Are video game movies about to take over from Marvel?

When Nintendo announced via Twitter/X that Shigeru Miyamoto had been working for years on a live-action The Legend of Zelda movie with producer Avi Arad, I immediately felt a little queasy. Not because I’d just browsed Arad’s production credits, which really do run the gamut, but because like most adults who love video games, I grew up in the era of game movies so unbelievably dreadful that I still sometimes think angry thoughts about them when I’m trying to get to sleep.

It was the era of Jean-Claude Van Damme in Street Fighter, of the fascinatingly terrible 1993 Super Mario cyberpunk nightmare starring Bob Hoskins, of Uwe Boll. Like a kicked dog, I am instinctively fearful. The Zelda series has produced several of the most important, acclaimed games of all time, centred on their mute protagonist, Link, and the various eternally retold and remixed myths of the Kingdom of Hyrule and its royal family (that’s Zelda). They are narratively ambiguous, often quite dreamlike, and that works for them. How do you turn that into a gripping movie? Are they going to give Link a voice? A 90s cartoon series turned him into a wisecracking smart-arse and has been relentlessly mocked for it ever since.

If gamers are apprehensive, though, Hollywood appears to have abandoned all its previous reservations about making movies based on video games. In a single year, the Curse of the Terrible Video Game Adaptation has been so comprehensively broken that movie production companies now appear to be flinging themselves into something of a gold rush. The era of boring takes on Tomb Raider and Sonic the Hedgehog’s unacceptable teeth is over. Now is the time of Jack Black as Bowser and Jim Carrey as Dr Robotnik. Anything could happen.

The Super Mario Bros movie and Five Nights at Freddy’s have all done wild numbers at the box office this year, and though broader critical acclaim still eludes them, the response from fans of the games has been much more positive. The Mario movie is hardly a work of cinematic genius, but it is an enjoyable piece of Mushroom Kingdom fan-fiction, embracing the spirit and aesthetic of the games despite Seth Rogen’s lacklustre Donkey Kong. The Sonic movies are doing great, too. And meanwhile on TV, HBO’s powerfully gruesome The Last of Us has been both widely viewed and widely praised, the first video game adaptation that’s actually as good in its way as the thing it’s based on.

The Super Mario Bros Movie
The Super Mario Bros Movie. Photograph: no credit

It’s not all been golden: Tom Holland’s Nathan Drake in 2022’s Uncharted was distinctly unmemorable, and the reasonably successful Resident Evil films remain completely baffling to me, oddly divorced as they are from the games’ fiction. But even the worst video game films now seem to be decent moneymakers. I think the turnaround started with 2016’s World of Warcraft film, whose eye-catching box office success (especially in China) seemed to embolden studios and scriptwriters. The first time I remember leaving the cinema after a video game movie and thinking “you know what, I didn’t hate that” was after 2019’s Detective Pikachu, starring Ryan Reynolds as Pokémon’s over-caffeinated yellow mascot, written with obvious affection and humour.

We all know that geek culture is huge for Hollywood – now that people are evidently tiring of the ever-extending Marvel and Star Wars cinematic universes, could video game movies be what’s next? The audience is certainly there – Mario is now the third highest-grossing animated movie ever made, right behind Frozen 2 and, blegh, the live-action Lion King. Nearly 45 million people turned up to play Fortnite for a special throwback event last weekend – imagine what a half-decent Fortnite film could do.

And Detective Pikachu and The Last of Us are two good examples of how film and TV can actually add to the interactive fictional universes of games, rather than awkwardly translate them. Like most superheroes, most video game heroes leave a lot of room for interpretation. Setting linear stories in game worlds allows film-makers to flesh out the thinner characters we see in games, where the emphasis necessarily has to be on the action, or create new characters and stories within a recognisable setting. Star Wars and Marvel have been doing this for decades. And there are a few fictional video game universes that are rich enough to withstand such content-mining (that said, I wouldn’t suggest Halo – even the games have kind of run out of ways to make Master Chief seem mysterious and interesting).

While the relentless milking of geek culture has surely squeezed older movie franchises such as Ghostbusters and Star Wars completely dry, there’s a lot of potential for narrative expansion in video game worlds – and a lot of money. We can only hope that if Hollywood pursues this gold rush, it doesn’t go quite as wild with it as it has with Marvel. If I have to watch 47 different Minecraft or Elder Scrolls movies and TV shows to understand their lore, as well as play the games for 100 hours, I feel I might rather lose the will.

The Guardian