for the visual fine-tuning of every shot.

The mutative evolution of the Super Mario Bros. movie had all the hallmarks of clashing visions, corporate interference, multiple stakeholders and on-set rewrites. The resulting hodgepodge doesn’t make for a good movie, but it certainly makes for a fascinating one. And with Mario heading back to theaters in a movie by the creators of Despicable Me, Super Mario Bros. will become an even more fascinating artifact. “I imagine they will go for a more traditional direction,” Applebaum said. “In that sense, it will only help further the 1993 original’s legacy as more of a deconstruction and parody."