How the Super Mario Bros. movie went from box office bomb to unlikely LGBTQIA+ hit

By Simon Bland

Published Apr 28, 2023 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 6 minutes

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Considering how many coins The Super Mario Bros. Movie has snapped up, it’s hard to imagine this pipe dream franchise as anything other than a box office hit. However, back in 1993, Mario-in-movie-form was anything but super. Directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, this Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo-fronted Super Mario Bros. film has garnered a reputation more notorious than Bowser himself. But in the 30 years since its widely-trashed arrival, something unlikely has happened: it’s found an extra life from a wholly unexpected crowd.

“When I finally got to see the movie for the first time as a kid, I was absolutely gobsmacked,” admits Ryan Hoss, founder and webmaster of SMBMovie.com, the online resource dedicated to archiving anything and everything related to 1993’s Super Mario Bros. film. Together with the site’s Editor-in-Chief, Steven Applebaum, the pair are re-aligning the narrative surrounding this infamous movie-bomb.

“I had a passing knowledge of the games, then I saw the movie. From then on, I was just enamoured with the differences,” continues Hoss. “Why did they do this? How does this from the movie correlate to that from the games?”

Applebaum was equally intrigued. “It was bizarre, even as a child. It’s often compared to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz,” he tells SCREENSHOT, highlighting the film’s world-flipping similarities to Dorothy and Alice’s magical adventures as Mario and Luigi journey to a sinister Mushroom Kingdom.

“When they got to this cyberpunk, dystopian parallel world it made sense to me because that was essentially how Bowser would rule this world. It seemed like a pretty accurate adaptation,” reasons Applebaum. “It wasn’t until later when I was reading other people’s reactions online that I realised ‘Oh, people don’t like this?’”

That’s putting it mildly. To fully appreciate the film’s unexpected resurgence, you first have to understand its major cinematic downfall.

What was the origin story of Super Mario Bros.?

Super Mario Bros. started life as a touching sibling fantasy script. After a few rewrites and passes from potential Mario actors Danny DeVito and Dustin Hoffman, it eventually landed in front of Jankel and Morton who envisioned a new take. What if the dinosaurs didn’t die but instead continued to evolve in their own parallel universe—and what if a princess held the key to helping them jump into our world?

Their story would tell the real events that inspired the Super Mario Bros. game Nintendo had made famous. Morton even added a key end tag where two Japanese executives approach Mario and Luigi and tell them they want to turn their adventure into a video game. Ultimately, the plumbers’ story gets lost in translation, leaving us with the dinosaur-riding game we all know in real life. It was enough to entice an all-star cast including Hoskins as Mario, Leguizamo as Luigi, Samantha Mathis as Princess Daisy and even Dennis Hopper as the evil King Koopa… but then disaster struck.

To secure more funding, producers partnered with Disney who requested major rewrites to make the film more family-friendly. When the directors received their revamped script, just hours before production was to begin and long after sets for key scenes had been built, they were faced with a very different and uneven story. Gone was Morton’s key scene explaining the film’s context, and to make matters worse, their stars were miffed the film they’d signed onto was now drastically altered.

Somehow, the duo struggled through but as expected, the shoot was plagued with difficulty. When all was said and done, they’d captured a story that bore little resemblance to its colourful source material, fluctuated in tone and was set against an oppressive, neo-dystopian backdrop. Audiences were left bemused and after the movie’s release, Morton and Jankel were widely blamed for its faults and frequently used as scapegoats by its cast. The impact on their careers was dire.

“As a kid, I was enamoured with its connections to the game,” remembers Hoss, telling us where his fascination with the world’s first video game adaptation started. “If you go back to the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) manual for Super Mario Bros. and read the story, if you squint your eyes, that’s pretty much the through-line story of the live-action film,” he reasons.

“The more I watched it, the more all these other things started to jump out in terms of production design and the use of CGI, which was very new at the time. The movie is this interesting mix of old and new techniques, made right at the cusp before new processes of modern filmmaking took over.”

Applebaum also saw deeper meaning in this cinematic stumble: “To me, it seemed like they were drawing on an entire folklore legacy. Mario is more of a knight in shining armour archetype while the princess is clearly a damsel; a lost girl archetype that goes back to Persephone and Greek mythology,” he argues. “It seemed like it was reimagining what was already there and giving a different perspective on these tropes.”

Hooked, Hoss started buying up anything he could find that would help him better understand the film on eBay, starting with its official soundtrack. Today, SMBMovie.com has detailed pages archiving props, production notes, deleted scenes, storyboard and set design images, plus new interviews with actors and creators who were on its troubled set. The pair have even created a new and unofficial ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film including previously “lost” footage they’ve personally found and digitally restored.

“It was misunderstood,” asserts Hoss. “People didn’t really know how to talk about it other than ‘it was the worst movie ever made’, ‘it was a train wreck’ or ‘it’s so bad it’s good’. I spent years trying to figure it out myself and I thought, ‘There needs to be a forum or website for people to talk about this movie and I don’t think anybody else will make one but me’.”

The Super Mario Bros. movie finds a potentially unlikely ally

Later, Applebaum joined to help spread the word and oversee the site’s growing community. “It’s been an incredible experience,” he smiles. “Over the years, we’ve had so many comments like ‘I thought I was the only one who liked this’ or ‘I thought it was just an incredibly obscure fever dream.’ We’ve found that the film appeals to so many people for very different reasons. Again, comparing it to The Wizard of Oz, you had a huge gay community attached,” reveals Applebaum, commenting on its links to LGBTQIA+ crowds.

“The Super Mario Bros. movie seems to really appeal to queer and trans communities. We’ve encountered so many trans people who really adore the film and see it as a great expression of body positivity.”

As to why this is, perhaps we best consult those who have found identity in the film’s uniqueness. “I think Super Mario Bros.’ appeal to the LGBTQ+ community lies in its campiness,” suggests Alice Flynn, co-founder of the queer arts team Dogmouth. “I can only really describe it as ‘if they’d let John Waters direct a Mad Max film.’ It’s got that camp feel in its production design, with its overly high-concept world and incredible attention to detail, while still managing to maintain a sense of humour about itself.”

“Probably the campest moment for me is when Fiona Shaw gets electrocuted and immediately gets the Elsa-Lanchester-Bride-of-Frankenstein hair streak as a result,” she continues, detailing the fate of King Koopa’s right-hand lady. “It’s very flamboyant and silly—which I think lots of LGBTQ+ people are drawn to.”

Comics translator and Pixel Artist, Milo Scat, has their opinions too: “Daisy’s story of not fitting in and discovering an unashamedly weird world where she belongs has definite queer readings, as well as Luigi being counter-cultural and Mario coming to accept that. I find those dynamics very wholesome.”

Although for some, the relationship is harder to pin down. “Honestly, I don’t fully understand the connection,” admits Emily Schmemily, co-host of Super Mario Bros. Minute, a podcast dissecting the 1993 film, minute-by-minute. “I was pretty surprised when I started paying attention to the movie’s fan community and saw how many other trans girls were there. Then again, it’s kind of a stereotype that we all like cyberpunk and kink—and the movie treads heavily in the aesthetics of both, so maybe it’s as simple as that.”

Meanwhile, author, artist, filmmaker and game designer, Olivia Hill, thinks its rough treatment is a contributing factor. “While I wouldn’t say Super Mario Bros. is necessarily an inherently gay movie, it certainly has a lot of appeal for queer audiences. Over time, the movie has grown in its cult queer following because, frankly, we’re used to being panned when we live our lives. We’re used to being the subject of the same ridicule,” she reasons. “As society moves past things, it has decided we’re ‘cringe,’ we realised that, ‘no, actually they were just weird and that can be cool too’.”

For Hoss and Applebaum, this is just one of the many fascinating threads to emerge during their quest to ensure Morton and Jankel’s film gets the credit they feel it deserves. “I really do believe Rocky [Morton] and Annabel [Jankel] were ahead of their time and that the Mario property simply needed to grow into a global, transmedia franchise, as it has now, for their interpretation to be accepted alongside the rest. Ironically, it was the younger fans like Ryan [Hoss] and myself that grew up in the middle of this evolution that welcomed it from the start,” says Applebaum.

“Audiences aren’t just starting to re-evaluate the movie, they already have,” adds Hoss. “Since we launched the site in 2007, the film’s reviews have jumped up on sites like Amazon and IMDb. With our website and its enthusiastic and welcoming fanbase, the pop culture landscape is treating the film as the curious cult classic it is, encouraging folks to see it for themselves instead of listening to what the grumpier side of the internet would have you believe.”

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