Guest Editorial: "Super Mario Bros." and Orpheus



Author: Witney Seibold (@WitneySeibold)


October 31, 2018



2018 marks the 25th anniversary of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel's feature film Super Mario Bros., a film that still carries its bad reputation like an albatross around its neck. 25 years ago, the reviews were generally very poor (Siskel and Ebert called it one of the worst films of 1993), and today, video game fans lambaste it as the prime example of what not to do when bringing a video game narrative to the big screen. It was only a passionate few that latched themselves onto Super Mario Bros. back in 1993.

Some audiences were excited by its daring weirdness, slimepunk production design, oddball story, and over-the-top performances. It has been the same passionate few who have been touting the film's under-appreciated greatness for 25 years, turning Super Mario Bros. into a legit cult classic that still occasionally shows up on midnight movie programs and off-the-beaten-path genre retrospectives.


For those passionate about Super Mario Bros. – and, to make clear right away, I am one of those people – fealty to the source material is totally beside the point. Many of the film's critics complained at the time, and still complain to this day, that the film strayed too dramatically from the source material. However, given that the source material is largely inexplicable in a narrative context, such an argument is largely meaningless. A film that was screen accurate to the game would have been a candy carnival nightmare, an animated monstrosity that would resemble the horrendous The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! from 1989.


Instead, the filmmakers, wisely, took certain elements from the game (magical fungus, pipes and plumbing, stomping, dinosaurs) and remixed them into something far more interesting and creative. Indeed, the story of Super Mario Bros. whether knowingly or not, taps into specific – and ancient – mythological archetypes instantly recognizable within the collective unconsciousness of the Western mind.


Like Star Wars before it (and, yes, I'm comparing Super Mario Bros. favorably to Star Wars), Super Mario Bros. understands a very basic and universal type of mythic story, and presents it in a dazzling (if off-center) adventure flick good for kids. In short, Super Mario Bros. is the Orpheus story.



Examples of Super Mario Bros.' daring weirdness.


Orpheus, if you're unfamiliar with the story, was a masterful musician having been taught by Apollo himself. He was married to Eurydice, a daughter of Apollo and magical nymph. When a satyr tried to rape Eurydice in the woods, she fled and fell into a nest of vipers where she was bitten to death. Orpheus, so saddened by her death, wrote the world's most mournful funeral dirge. The dirge was so powerful that the gods allowed him into the realm of Hades to retrieve her. After a long trek through the dark passages of the Underworld, and after playing his mournful dirge for Hades and Persephone, Orpheus located Eurydice. Hades granted her passage back to the world of the living under the condition that Orpheus not look directly at her until they were all the way out of the Underworld. Orpheus, however, wasn't able to resist, did look at her on the way out, and she vanished back into the world of death.


The Orpheus myth has entranced the Western world since at least the 6th century B.C., and it has come to color a lot of modern storytelling, especially fantasy screenplays in modern Hollywood. Any and all films that involve a protagonist leaving the “normal” world to explore a dark parallel dimension all find their origin with Orpheus. Examples are legion: The Wizard of Oz (1939) is most certainly an Orphic story, featuring a young woman who finds herself whisked away to a bizarre colorful land ruled by wizards and witches where she must confront evil and gain, literally and figuratively, brains, heart, and courage. Literarily, the Orpheus myth – to cite one example – found purchase in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), wherein a traveler found himself visiting several strange lands full of fantastical beings, only with a definite undercurrent of political satire; the characters in Gulliver were direct commentaries on 18th century British political trends. The same type of satire was presented over 150 years later in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865), about an ordinary schoolgirl who gets lost in a bizarre underworld of talking animals and mad queens. The beings of Alice's underworld were definitely clever satires of then-modern English political figures and movements.


Shakespeare, of course, wore the Orphic myth utterly ragged in several of his plays. From A Midsummer Night's Dream to Two Gentlemen of Verona to As You Like It, characters found themselves wandering out of the ordinary universe into the (usually wooded) realm of magic where their problems would be fantastically solved. To describe this magical Shakespearean realm, the literary critic Northrop Frye coined the term “Green World.” The Green World term is usually only kept to descriptions of Shakespeare's work, but, with a slight amount of cognitive stretching, one can find it applicable to any Orphic narrative.


Super Mario Bros. features a journey to a Green World. As the film's introduction announces (in a narration by Dan Castellaneta), a meteor struck the earth in prehistoric times, creating two parallel Earths. On one Earth, dinosaurs were removed, and mammals continued to evolve in the usual way, eventually leading to the formation of homo sapiens. On the other, the dinosaurs continued to evolve into intelligent beings that – by coincidence – look exactly like homo sapiens. In the dinosaur dimension, the world is ravaged by greed and royal mismanagement by the wicked King Koopa (Dennis Hopper). The planet is devoid of resources, is wracked by greed and poverty, and only one city remains in an endless desert. This is, of course, the world of death, with Koopa serving as Hades. He even has a Persephone in the form of Lena (Fiona Shaw, a great British actress) who longs for power and who takes icky mud baths with the king.


Super Mario Bros. Orpheus has been bifurcated into the brothers of Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi (John Leguizamo), two plumbers from Brooklyn. Eurydice is imagined as Daisy (Samantha Mathis); a plucky activist and, by narrative coincidence, the long lost princess of the dinosaur dimension (her father was deposed by Koopa). Daisy/Eurydice will be taken to the dimension of death by wicked reptiles (the nest of vipers), and it will be Orpheus' job to trek into the strange realm to retrieve her.



Alice in Wonderland is another example of an Orphic Story.


In what can only be considered a modern American twist on the story, however, the Mario/Luigi/Orpheus will not inspire the gods of death to grief, but will depict heroes of action: They have to rely on their very American Ragged Dick-like tenacity and Judeo-Christian sense of righteousness in order to retrieve Eurydice from Hades. The modern American Orpheus characters are, naturally, clever, funny, flawed, and, at times, feel weirdly whole; their flip New Yawk attitudes are appealing and casual and believable. Also true to modern American filmmaking tropes, Eurydice was no mere victim. Although held captive in a castle, she seems unflappable, strong, and capable. Indeed, she stages her own escape, unwilling to merely wait.


Additionally, just as in the realm of Hades, the denizens that live there are transformed. In Greek myth, souls can be transformed into animals; there is a description in The Odyssey of fallen heroes resembling bats who could only become human after tasting blood from the mortal world. In Super Mario Bros., the denizens of the underworld, in order to serve their master, are de-evolved into small-headed goons called Goombas. They are robbed of thought and agency. Although, again in an Americanization of the myth, the Goombas can be brought back to humanity not by blood sacrifice, but by a show of compassion; Daisy befriends a Goomba named Toad (played by Mojo Nixon when in human form) and it will end up defending her from attackers. He is a fallen hero gifted his humanity back.


This ancient Orphic tale may be why some audiences have continued to react so positively to Super Mario Bros. for the past 25 years; there is something recognizable throughout Western culture embedded deeply inside of it. The production design is excellent, and is a grand example of a very particular brand of clunky Hollywood artificiality that was prevalent at the time, but which has since evolved into something slicker and computer-based. But it's the myth that may keep us interested. Once again into the depths. - Witney Seibold


Witney Seibold is a film critic and journalist from Los Angeles. He currently contributes to IGN and co-hosts the podcasts CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED and CANCELED TOO SOON. He can be found on Twitter via @WitneySeibold.



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