Video game characters have it tough. This is not a theory, but a well documented fact. They die a thousand deaths at the hands of a merciless god, undergo non-stop tests of endurance, and are continually told their goal lies just beyond their reach.
Web series like Street Fighter: The Later Years and videos like Minesweeper: The Movie have already given us a look at the inner lives of our favorite video game avatars, but never has the plight of the pixelated been given so much dramatic heft as in There Will Be Brawl, a crime-noir set in the Mushroom Kingdom.
Despite the punny title, there are no Daniel Day-Lewis impressions or examples of the There Will Be Blood meme to be found (“I drink your mushroom?”).
The plot instead takes POYKPAC and Galacticast one step further and fits more in the mold of crime thrillers such as Se7en or Gone Baby Gone. There’s the usual dark, gritty cinematography, uniquely grotesque criminals, and cynical first-person narration. The only difference is references to Nintendo games (or more specifically, the Smash Brothers series) are cleverly inserted into every corner of the noir cliche.
Luigi is the down-and-out narrator, Wario and Bowser are gangland kingpins, power-ups are drugs, and Princess Peach is a Carcetti-esque politician trying to save her dystopian city from grizzly murders, bloody turf wars, and brawling itself into oblivion.
It’s all the work of two Los Angeles-based indie filmmakers, Matthew Mercer (Director) and Zach Grafton (Writer). According to Grafton, “The entire series is outlined, we know the flow of the story and basically when and how all the characters show up, and how much their fans are going to hate us.” The highly anticipated second episode is due in about three weeks.
Fortunately, the premiere is packed with more than enough in-jokes to demand a few replays. While casual Nintendo fans will enjoy the overt visual gags of Peach getting freaky with Mario on the living room couch (did I mention it’s not safe for work?), bigger nerds will love the more obscure jokes, such as a reference to Mario’s failed past as a doctor, and an appearance by one of the Lakitu Brothers as a newscaster. Trust me, if you know who he is, it’s hilarious.
The production values on the show are a bit of a mixed bag. The overall design, spearheaded by director Matt Mercer, is excellent. The make-up on Luigi and Mario manages to make their distinctive bulbous noses look cartoonish yet believable. The special effects, such as Wario growing larger after eating a power-up, are well executed without relying on showy AfterEffects or CG tricks.
The most shocking visual coup would be a spoiler to describe, but I’ll just say it involves the horrible re-imagining of a certain “cannibal”. I was genuinely frightened. I still am.
More problematic are the cinematography and sound. The sound levels in outdoor scenes tend to be muddled and the volume and tone fluctuates over the course of a scene. The camerawork is fair but the video quality is grainy, and not in a good David Fincher film-look kind of way. Considering the care and attention put into the costumes, make-up, and score (the sad violin version of the classic Mario theme is a stroke of comic genius), it would have been nice to see the whole show through a clearer lens. Then again, it could just be a compression issue. Here’s hopping it’s cleared up by episode two.
Finally, we have the actors. Acting seems to be the last thing considered in many a web-series, an afterthought once the plot gimmicks and shock humor is worked out. That isn’t the case here. It’s perfectly cast.
Luigi is tall, thin, and has the hangdog expression of a perpetual second banana. Mario is round, brash, and quick to act. And Wario is wonderfully wretched, in a suitably over-the-top performance. It might have been even more absurd if the characters were all middle-aged instead of 20/30-somethings, but the young cast sells the material with just the right amount of gravitas to make the childish setting seem all the more ridiculous.
There Will Be Brawl takes itself just seriously enough to put a great production together, and any minor flaws will make little difference to the Nintendo fans who have already declared this series a classic. And I include myself in that esteemed group of nerds.
Like most independent producers, Mercer and Grafton are strapped for cash. If you like There Will Be Brawl and want to see more episodes, toss them a few coins you collect so they can make it happen.