Why ‘Super Mario Brothers’ Rules the World–Except For Asia

‘Suzume’ has actually outperformed Mario in Japan, China, and South Korea

Since its release in early April, the American press has hailed the Super Mario Brothers Movie as the latest great savior of Hollywood’s flagging box office returns, and for good reason. With a worldwide box office haul of more than 1.3 billion dollars, 570 million dollars  domestic, the Super Mario Brothers Movie has vastly outperformed any other film in recent memory. To date, the closest competitors to the Super Mario Brothers Movie have been Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3- the Marvel title’s dollar domestic gross being far closer to Ant-Man 3’s domestic numbers than anyone would really like to admit. Fast X, for all its hype, is still looking like a distant second for the year at best. Across The Spider-Verse does have a chance to eclipse everything else–except for Super Mario Brothers, which is now the second-highest-grossing animated movie of all time.

Of the year’s top screen release, The Super Mario Brothers Movie is also the only title that is an original property rather than a sequel, though the phrase “original property” in this case is quite generous. Obviously, Super Mario Brothers has existed in a form beyond this movie, as the title implies. But the Super Mario Brothers Movie represents the final type of brand that studios can exploit for box office potential. If you read any of the clickbait articles on the Super Mario Brothers Movie, the major consistent theme is how breathlessly convinced people seem to be that the studio can exploit not just the Super Mario Brothers, but any Nintendo brand, for maximum box office potential.

That Super Mario Brothers could even appear in a newly-branded film form is an anomaly because the franchise comes from Japan. And, in a further layered irony, despite the Super Mario Brothers Movie being subject to the usual stupid woke controversies, it’s actually a surprisingly cogent case of cultural appropriation. Don’t take my word for it–watch the trailer for the Japanese dub. Where the English version marketed throughout the United States leaned heavily on celebrity voice actors, quips, and fanservice, an Illumination animation in Mario skin, the Japanese version tried to make it look like something more akin to a typical adventure film.

Different marketing schemes in different territories for the same film are nothing new, of course, but with Hollywood films facing increasingly diminishing returns, there’s frustratingly little introspection about why we see the current branding models for major American films as the only viable models for film production. Even setting aside the question of whether this is profitable, it’s gotten extremely difficult to say with a straight face that any American film output is original in any meaningful sense. The best-performing original American films this year are Air and Cocaine Bear, and even those come off more like vague ideas which some executive ordered a writer to build a movie around than original screenplays.

One can’t help but wonder if the Writer’s Strike is focusing a little bit too much on the money. Not to say that the money is unimportant, of course. But it’s not exactly surprising that Hollywood thinks it can push writers around or replace them with robots when the current status quo favors a kind of mad lib screenwriting where it barely even seems to matter what any of these movies are actually about.

The original Suzume

It doesn’t have to be like this. Japan’s own film market, while highly eccentric and relying a lot on animated sequels and adaptations (a new Detective Conan movie has handily outperformed the Super Mario Brothers Movie), at least has opportunities for original work to flourish. Director Makoto Shinkai has made a name for himself as a major anime auteur, with Your Name, Weathering With You, and now Suzume firmly establishing his reputation as a director with a sad, elegaic vision of worlds on the cusp of disaster. Suzume, in particular, has been a huge success, breaking $100 million in Japan (compared to $60 million for the Super Mario Brothers Movie), and also in China (where the Super Mario Brothers Movie only earned around $20 million). In South Korea, those numbers were $40 million to $15 million.

Much of this doesn’t even come down to the individual merits of Suzume or the Super Mario Brothers Movie, but just distribution. While ‘Mario’ had simultaneous distribution worldwide, Suzume only had an initial release in Japan, and pitiful distribution pretty much everywhere except China and South Korea. Distribution is always the hidden element of box office success that so often goes undiscussed because of what it implies–there are only so many screens on which we can watch movies. If you control the screens, as Hollywood tends to, you can dictate what people watch, and it doesn’t take long for everyone to just assume that this must be what people want is endless variations on the same small handful of brands, since those seem to be the only movies that make any money.

It’s in this context that something like the Super Mario Brothers Movie can seem fresh and original, despite the obvious absurdity of applying such words to describe it in any objective sense. Yet the success of Suzume, as well as its apparent invisibility in the mainstream American film market, offer a strong counterargument to that point. It even offers a strong counterpoint to the constant refrain that China is unfairly prejudiced against foreign films. Maybe they only have prejudice against our films. And maybe they’re not really prejudiced so much as just disinterested because, let’s face it, even we aren’t that interested in our own films these days. That’s how the Super Mario Brothers Movie managed to take over the news cycle in the first place.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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