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Do We Need a Nintendo Cinematic Universe?

‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ does a great job of making you want to play more Mario games (and hopefully forget the 1993 live-action disaster). But does it make a nonmonetary case for a film franchise?

Nintendo/Ringer illustration

How will we know when Hollywood’s appetite for proven intellectual property has peaked? Perhaps it’s happened already. Was it when Showtime started developing four new projects based on Billions, including two titled Millions and Trillions? When, within the span of a few hours, separate stories were published about Warner Bros. readapting Harry Potter (this time for TV) and exploring a Targaryen Game of Thrones prequel to its Targaryen Game of Thrones prequel? When we learned that Taylor Sheridan, Paramount’s one-man streaming service, was moving forward with a fourth (or is it fifth?) Yellowstone spin-off?

Any of those news items from the past two months might serve as a sign of the IP apocalypse. Maybe, though, the proliferation of franchises shouldn’t be judged by the thirstiest participants doubling or quadrupling down on their most recognizable brands. Maybe we’ll know we’ve hit Peak IP when even the most reluctant rights holders start giving green lights to prequels and sequels or ardently embracing trans-media storytelling. If so, the pinnacle could have come this week, when we witnessed the likely launch of a Nintendo Cinematic Universe—that’s the NCU to you—with Wednesday’s premiere of The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

Technically, The Super Mario Bros. Movie isn’t part of a film franchise yet. It’s just a single, stand-alone story about a plumber and a princess. However, it’s also going gangbusters at the box office, projected to approach or surpass the strongest opening of the year. When one movie mints money, its makers rarely decide to stop there. Especially when that movie mines famous source material and includes a post-credits scene that points toward a sequel.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie may have validated Nintendo’s (and producer Illumination’s) ambitions to build a big-screen empire out of the video game giant’s marquee characters, but it definitely didn’t establish them. The Mushroom Kingdom’s potential as a multiplex power has been apparent since the 1980s, when Mario became the biggest name in games. Mario and Luigi headlined some of the earliest animated series adapted from video games, as well as the inaugural live-action video game movie. That non-Nintendo-produced 1993 film, Super Mario Bros., was such a stinker that it soured the company on OK’ing a second major motion picture for decades. But the brand retained its cachet and cultivated cross-generational appeal as Mario made the transition to three dimensions and starred in a series of 3D classics such as Super Mario 64 (1996), Super Mario Galaxy (2007) and Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010), and Super Mario Odyssey (2017).

In 2014, leaked emails seemed to suggest that Sony Pictures had secured the animated-movie rights to Super Mario Bros., following a multiyear pursuit. “It’s the mother load [sic],” producer Avi Arad emailed studio head Amy Pascal. Arad, Kevin Feige’s predecessor as the head of Marvel Studios, knew a content gold mine when he saw one. Michelle Raimo Kouyate, president of production at Sony Pictures Animation, told Arad, “Let’s build a Mario empire!” and separately said to Pascal, “I can think of 3-4 movies right out of the gate on this. So huge!”

Nintendo, it turned out, wasn’t actually sold on the idea of an adaptation; no deal was done, which wasn’t shocking considering Mario creator (and high-ranking Nintendo executive) Shigeru Miyamoto’s lukewarm 2013 comments about working with Hollywood. Nintendo had been burned by a Mario movie once, and the leaders of the legendarily creative but notoriously insular, secretive, and protective company were in no hurry to go down that road again. “They don’t really focus on their competition,” Nintendo documentarian Jeremy Snead told me in 2021. “They don’t really focus on what the marketplace is asking for or wants.” The marketplace wanted more Mario movies, but Nintendo wouldn’t be budged.

That stance soon started to shift amid the disastrous reception to the company’s worst-selling console, the Wii U. In February 2015, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Nintendo was working closely with Netflix on a live-action adaptation of The Legend of Zelda, which the streamer was supposedly describing as “Game of Thrones for a family audience.” (Which sounds like a contradiction in terms.) According to a subsequent report, Nintendo pulled the plug on the project, along with a Star Fox claymation show, in response to the leak. Although those series were scuttled, spring 2015 brought news that Nintendo had partnered with Universal Parks & Resorts to create Nintendo theme parks, which would later be christened Super Nintendo World. (The first one opened in Japan in 2021; another launched in Hollywood this year.)

Shortly before his death in mid-2015, Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata acknowledged a new receptiveness to “IP utilization,” telling shareholders, “We have been discussing internally that we should be more proactive, and it is imperative that we establish a global structure to deploy such business all around the world. … And this expansion won’t be limited to merchandise; it may take various forms including, for example, images or even movies or TV programs.” The following year, Iwata’s successor announced that Nintendo intended to produce its own films, in partnership with an outside studio. In keeping with Iwata’s sentiments in 2015 (“You might be unsatisfied with our pace of IP utilization, but we ask for your understanding”), the company took its time cementing an agreement, but in 2018, it announced an animated movie based on Super Mario Bros., to be coproduced by Nintendo and the Universal-owned Illumination. Months later, then Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aimé positioned Nintendo as an “entertainment” company, not merely a gaming one, during a talk in which he invoked “intellectual property” 15 times.

By late 2019, Miyamoto was talking about Mario toppling Mickey Mouse and Nintendo dethroning Disney—desires investors shared. In 2020, he explained why he’d come around on a new Mario movie: “With films, the amount of people who would contact our IP would widen, and increase the amount of people engaging with our IP. Then, we’d be able to further increase the spread of our media via video.” In 2021, Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa hinted that the Mario movie might be just the beginning: “Animation, in general, is something that we are looking into, and not just [the Super Mario] franchise.” (“Other projects are also in progress,” he added soon after.) And later that year, Illumination founder and CEO Chris Meledandri, who coproduced The Super Mario Bros. Movie with Miyamoto, became the first American citizen ever added to Nintendo’s board of directors.

Video game hardware and software were still the center of Nintendo’s business, Furukawa assured shareholders after Meledandri’s appointment. But “to keep that business thriving and growing,” Furukawa said, “we need to create opportunities where even people who do not normally play on video game systems can come into contact with Nintendo characters. As part of this effort, visual effort could be important for us.” Miyamoto added, “By possessing video content and not just games, Nintendo will be able to expand its content further throughout the world and become stronger as a company.”

As of this week, that prediction has come to pass. In 2020, I shared data from the Q Scores Company that showed that while Mario was the most popular video game character, he was also significantly less familiar to the public than many multimedia crossover characters—not just the likes of Mickey, Spider-Man, and Charlie Brown, but even the Geico Gecko and the M&M’s spokescandies. Now he’s everywhere—in theaters around the world, but also on Amazon boxes and Monopoly boards, truffle-flavored hot sauce and urine-colored bath bombs. And Nintendo and Illumination have every incentive to keep him there.

“At this time, we’re not prepared to talk about what’s coming in the future,” Meledandri told Variety, adding, “I definitely wouldn’t rule anything out.” Given all of the above, it’s pretty apparent that we can rule out that The Super Mario Bros. Movie won’t be the beginning of a larger rollout. When Princess Peach said, “There’s a huge universe out there” in the trailer for the film, she may as well have been referring to Nintendo’s evident designs on a sprawling cinematic Mushroom Kingdom—and, perhaps, star turns for its many mascots from outside the Marioverse. Unlike Nintendo’s tentative foray into mobile Mario gaming, its moviemaking won’t be one and done.

“There is no other gaming company with more beloved and long-running IP,” investor and author Matthew Ball wrote in 2020. For the first time in three decades, that IP is free to be on bigger screens—and not just by moving from handheld mode to docked. Granted, Nintendo didn’t need Mario movies like Sega needed Sonic movies: Nintendo has been raking in cash on the back of its bestselling Switch, whereas Sega, which long since left the console business, saw its earnings slip in advance of 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog. Still, increased revenue and exposure can’t be bad news for Nintendo, or for anyone who’s invested in seeing the venerable company profit. But what does it mean for gamers and moviegoers?

The good news is that there’s no need for concern that Nintendo might focus on its scripted projects at the expense of its games. If anything, the reverse is a risk: “Rather than overthinking who Mario is, it was more important to visualize what we see in the video games as authentically as possible on the big screen,” Miyamoto told Variety. Nor is Nintendo likely to rush produce ill-considered sequels to capitalize on the success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Nintendo has rarely sacrificed quality to pump out product; the last original mainline Super Mario and Legend of Zelda games were released in 2017—Breath of the Wild sequel Tears of the Kingdom comes out next month—and more than a decade elapsed between brand-new, full-fledged Metroid games Other M (2010) and Dread (2021). (Metroid Prime 4, announced in 2017, hasn’t been seen since.)

Nintendo may be adapting its content to the times, but its culture as a game maker first—and a company that takes its time to ensure a seal of quality—is too deeply ingrained for one blockbuster film to sway it from its primary mission. The point of creating, Miyamoto said more than 20 years ago, is “not to make something sell, something very popular, but to love something.” Admittedly, Miyamoto wasn’t making Mario movies then, so he’s changed his mind on some subjects. On that one, though, he almost certainly feels the same way today.

The not-so-great news: A history of making great games doesn’t mean Nintendo can make great movies. Case in point: The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

The new Mario movie isn’t bad. It looks great, it moves quickly, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. (Not counting credits, it’s over in less than 90 minutes.) It’s a family-friendly, competently made, middle-of-the-road Mario movie, which makes it by far the best Mario movie ever made.

Of course, clearing the bar of being better than a bonkers early ’90s fever dream whose production was so tortured that its stars drank between takes—and whose final cut strayed so far from its source material that it might best be described as “Blade Runner meets Batman meets Mad Max meets Max Headroom”—wasn’t hard. But because the first Super Mario Bros. was so reviled, and because the fate of a lucrative franchise was riding on this movie not salting the earth for future releases, Nintendo and Illumination played it excessively safe. “We were fearful of all the failure of past IP adaptations, where there’s a license and a distance between the original creators and the creators of the films,” Miyamoto told Variety. “The fans get outraged and mad because the studios didn’t do justice to the original work. We really didn’t want a backlash.”

They avoided a backlash, but in the process, they also omitted much of the inspiration and inventiveness that characterize Nintendo’s games. The result is paint-by-numbers nostalgia bait that—through its constant stream of Easter eggs and glorious retro-orchestral score—will intermittently tickle adults’ inner Nintendo kids while keeping current kids entertained. It’s rarely funny, but it’s sometimes fun. It’s inoffensive. It’s faithful. It’s fine.

It’s not entirely the filmmakers’ fault that The Super Mario Bros. Movie isn’t a Miyamoto masterpiece. Let’s face it: Mario didn’t give them that much to work with. The bare-bones story of The Super Mario Bros. Movie is, essentially, the story of most Super Mario games, with more prominent parts for Peach and the Kongs. What makes Super Mario games great isn’t the plot or the characters; it’s the game play. “When we create games, the gamer really is the main character,” Miyamoto said in 2010. “In that regard it may not really matter who the main character is onscreen.”

In a movie, it matters because the consumer is a passive observer. As Meledandri put it to Variety, “In video games, character serves the gameplay. In movies, character is everything.” That’s a problem because, as Miyamoto acknowledges in the same story—and as I laid out in 2020—there intentionally isn’t that much to Mario the man, aside from a few biographical details and physical characteristics that were dictated not by his character, but by his surroundings and technological limitations. His strength as a mascot is how malleable his amorphousness makes him: Because his calling card is his ability to be anything, he can pass for a plumber, a painter, a doctor, or an athlete. That’s an asset for an avatar but a bland liability in a leading man.

Which isn’t to say that Miyamoto and Meledandri couldn’t have made Mario more interesting—or, at least, made the movie around him more distinctive or surprising. (The ultra-predictable plot almost—almost—made me wish for some of that zany ’93 energy.) The flick comes alive when it pokes fun at Mushroom Kingdom convention via Mario’s distaste for mushrooms, Bowser’s musical numbers, or Lumalee’s longing for death, but those moments are scarce. It’s easy to imagine a more madcap version of The Super Mario Bros. Movie that goes all in on irreverence and subversion (Miyamoto meets Lord and Miller) or a more meta version whose humor, heart, and charm cater to grown-ups too (Miyamoto meets Pixar). It’s just tough to imagine a more mold-breaking Mario movie getting greenlit, given Nintendo’s narrative conservativism, aversion to backlash, and overarching goal of establishing a beachhead from which to launch future films.

Despite its shortcomings, The Super Mario Bros. Movie mostly did its job. It cleansed the original sin of Super Mario Bros., giving the franchise a fresh start and providing another persuasive piece of evidence that video game adaptations aren’t doomed. (Undoing the so-called curse of video game movies was always as much about eliminating the truly abysmal adaptations as it was about making more great ones.) And at times, it captured the euphoric feeling of platforming as Mario as viscerally as any noninteractive media could. (No video game movie has ever made me want to play the game(s) it’s based on more than this one did; during some sequences, I could almost feel a phantom controller.) The strongest emotion the movie induced for me was a desire to boot up Galaxy, Odyssey, or Mario Kart 8—but if the movie makes millions in theaters and sends everyone who watches it straight to a Switch, Miyamoto will probably be doubly pleased.

If Nintendo wants the inevitable next adaptation, sequel, or spin-off to jump to the top of the goal pole and seem like it’s made not just to sell, but to be loved, it will have to take more chances. That might mean experimenting with tone in a Mario movie or centering a sidekick: Charlie Day wants Nintendo to adapt Luigi’s Mansion; Seth Rogen endorses Donkey Kong Country. It might mean moving farther away from the Mushroom Kingdom: Imagine a Zelda fantasy epic, a Metroid horror movie, or a Star Fox sci-fi film from a writer of Rogue One. It might mean putting a big-screen spin on a slightly less obvious source, such as Animal Crossing, Splatoon, Pikmin, or Kirby.

It might also mean loosening the reins—not simply licensing characters and relinquishing all creative input, as in the original Super Mario Bros., but allowing outsiders more creative control, as with Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Wit Studio’s 2016 Star Fox short film, or Robot Chicken’s 2014 Nintendo-themed skits for E3. Faithfulness and close collaboration with creators were pluses in a game adaptation that featured a far more nefarious fungus, The Last of Us, but TLOU was basically prepackaged for a prestige series. Most Nintendo games would need more extensive tweaks to become memorable movies, and Nintendo may be too close to the material to know what needs to change.

With the right people and projects in place, a Nintendo Cinematic Universe could be something special—a collection of films that complement the games and deepen the characters instead of feeling like flashy but hollow tributes to them. All of which would ideally culminate in a crossover Secret Wars–esque Super Smash Bros. battle against a truly compelling big bad. No, Waluigi still hasn’t had his own game. But with a little help from Peak IP, maybe he can have his own movie.

Nintendo/Getty Images/Ringer illustration