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The Super Mario Bros. Movie and the Power of Nostalgia

Warning: Spoilers ahead. Or watch the video.


The Super Mario Bros. Movie is a specific type of film for a specific type of audience. Well, two specific types of audiences—but, judging by its 95% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and its status as the year’s top ticket seller so far, it’s doing a pretty good job of pleasing them both.


The first audience is fairly obvious. It’s a kids’ movie. The story is straightforward and easy to follow and enjoy. All the characters’ motives and goals are clear within the first few minutes; Mario even states his own theme when he says “I’m just sick and tired of feeling so small” right before traveling to a magical kingdom where he can literally grow several sizes by eating the right mushrooms. Yeah, I know. Still a kids’ movie. My five-year-old son loves it. In fact, this flick has jump-started a Mario trend in my house that's been super fun for both of us.


And that brings us to the second audience: me. Yep, me. A grown man.


I’m the fabled (yet surprisingly commonplace) nerdy elder millennial who grew up playing Super Mario Bros. games on the Nintendo Entertainment System (usually abbreviated NES) and perhaps the most famous followup console in history, the SNES (or Super Nintendo Entertainment System, for the unfamiliar).


The Super Mario Bros. Movie was clearly made for and by someone like me—someone who loved all things Mario in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s too jam-packed with nostalgia-bait references to have been made by anyone else. (My favorite is the commercial near the beginning that remixes the theme song from The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! starring the late “Captain” Lou Albano. Some of these are seriously deep cuts.) Plus, they let Jack Black sing not once, but twice, and if my generation has a mascot, it’s probably Jack Black. Things get a little weird when Donkey Kong starts laughing like Seth Rogen, but overall, these nods to the fanbase help capture the tone of the games and compensate for the inevitable holes in the plot.


I say “inevitable” because, let’s face it, most of the Mario games are pretty light on story. Usually, Princess Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser (who wants to force her into a marriage, which, yikes), and Mario (sometimes with his brother Luigi, his friend Toad, or his pet dinosaur Yoshi) sets off on an adventure to rescue her.


The movie mixes this formula up a bit for the 2020s, giving Peach more agency as she fights to defend her kingdom rather than simply serving as an object of desire, and they try to flesh out Mario’s backstory with an impossible-to-please father, but overall, the plot still breaks down as follows:


  1. Bowser bad.

  2. Mario good.

  3. Now they fight.


So, the story is serviceable, but it does have quite a few logical gaps. Who’s informing Bowser of our heroes’ every move? Why do all the toads gasp when Peach tells them that Mario, whom they’ve barely met, is missing? What are the odds that a broken TV set would play our hero’s own commercial at the exact moment when he needs a confidence boost?


In short, a plethora of contrivances create cracks in the story’s veneer, and nostalgia serves as masking tape, covering up the imperfections and holding everything together. Whenever you start to notice that something seems a little off, the filmmakers insert a pitch-perfect sound effect or music sting that gives anyone who loves the games an instant surge of serotonin. Plus, there are enough awesome moments, such as the Super Star-fueled finale, to keep most viewers happy, assuming they’re either a kid or a me. (You read that in Mario’s over-the-top Italian accent, didn’t you? Admit it.)


In the end, all this pandering is . . . totally acceptable. I have no problem with this formula for The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The people who made it know their key audience–which, coincidentally, doesn’t include most critics–and they also know what that audience wants. As such, I believe it succeeds at what it sets out to do. (By “succeeds,” I mean from a storytelling perspective; the fact that it's made over a billion dollars globally is, in my opinion, a symptom of that success.)


This is why identifying your audience (and familiarizing yourself with them) is so important. When you know your audience, you can tailor a story just for them, tapping into the things they love and giving them as much of that as possible. With that love on tap, most people will be having too much fun to care about a few plot holes, assuming your story has heart (see my Last of Us review for another example). And this movie does have heart. You can see that in how Mario refuses to give up, just like all of us did as kids playing a particularly difficult level.


So, your audience should inform all the choices you make about your story, from word choice to tone. Here’s how I break down the process of audience identification:


  1. Pinpoint demographics: Age, location, hobbies, and other similar factors should shape your storytelling choices. For example, this is a kids’ movie, so it has a lighthearted tone without any adult content (which is kind of impressive for a story about forced marriage).

  2. Consume related works: One way to prepare to write your own story for your own audience is to watch, read, or play works that the audience already enjoys. This allows you to start determining not only the kinds of stories they like but also the kinds of stories they want to see. Even if you draw from existing stories, you should always aim to create something at least a little different from everything your audience has seen before.

  3. Study storycraft: Familiarize yourself with the structure of your type of story (often called “genre conventions”); then you can start trying to build something original out of those pieces. Good news! You’re in this step right now because you're reading this article. For more about genre conventions, sign up for my email list.

  4. Get engaged: Visit spaces frequented by your target audience and interact with them if possible. Talking to members of your audience is one of the best ways to learn about what they like and what they want to see. And, yes, online communities count. Disclaimer: Use common sense when approaching your audience. Don’t be a creep.

  5. Find feedback: Learning to seek out and accept feedback is a vital part of the writing process. Without collaboration, how can we hope to grow as writers? One of the best ways to do this is to hire a professional, but if that’s not an option, you can always use beta readers, who are typically friends and family members but can be anyone willing to read your work and provide feedback for free. (The downside of beta readers is that a professional editor will typically offer more structured, actionable input.)


Once you’ve analyzed your audience and figured out what they want, you can tap into the things they love while telling a story of your own. If you do that, your writing doesn’t need to be perfect because perfection is not a prerequisite for fun.


Instead, focus on what makes your audience happy. That’s the formula to keep people coming back for more.

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