I’ve been going back and forth on what the most mind-blowing part of the Super Mario Bros. The Movie Archive is. Maybe it’s the 11-year-old website’s costume catalog, where every single ensemble worn by Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, and Samantha Mathis in the most notorious of video game movies is detailed. “This is the clubbing suit,” it reads, next to an academic jpeg of Fisher Stevens, who played Iggy, standing tall and flabbergasted in shoulder-pads, spikes, and vulgar red leather shoes. “This outfit is used in the end of the film when Iggy and Spike go with the Mario Bros into the Boom Boom Bar, and photographs show him wearing this when the Deleted Rap Scene was filmed.”
Wait, never mind, it has to be the deleted scene repository right? Did you know they shot a rap scene for the Super Mario Bros. movie, the 1993 debacle that brought Nintendo’s most famous siblings to the big screen? Did you know this rap scene featured the two comically misconceived koopa kids, Iggy and Spike, dropping head-scratching bars like, “Well, we just met two plumbers who had an idea /They showed us the light and new frontier?”
Did you know there was another deleted scene where Mario and Luigi confront two rival plumbers named Mike and Doug, (Mike and Doug!) who would’ve been permanently burned into the Nintendo canon if the editors hadn’t had the mercy to axe it in post?
No, by far the most mind-blowing thing about The Super Mario Bros. The Movie Archive is that, against all odds, it’s somehow still being updated. When I stumbled into the URL I expected to find a dormant relic from the ‘90s, kept alive through the fidelity of a forgotten GoDaddy domain, surreptitiously auto-renewing in a checking account beyond the void. Nope. I was greeted by the original Super Mario Bros. trailer, remastered in glistening 4K, uploaded to the site’s YouTube channel late last year. As of this writing we are months away from the 25th anniversary of Nintendo’s first, and only, theatrical release (UPDATE – 12:49pm: Unless you count The Wizard!), and there are at least two people on this earth planning their toasts.
Ryan Hoss did not see the Super Mario Bros. movie in theaters. He was five years old in 1993, and just barely out of range of the generation who breathlessly bought tickets only to be mesmerized and disappointed by Disney’s’ bizarre, money-losing opus. Instead, Hoss remembers seeing the early scenes of the film—set in New York, rather than the Mushroom Kingdom—on TV with his dad about four years later. His curiosity was suitably piqued, and so he picked up VHS copy at the local video store before setting off for a sleepover.
Hoss wasn’t a gamer in his early childhood. He was aware of who Mario and Luigi were as distant omnicultural characters, but he never saved any princesses and had no concrete connections to the genetics of Yoshi. That’s important to note, because Hoss was enthralled by the movie’s strange, vivid rendering of the Mario universe; replete with neon clubs, magic spores, and tiny-headed lizard-men in floor-length velvet robes (who were inexplicably supposed to be the game’s squat, brown goomba enemies.) In middle school he started playing the canonical Nintendo source material, which drew him in even more. “I’ve been continually intrigued by the creative process it took to make that film and the art of adapting something from one medium to another,” he said, in an interview with Kotaku. “The fact that Super Mario Bros. was the first game-to-film adaptation made it all that more interesting.”
Hoss’ lack of context for the Nintendo game version of Super Mario made him uniquely capable of falling in love with the Super Mario Bros. movie. If you’ve never seen it, I implore you to quarter off a Friday night to take that trip. The connections to both the aesthetics and spirituality of the Mario classics are deliriously ersatz. Toad, the mushroom-headed idiot at the end of Bowser’s secondary castles, is brought to life as a freedom-loving street performer played by the mutton-chopped Texas legend Mojo Nixon. “Dinohattan,” the movie’s stand-in for the Mushroom Kingdom, is a grimy, Total Recall-esque dystopia lorded over by the nightmare cyberpunk bureaucrat King Koopa. (Again, this was in 1993, shortly after the release of Super Mario World and its dessert-themed nations of Donut Plains and Chocolate Island.) Yoshi was a baby T. Rex. Mario lives in Brooklyn. Luigi gets the girl. Yes, the ingredients are all there, but they’ve been pulverized and disseminated. It is a quintessential J.J. Abrams franchise reset, if J.J. Abrams had no idea what he was doing.
You can’t really blame Disney. The Mario fiction was wafer-thin in the Super Nintendo era, and in 2018, shortly after the release of Super Mario Odyssey, the lack of narrative and world-building in this series is practically a running gag. Seriously, how would you build a two-hour movie out of goombas, piranha plants, and an eight-word dictionary for your titular character? It’s a fascinating conundrum, but nobody could’ve expected how deeply bizarre the production’s conclusions ended up being.
Hoss started the Archive in 2007, while he was still in college. There is no way to prove this definitively, but I don’t think anyone living or dead could challenge him for the title of history’s biggest Mario Bros movie fan. The core motivation for the site, he says, was to dispute the film’s ignominious reputation by presenting a tapestry of analysis and criticism that argues for a historical revision.
Almost all of his research is independently sourced. He started collecting reams of merchandise and memorabilia from the movie’s PR blitz. He bought a surplus of artifacts from the set in a private auction hosted by the legendary production designer David Snyder, and uploaded scans of his photographs and props to the database. In 2010, he recruited a frequent poster on his forums named Steven Applebaum and started conducting interviews with people who worked on the film. Their talk with screenwriter Parker Bennett is a must read, if only to know exactly how many iterations the script went through to arrive at the scattershot Blade Runner send-up that appeared on screen. (At one point, Bennett says, there was a draft by Rain Man writer Barry Morrow that read so eerily similar to his previous work, it earned the nickname “Drain Man.”)
“Those folks have been so incredibly generous by providing interviews and enough production materials to last a lifetime. It’s a way to celebrate the film itself and showcase the work of all the people who had a part in it—warts and all, good and bad,” says Hoss. “Every time Steven or I think there’s nothing else to discover about the film, we’re surprised with something new.”
Both Ryan and Steven talk about the Super Mario Bros movie like its an archaeological dig site, rather than a kitschy mistake. I understand their obsession; there was truly only one moment when video games were primitive enough, and Hollywood was clueless enough, to stumble into such a fascinating disaster. Game adaptations have bombed, and will continue to bomb, for the rest of time, but flotsam like Doom, House of the Dead, and Assassin’s Creed are at least tertiarily attached to the ideas presented in the gameplay. Michael Fassbender has a wrist-blade and goes back in time to stab people. On a pure recognizability level, there are no complaints.
Disney, on the other hand, needed to figure out how to translate an Italian plumber who grows twice his size when he runs into a mushroom, and they quickly discovered that that was impossible. One of the best features on the Archive is the chronology of failed scripts, where you can page through the numerous fruitless rewrites that tried and failed to turn Mario into a workable movie. (Highlights include the technicolor high-fantasy romp, and the rough-around-the-edges sci-fi mess that included a spectacular Bruce Willis cameo.) Hoss isn’t arguing that Super Mario Bros is the greatest movie of all time, but he is arguing that we’ll never see something so genially baffling ever again.
“The film was released in a time where trans-media franchise adaptations on this level weren’t the norm,” he said. “For the first time, the generation of kids who saw the film upon its initial release are adults, and we’re just now getting to the point where we’re going back to analyze it and figure out what its place in pop culture history really is,” says Hoss. “The key thing that the Super Mario Bros. Archive helps with is getting those folks to understand where the filmmakers were coming from at the time and look at their journey to take a video game, with 8 and 16-bit graphics and a simplistic story, and turn that idea into a feature film.”
The next big project for the Super Mario Movie Archive is to completely digitize the film in 4K. It’s a long process, and Applebaum and Hoss aren’t sure exactly how expensive it will end up being, but they’re committed to finishing it ahead of that aforementioned incoming 25th anniversary. They’ve been down this path before; in 2014 UK distributor Second Sight partnered with the Archive to help stuff their Blu-Ray reprint of the film with a Criterion-worthy boatload of bonus features and oddities. A 4K edition would be the piece de resistance.
I hope they make it happen. I think that Super Mario Bros. is bad, but I’m also a stick-in-the-mud quibbler who hates the idea of Hollywood making Nintendo sad. Mario is the watermark for everything joyful, iconic, and substantial in video games, and he was thoroughly desecrated by Hollywood. This film is a shooting star. Ugly, obscene, poorly envisaged on nearly every conceivable level, but a shooting star nonetheless. There is a world out there where this zany, fucked-up experiment was sublime, and God bless Hoss and Applebaum for pulling back the curtain. Because really, how were you and I supposed to live without knowing that once upon a time, Bruce Willis was going to be in the Mario movie?
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.