If you’ve been paying attention to any major entertainment sites the last day or so, you’ve seen the story: Screenwriter Evan Daugherty, the guy behind Snow White And The Huntsman, has written and directed a series of shorts, collectively known as The Four Players, which is meant as a grim and gritty real world interpretation of, I wish I was shitting you all right now, Super Mario Brothers. The first two, starring a Rocky Balboa-like Mario and a Luigi fresh out of rehab, debuted yesterday over at YouTube channel Polaris; the second set released just today and focused on Princess Peach and Toad, which I’m shocked didn’t end up being an AIDS-riddled prostitute and a guy dying of crippling encephalitis. Instead it’s Peach having a Sucker Punch-lite delusion while a giant turtle tortures her. Admittedly, the Toad short borders on cool, with a determined Pan’s Labyrinth-y Toad engineering stop-motion Bob-Ombs and taking down one of Bowser’s airships, which could very easily be a scene from the Bob Hoskins Mario Bros. sequel that never happened, but the narration is just so excruciatingly self-serious that even that minor spark and enjoyment is crushed dead on arrival.
I think I may have been perfectly fine ignoring The Four Players as a simple waste of precious time, money, and bandwidth as opposed to proof Jesus should’ve handed this whole dominant species thing off to the monkeys when he had the chance, but this also comes on the heels of a weekend where the entirety of the internet wet themselves, in hatred or misguided love, for The Deal, a Batman fancomic about the final straw being broken where the Joker has fridged Alfred, Batman and the Joker have their final violent fight, ending in the two of them falling from 50,000 feet, overlaid by a woefully misused Bill Hicks quote while they hold hands. The Deal came on the heels of me playing Arkham Origins, which shows a Joker who hits puberty over his first encounter with Batman, and redraws Batman’s entire rogue’s gallery in shades of uninspired, desperate, malicious gray. And this is riding a current trend of self-seriousness games in particular simply do not need. This is, of course, nothing terribly new for gaming, for comics, or any medium where nerds live and breathe nowadays. It’s why fridging exists as a trope to begin with. And numerous writers smarter than me have said their piece on how we’ve come to a place where people feel like the only way to grant your goofy, fun, lighthearted property legitimacy is to add in a few murders, mute the color scheme, sprinkle in some tinny, inspirational piano, and maybe have a shirtless mannequin say a few words from the source material.
Fanfiction by its very nature is somewhere on the list between Interpretive Polka and Gallagher as far as creative arts go, but this new wave of fan interpretations of known characters is something new. This isn’t driven by the love of these characters one thinks of when you think of normal, semi-well-adjusted fandom, like making Indiana Jones meet Han Solo, or making Spike and Angel meet Blade, or even having Aragorn make out with Frodo. Misery is the new fun. Reality is the new fantasy. And there is not a property on the planet that escapes the pressing need of someone, somewhere to strip every last shred of the unreal out of it.
Here’s the thing: All of this is borne from the instinct nerds have of injecting supposedly mature themes into ultimately frivolous entertainment in the aim of legitimacy. Guess what, guys? WE WON. The #1 movie across the planet is a god damned Thor movie, with an Infinity Gauntlet reference in the post-credits. The #1 TV show in America, abysmal as it may be, is about comic book-loving introvert scientists. This is our world now. No, people, the world isn’t making fun of us anymore for loving what we love anymore. The world’s making fun of us because the people who bury themselves in this stuff are now in the horrible, horrible mainstream spotlight, and many of our kind are emotionally ill-equipped to deal with its scrutiny.
What are these people supposed to glean from our fandom when this is how we show our appreciation? Taken collectively, these kinds of projects paint a picture of every hardcore comic or video game nerd as suicidal, miserable, woefully misanthropic sadsacks. Which, you know, would be something easily avoided if we were still a subculture. But we’re not. We’re part of the status quo, and we’ve accepted our newfound power and glory like humorless, unimaginative assholes. We used to play Super Mario Brothers to avoid these kinds of people, remember?
The easy instinct is to blame Christopher Nolan for every sad inch of this trend, but no. The more analytical instinct is to blame Aeris Gainsborough.
I blame Mel Gibson.
See, Christians in general are thousands of years ahead of the curve as far as using sadness and feelz as a primary means of appreciation for the things they love, but it took The Passion of the Christ to calcify for all time that this was what people were getting out of their faith. That movie didn’t make a holy assload of money because it was about Jesus. There would’ve been a lot more of Jesus doing things like helping the poor, walking on water, throwing money changers down steps, and turning bread and fish into party time if that was the case. No, Passion of the Christ made an assload of money because it was everyone’s favorite superhero getting the literal holy shit kicked out of him for two hours straight. This is how a lot of Christians choose to define Christianity: Through the most deplorable violence and pain and brutality ever imagined by humanity inflicted upon the best person any of us will ever know.
The ethos is, of course, the more misery piled upon someone, the more heroic their triumph when they persevere. Granted, The Passion has that badass post-crucifixion stinger of the boulder moving aside, and a newly stigmatacized Christ walking out like a boss, which I actually do kinda love as a stylistic structural choice, but it’s too little, too late as the ultimate proof that you can’t fuck with the Jesus. The catharsis for everything Jesus endures in that film is too perfunctory. The ultimate problem with fandom’s version of that same theorem is that there is no catharsis. It’s all conflict and darkness and oppression with no sweet release. Which is because it’s not about having innocence and heroism look better by overcoming adversity. It’s about the adversity being the only thing making it worthwhile. It’s about pure entertainment not being enough. It’s about trying to prove our entertainment is “not just a game”, “not just some movie”, “not just some comic”. It has to be art, it has to make someone cry, it has to be modern mythology. It’s ultimately about trying to apply maturity to things that ultimately aren’t, and the lunkheaded thinking that somehow that’s not okay.
Like I mentioned before, the #1 movie across the planet right now is Thor: The Dark World. And for a movie with the word “dark” in the title, it’s a wonderfully lighthearted and fun two hour ride. It’s the purest definition of escapism at the multiplex right now. By fortuitious scheduling, I walked straight out of 12 Years A Slave into that flick, and I thanked the damn maker it was there to fall onto after that film. What exactly would Thor–or any of the Marvel universe flicks, really–gain from being closer to grim reality? I can tell you what it’d lose: Millions upon millions of the people we seem to want to impress with how emotionally deep we can be. We root for Thor to save Asgard, we root for Jane Foster to get him because we LIKE these people. I don’t know who these people in The Four Players are, but I know that I don’t want to.
What made us glom onto the things we as geeks came to love to begin with was that they WEREN’T reality. They were more fun than reality. They complimented reality. For a little while, we got to see, play, and read the impossible invade reality. Why in the name of Sam Elliott’s sainted mustache are we trying so hard to put dingy reality BACK in, especially where it was never wanted to begin with? That’s not to say you CAN’T indulge the occasional dive into something grim and gritty, long as the leap to reality is a minor gap, not a vast chasm. And too much of what passes for fanboy/girl love for our escapism now is trying to jump a Vespa over Grimgritty Canyon.
All that is to say, in essence, fuck The Four Players. Though Nintendo may exploit the Mario name, one thing that I’ve always respected them for is that there’s a purity to the tone of everything Mario’s supposed to represent. He’s that place people can go and be surrounded by colors and coins, and animals, everything that’s universal in appeal about video games, and The Four Players is a blackhearted, cynical middle finger to that. The Four Brothers is to video games what Frank Cross is to Christmas, and there’s no Buster Poindexter coming. We’re allowed to love what we love now. It’s really okay. No matter how immature, or colorful, or unreal it is. It’s really fine now. Fandom, I’m begging you: Grow the fuck up, and be a kid again.