I think there’s an odd conception about movies based on video games, that they must suffer from some curse. I wrote a book called Pixels to Premieres: A History of Video Game Movies and when I sold the book the most common comment was “that must’ve been an agonizing book to write.” In truth, it really wasn’t. I was genuinely surprised by how many films based on video games were not too shabby. There were dismally bad films, sure, but the ones that stuck out were more notable than the ones that were horrendous.
I think the problem is that when mentioning video game based movies the first one that comes to mind is 1993’s Super Mario Brothers. It was the first and also the worst. The production was troubling, nobody could decide on what the film was supposed to be, actors openly talked about how much a nightmare it was on set, critics hated it, and the box office was abysmal. It was a very terrible start for these types of films. But if we start from here, video game movies have made vast improvements and not just recently.
One of the first trailblazers of this subgenre was Mortal Kombat. Whereas the likes of the more prolific movies of Super Mario Brothers and Street Fighter didn’t exactly have a plan or a stable production, Mortal Kombat was far different. Producer Lawrence Kasanoff, upon playing the game, had an idea of what he wanted the film to be about before a deal was even struck. Midway Games thought he was full of crap and it took Kasanoff a long time to convince both Midway and Threshold Entertainment to let him go ahead with the project. Their concerns were worth noting considering how troubled and unprofitable Super Mario Bros was.
But Mortal Kombat’s production went rather well according to numerous stories from the cast and crew. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects was the casting of Christopher Lambert in the role of Raiden. For hiring probably the most notable actor of the cast, the crew expected that he would probably not want to film with everyone else in Thailand considering their original choice was Sean Connery, who most certainly wouldn’t be joining them. Lambert, however, opted to tag along and film on location with the rest of the cast. The tech crew behind the animatronic puppet of Goro found him breaking down several times but seemed to take it in stride according to numerous people who worked on the film.
The most important thing to note about Mortal Kombat though is its box office. The film grossed over $100 million which made it a financial success. Yes, the awful and rushed sequel of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was a box office bomb but it wouldn’t take too long for more video game films to once more become box office successes. In 1999, Pokemon: The First Movie received so many preorder ticket requests that Warner Bros’ phone lines were jammed. The film made a ton of money from both their merchandising and the catch of promotional Pokemon cards at each weekly showing, guaranteeing repeat business from the fans. Warner Bros knew they had a hit with this method since the next Pokemon debuted in American theaters less than a year later. In 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was an even bigger financial hit with a big star attached that it went onto a sequel. The same goes for 2002’s Resident Evil which went on for seven films.
None of these films were critical darlings, all receiving rotten ratings, but clearly, if they were making money there was an audience for these films. There are certainly more box office failures than triumphs within this sub-genre but wins range from mild returns on profit to blockbuster status. This is a key component because this is more or less what studios are looking for when deciding what they’ll spend their money on and since video game movies are usually heavy on the theatrics and special effects, they need all the budget they can get. While many video game films have ended up being failures, studios can keep taking the risk because if they manage to get it right they could be the next Resident Evil, garnering massive money and multiple sequels. And the box office continues to rise in these movies considering the top three earning video game films were made within the past five years, the top one being Warcraft with a worldwide gross of $439 million.
Okay, so what about the critical consensus?
Yeah, video game films have historically had low rating averages among critics.
However, if you want to go based on the Rotten Tomatoes percentage, which I have to admit is an overly simplistic method to grade a picture’s quality considering how many goofy narratives form around mere aggregate number disparities, video game films have risen from the lower ranks of Rotten. In 2018, the latest iteration of Tomb Raider and the Dwayne Johnson starring Rampage became the first video game films to reach the 50% range. And then the following year Detective Pikachu was the first to reach Fresh status even if it was only a percentage of 69%, followed by The Angry Birds Movie 2 with a higher percentage.
Though these numbers are not directly indicative of a film’s quality or even an average rating, the percentage does need to be taken note of in cases where one would want to claim milestones to a simplistic reading. For example, Sonic the Hedgehog was praised at one point as the highest-rated of video game movies for a Fresh score of 64%. Except this isn’t true not just because of Detective Pikachu’s slightly higher score but because The Angry Birds Movie 2 had an even higher percentage of 73% from the following year, making that film the highest-rated video game film ever on Rotten Tomatoes.
To clarify, this isn’t saying that based on this data Angry Birds is objectively better than Sonic. But if you’re going to use Rotten Tomatoes as a metric for this aspect of the video game curse, you can’t pretend that subsequent Fresh video game movies did not already pass these milestones, especially when they’re so close together.
The last three video game films of Detective Pikachu, The Angry Birds Movie 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog have all made history with Fresh ratings and box office rankings that range from profitable to major successes. It’s clear that these films have become at the very least suitably passable. And that’s good, that’s progress for video game movies and any trace of a curse has all but lifted. However, there’s a new curse which may be on the horizon as video game films enter a new age: the age of average.
While I throw no shade towards those who genuinely enjoyed Sonic, a number of criticisms from fans I’ve noticed have been remarking that the film wasn’t a complete disaster, being good but not great. For many video game fans who have taken punches to the face with movie adaptations of their favorite properties, good is good enough to claim a victory that this genre has found a cozy home within the genre of family adventure films. But I can’t help but feel if these video games are going to become more frequent that we shouldn’t just have to settle for a film not being a disaster, especially when the genre itself has come such a long way.
I’m bringing this up because we’re on the verge of another notable video game movie hitting theaters, a Mario movie. The film is going into production with Illumination Studios, famously known for the Despicable Me movies. Though the film is being produced by Mario’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto, it’s also being produced by Chris Meledandri, the founder of Illumination. He has been a producer on every Illumination animated film and while they have all been quite profitable on such small budgets for animation, they have also had wildly fluctuating critical consensus.
A commonality I’ve noticed between their most notable productions of Despicable Me and The Secret Life of Pets is that they often find funny stuff to animate but don’t really have all that compelling a story to go along with their gags. You can see the ideas dwindle in their sequels. In Despicable Me, the central story is that Gru wants to prove himself as a villain by stealing the moon from a younger genius but ultimately ends up becoming a father; this is simplistic but cute. In Despicable Me 3, Gru meets his identical brother and they have to stop a villain of tired 1980s references. In The Secret Life of Pets, the dog Jack learns to live with the dog Duke and evade the evil bunny Snowball who feels humanity has wrong him. In the Secret Life of Pets 2, the two lead dogs learn to adjust with a child in the house and have to stop some mustache-twirling circus villain who imprisons a tiger.
Illumination’s films thus far have been lukewarm at best and formulaically meandering at their worst. But given that most of these films have generated stellar profits it’s unlikely they’ll stray too far from a surefire formula for a property like Mario. After all, wouldn’t Nintendo just love to be the first video game movie to have a $100 million opening?
Based on the track record of Illumination, I’d speculate that the film will probably be a somewhat standard adventure picture for kids. There will be some corny and dated jokes that’ll arrive ten years too late, Mario and Luigi will have to save the princess, they’ll drift apart as the brother’s don’t feel their relationship is equal, team up to defeat bowser, a dance sequence will occur (most likely some slick remix of “Do The Mario”) and then some sequel bait with Wario in the mid-credit scene.
Of course, I hope I’m wrong because it would not only be a relief to have a video game movie that was great for more than just “not being a disaster” but would perhaps mark a turning point for Illumination. Their films up to this point have ranged from meh to mediocre and they could really use a critical homerun.
But regardless of whatever the film turns out to be, you just know that an immediate defense of the film will be, “Hey, at least it’s not as bad as 1993’s Super Mario Brothers.”
Yes, we’ve come a long way since that movie but I also don’t think we should merely settle for a film being better than a similar property film from over twenty years ago which was by all accounts a disaster.
So to sum up, there is no longer a video game movie curse, neither financially if going off box office numbers or critical consensus if we’re going strictly off the mostly misread Rotten Tomatoes profiles. Just based on the tenants of what makes a bad film, practically all these aspects were resolved by 2019. Video game films are no longer disasters. They’re now average.
So congrats to the evolution of video game films on reaching the age of averageness. Let’s not stay here too long and strive for more.