Bland at Heart
And proud of it.
Heroes are so boring, right? All of that do-goody-good bullshit1—really gets old, you know? Heroes are passé, they’re unrealistic, and—are you ready for this? I hope you’re sitting down—they’re not real. There are no real, honest, earnest, genuine, too-good-to-be-true heroes, so why would our stories reflect such a, quite frankly, blatantly false archetype as a paragon of virtue? Might as well celebrate unicorns or, uh, superheroes.
The fact of the matter is, as Serious Thinking People, we all know that heroism doesn’t exist, and when it does, it’s an accidental byproduct of human beings doing what humans being do: exercising power to crush their enemies and reward their friends. That’s life, pal. Captain America isn’t coming to save you, and even if he was, he’s secretly a Nazi.2 Super edgy.
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Why do we poison young, impressionable children’s minds with things that don’t really exist? Isn’t religion3 bad enough? A “kind and loving God” who promises eternal life and demands adherence to a set of virtues which have a proven track record of resulting in human flourishing? Please.
And young boys and young girls aspiring to fall in love? In 2023? There aren’t enough barf bags to contain what this thought does to my stomach.
As a society, we owe our children better. That’s why this hot new cartoon movie about plumbers from New York City who find a pipe in a sewer that leads them to a magical kingdom of toad-people besieged by an evil, spiky, fire-breathing turtle and his evil minions, who aid with said magical kingdom’s princess to rally an army of talking, sharp-dressed apes who drive kart racers in defense of all that is good, nobly, holy, and pure, is awful.
That it’s based on a thirty-five-year-old video game franchise for kids is besides the point. Things have gone too far, and everyone associated with The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023, Nintendo/Universal/Illumination) should be ashamed of themselves for producing something so bland.
We need more ambiguity in our heroes, video game or otherwise. More moral grayness. More darkness. More selfishness. It is to prepare our children for the real world. What happens when Mario stomps on that Goomba? What about his motivations, his feelings? What about Bowser? Maybe Bowser has a point, just like Erik Killmonger in Black Panther (2018, Marvel Studios) and Thanos in the Avengers movies (the entirety of this century, Marvel Studios), the only two literal cultural touchpoints that matter?
A movie about a video game is like watching a video game, and that’s not a good thing! We need more narrative complexity, not this piece of brand management!4 Not like watching something deeper and more sophisticated, like watching movies based on comic books or magical space wizards with laser swords. Mario voice actor Chris Pratt—a CHRISTIAN though he tries to distance himself from that because a dude’s gotta eat—turns in a “blandly heroic” performance. Lame! I mean, at least Princess Peach doesn’t need rescuing (what is this, the dark ages) and is a kick-butt girl boss, but that would’ve been subversive, like, oh, I don’t know, 25 years ago.5 It’s like this movie wants to do nothing but entertain your family.
In conclusion, if you want to watch a movie based upon a pre-existing franchise that doesn’t insult your intelligence, Marvel is putting out some smashingly good product with themes of feminism, racial equity, and in general giving you all of the subversion you want out of stuff made for kids. It’s only a matter of time before we finally have some hot rear-entry action in a kid’s movie, if you know what I mean, and America, and the world, will be better off for it.
People who look for subversion in children’s entertainment.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie is entertaining. My kids enjoyed it so much we saw it twice. But this movie was made for people my age, say, born between 1970 and 1990. That’s kind of sad when you think about it, but we’re the ones with disposable income, not our kids. The idea behind the marketing that someone somewhere in the early 20th century discovered is that you don’t market kid’s stuff—comic books, video games, music, fashion—to kids, you market it to those same kids as they age.
I get it. This explains why video games remain so popular, more popular than movies.6 And despite competition from Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo has been at the top of the video game heap nearly my entire life. That is no mean feat. How do they do it? By releasing a product, be it video game or film,7 that is fun and appeals to family.
I’m not ashamed to say that I enjoyed The Super Mario Bros. It was good, clean, wholesome fun and in The Year of Our Lord 2023, that is amazing. Maybe this explains the Banzai Bill-sized box office haul. It also explains why the Smart Set finds it so awful.
A few things about this movie stick out to me, things that I will now elaborate for you in bullet-point form:
The narrative is flimsy. Mario and Luigi find a pipe that leads to an alternate dimension. Nobody really seems freaked out by this. Who cares.
Princess Peach is a “girl boss” only in that she’s the actual ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom. Of course she would be competent. Her character and characterization was good. She did not emasculate Mario (initial judo-throw scene aside, but hey, she’d never seen him before and he was leaping at her like a maniac), and indeed really likes Mario. And she wasn’t annoying.
Mario isn’t portrayed a dope, nor is he “bland.” He also escapes the “refusing the call to adventure”/Hero’s Journey trope, which was great to see. Mario wants to a) save his brother who has been kidnapped, and b) help save the Mushroom Kingdom . . . and prove himself to his father. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. No other motivation is needed.
Luigi is great as the less-physically brave brother who overcomes his fear when it matters. He is not played like a hapless buffoon. You want character growth in a kid’s movie based on a side-scrolling platformer about a plumber who stomps on turtles? There you go.
Seth Rogen was tolerable as the voice of Donkey Kong, and in fact did a good, non-annoying job.
I noticed that Mario and Peach warm up to each other, and obviously like each other, but that burgeoning love is never allowed to actually become a thing, because boys and girls liking each other is icky in 2023. Either that, or it’s a set-up for a sequel. I’m exaggerating, of course, but the fact that a normal male/female quasi-romantic relationship was allowed to at least be present was noticeable. That says something about lots of other movies (as far as kid’s movies go, it’s the Despicable Me franchise and Disney’s Tangled where I’ve last seen the male and female leads get together). I’m overthinking this. Next.
Jack Black as Bowser was great, but as I said above, this movie is made for people between the ages of 35-50. The humor is very “adult child,” and while humorous, it speaks to the target demographic for this movie. But you know what? Oh well. It was entertaining.
Heroism is good. A few years ago, I read Wild at Heart by John Eldridge. My friend Dylan Cornelius recommended it to me (read Dylan’s stuff). In it, Eldridge discusses the crisis in masculinity from the perspective of young boys being denied the opportunity to prove they have what it takes, and a big part of that involves slaying the (metaphorical) dragon and rescuing the (semi-metaphorical) princess from what may-or-may-not be an actual, literal tower (it could be a duplex).
Eldridge hits on a big point which is that rites of passage do not exist as they used to for boys to become men. Nobody is having youngsters enter the agoge to become warriors, or go off into the bush to fight lions. There are so few initiations that men never feel like they’ve graduated from boyhood to adulthood. We live in a world with the rough edges sanded off and seen as things to be avoided, where we are put into a cage of safety (my term) and told it’s for our own good. Human machines, we are meant to produce for others and consume what we’re given, the only acceptable role in an economy predicated on the fact that the line on the chart will always go up. It must.
Movies are such a product.
But movies, and video games about plumbers, can tap into deeper aspects of the human psyche, male and female. Why were “rescue the princess” tropes so popular? Why do they persist to the tune of one-point-two BILLION DOLLARS?
Because they are necessary. Like it or not, Mario hears the call to adventure and doesn’t dick around—he answers that call and stomps anything that stands between him and the Princess captured in the Tower.
Okay, sometimes he throws fireballs at them. But you get the point.
Wait, that was referring to money. Never mind.
Actual criticisms about a movie based on the Super Mario Bros. video games.
An actual criticism about a movie based on the Super Mario Bros. video games.
David Cole explains this, and the fact that Hollywood is partly to blame for churning out bad product for decades, in his inimitable style here. And I know what some of you may be thinking: “That guy denies the Holocaust!” No, he does not. First, he’s Jewish. Second, he conducted serious revisionary scholarship to separate fact from fiction and present a clearer picture of the Holocaust, something that neither Cole nor your humble blogger deny happened. Cole’s point is that maybe 4 million people were killed instead of 6 million, but that in no way, shape, or form lessens the impact of the event. Cole actually hates denialists with a passion (read almost every single column he’s written on the topic), and has a court decision declaring that he is not a Holocaust denier. In any event, I recommend reading this article ignoring all of that, because one’s personal feelings about the messenger have nothing to do with whether or not his analysis is correct. Case in point: you may not like me personally, but that does not make my opinions wrong. I might be incorrect, you might disagree with me, but I am not lying to you. Anyway . . .
I highly recommend you watch the Super Mario Bros. movie from 1993. It’s so bad it’s good, but it was a bomb and scared Nintendo off from making movies based on their properties for thirty years.
The short version: isekai is a genre made popular in Japan where someone from the ordinary world, that is, ours, is transported to another dimension where they must be a hero.