Mario, Metal Gear, and The Video Game Movie
Movies adapted from video games are some of the most infamous films of all time. From the utterly incompetent Uwe Boll releases of the early 2000’s (including 2005’s BloodRayne, which marked the worst use of Sir Ben Kingsley in a film until The Love Guru) to the more contemporary disappointments of Need for Speed and Assassin’s Creed, there’s a tendency to for these adaptations to be outsized, poorly-written disasters. They can foster bad acting in great actors, load up on cheesy CGI, or otherwise make critical errors that prevent the finished product from being an accomplished film in its own right or a satisfying extension of the game that inspired it.
The main reason that many of these games fail to live up to expectations is that they’re simple cash cows, meant to duplicate the popularity of an already-popular franchise to whatever diminished results in order to rake in some extra dough. Still, I’d argue that a central and oft-forgotten reason for the discrepancy between video games and their cinematic cousins is the loss of the former’s interactivity, one of video gaming’s defining characteristics, and the subsequent inability of the latter to compensate for that loss in any meaningful way. And it’s that blind spot that most intrigues me regarding two upcoming, big-name game-to-film adaptations: Mario and Metal Gear.
Earlier this year, Nintendo confirmed that it’s currently at work on a new feature-length Mario movie, the first of its kind since 1993’s polarizing live-action Super Mario Bros., considered a cult classic by some and an affront to the franchise by others. it’s unsurprising that Nintendo would seek to try again with an animated movie closer in aesthetic to the games themselves – but what was surprising was the studio they chose to work with. Rather than use a Japanese animation studio, or even make a bold attempt to involve mega-brands like Pixar or Disney, Nintendo selected Illumination as their partner in the venture, a studio best known for its Despicable Me and Minion films. Fiscally, this decision made a ton of sense: the aforementioned films are some of highest-grossing movies of all time, and the ubiquity of the Minion creatures has spread like a pandemic, encompassing almost every conceivable piece of merchandise.
Artistically, however, the announcement raised red flags amongst certain fans. For one, the involvement of Illumination signified that this movie would be unequivocally a capital-K Kids movie, rather than then the PG-13 approach of the previous film. But more so, having the creators of the Minions involved practically ensured that one of the beloved Mario characters or creatures – be it Toads, Goombas, or Shy Guys – were destined to be presented and marketed as the Mushroom Kingdom’s answer to their tenacious yellow forebears. For longtime fans of the series, the possibility of seeing a Goomba’s grimace plastered over as many phone cases, keychains, memes, and children’s toys as the Minions is a bit hard to swallow.
But Minions madness aside, I’m actually quite optimistic for the prospects of the upcoming Mario movie. Illumination is as accomplished a studio as any, and their animation style more or less resembles several of the moustached plumber’s many iterations – the real deciding factors will be in the script and casting. My own personal beef with the 1993 Mario Bros. was that I could barely recognize the protagonist as the plucky plumber from the games; as a result, the film felt lacking in the charm and exuberance that he’s supposed to represent. The negated interactivity that comes with the medium of film isn’t as pressing a concern, as in most Mario games the story is secondary to the gameplay, and at this point the character is so well-known that it wouldn’t be strange to see him and his pals removed entirely from the context of video games. As long as the new Mario movie delivers characters and a story that don’t seem too different from the source material, I’ll be happy – even if, at twenty-five, I’m a touch above the target audience.
But I am absolutely the demographic for the upcoming Metal Gear movie. As more and more details about the project emerge, the end shape of the film only becomes more and more uncertain. On the one hand, Metal Gear is easily one of the most primed-for-adaptation game franchises ever, with enormous stature in the industry, a legion of devoted fans, and a celebrated series of titles that each engage differently yet substantially with cinematic influence. And yet, it also defies any hope for adaptation through its enormous, unwieldy plot (which spans over two generations), its diverse array of idiosyncratic characters, and its singular nature as a video game first and foremost. That last point is most critical: despite its reputation for interminable cutscenes, Hollywood-level drama, and engrossing voice acting, the Metal Gear series is one of the rare instances of a video game that truly utilizes the medium to its full advantages. Whether in the revolutionary stealth gameplay of Metal Gear Solid that caused a sea change in console gaming, the bold meta-narrative of MGS2 that interrogated gaming itself, or the dense open-world structure of MGSV, each entry in the series has celebrated, embodied, and evolved the medium of video games.
It’s hard to imagine a film version of Metal Gear that can match that level of immersion and impact. Granted, the deep mythos of the series is dense enough to offer many tantalizingly untouched storylines, but the fact remains that a cinematic adaptation would have to work overtime to avoid becoming a stale, rehashed action flick with a MGS paint job smeared over it (the series often utilizes and deconstructs action movie tropes, so a film would have to do this twice over). And that’s just the writing: casting would be crucial, as there was enough backlash when the more recent MGS titles eschewed longtime voice actor David Hayder in favor of the broader appeal of Kiefer Sutherland. The one beacon of hope in all this is the fact that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts is by all accounts a massive fan of the series, and will no doubt endeavor to create a satisfying story that simultaneously, in the words and advice of series creator Hideo Kojima, “betray[s] [its] audience.”
At a time when massive film franchises are the golden standard in Hollywood filmmaking, it’s unsurprising that there would be renewed interest in taking two of video game’s biggest titles to the silver screen. While a Mario movie seems a lock to satisfy viewers of all ages, the enormity and complexity of the Metal Gear series ensures that the upcoming film will have to work overtime to subvert and celebrate the tropes, characters and world that have come to define the series. Regardless, the fate of each movie will have a pivotal effect on video game adaptations moving forward: if either or both can achieve even half as much success as the current superhero blockbusters, then we can expect a lot more crossover between the small and big screens in the future.