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Could A Cinematic Universe Work for Nintendo?

Recently the idea was floated by Vertigo Entertainment’s Roy Lee of a movie featuring Nintendo characters. To gamers it sounds silly – videogame movies are dumb and almost always ruin the properties they try to convert to the big screen. Videogames are meant to be played and not watched; the argument goes. But with recent examples like The LEGO Movie and Wreck it Ralph showing it can be done with critical and financial success – is it time for Nintendo to pull the trigger and explore the idea of a bigger universe for their characters?

Lee specifically stated that a Nintendo movie would be his dream project;

“Mine would be Nintendo. I think Zelda, Mario, and the whole universe of characters would be perfect for a LEGO Movie type of [film]. I don’t have the rights to it, but I would love to. That would be my Holy Grail.”

Nintendo has arguably the largest bank of recognisable characters outside of comic books. From Mario to Link, Zelda to Peach, Donkey Kong to Bowser; the company has over 30 years of game franchises and IP’s tucked away in its locker (Enough to fill an ever-increasing roster on the Smash Bros game). Finding a place for all those characters (in particular when so many of the games have different tones) might be a tall order – but could Nintendo feasibly make a cinematic universe work?

It’s hard to believe now but Marvel took a huge gamble when it produced the original Iron Man movie. The group was emerging from a bankruptcy process that had all but left it on the brink. To supplement this; Marvel had been selling off the rights for its biggest properties to other movie studios (X-Men, Spiderman, Blade). A great short-term solution but one that left little to no returns down the road. Blade for example made $70 million at the U.S box office but Marvel only received $25,000 of that money. It was a practice that had to end and in 2003, the idea was pitched for Marvel to establish its own movie studio. Using its remaining properties as collateral Marvel pressed ahead and formed Marvel Studios two years later.

But even then Marvel had to find a film property that it could turn into a success and in this case it turned to the relatively little-known Iron Man. The film had been trapped in development hell since the early 1990’s; passing between different studios and gaining very little traction en route. In 2005, tired of waiting for nothing to happen, Marvel required the rights to movie. Even this was lined with trouble; script writers didn’t feel the character was big enough to justify a solo movie and getting the movie into production required Marvel to bet its entire house on the movie’s success. If Iron Man had failed – Marvel was done for. But as we all know; Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark went on to fetch over $500 million at the box office – turning Iron Man into one of Marvel’s biggest names and setting the direction for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What does all this have to do with Nintendo? Well let’s be fair, the company isn’t doing too hot right now.

Nintendo’s current situation is that of late-90’s Marvel; trapped in an age where every move it makes feels behind the trends. The Wii-U’s painfully slow sales and the 3DS’s relatively moderate success have led many to question how long Nintendo can continue to operate in its current form. It’s only now beginning to embrace the mobile phone as a viable platform and is taking a sweet age to announce its next console; a console that arguably will be behind the competition before it even hits the market. But the one thing Nintendo has – it has all those characters. Amiibo’s tapped into this and created a new revenue stream for Nintendo but why stop at plastic toys? For Nintendo, much like Marvel did with its comic book characters, there may be bigger rewards in taking it’s properties to new audiences.

Nintendo even has a better starting platform than Marvel; Mario is arguably one of the worlds most known fictional characters. Unlike Iron Man, which relied heavily on word of mouth to get people in the cinema, any movie that had Mario front and centre would be a curiosity for audiences. Curiosity sells and you don’t  have to look far to see examples of this in recent times. 2012’s Wreck it Ralph underlined how successful using iconic videogame characters in an ensemble can be; pulling in just over $470 million worldwide. That’s serious money and provides a blueprint for how a movie like this could be made to work on-screen. Computer Generated Graphics have come a long way in recent times and Wreck It Ralph managed to keep the many videogame characters within looking true to their original designs; including Bowser. And remember – Wreck It Ralph had its own characters front and centre.  People got excited at the idea of seeing their favourite videogame characters up on the big screen in a decent movie.

People enjoyed the mix of new and retro; which opens the door on many of Nintendo’s older, less well-known franchises to make a return. One of the great advantages of a wide open universe is that even the B-list and C-list characters can get in on the action. I hate to harp back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe but the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man are far from the studios most notable names but have enjoyed great success because Marvel has managed to build up such a strong brand identity. People know what to expect when they enter to see a Marvel movie – there’s a certain expectation of quality and almost always the Studio delivers. Nintendo could do the same with its animated films, bring great writers on board with interesting ideas and allow them to explore the characters in ways not seen before. A brooding Metroid movie? A Mario and Luigi film that takes in the wide spectrum of games they’ve featured in? A Star Fox movie? Legend of Zelda? All could hold a movie to themselves if given the right script and right approach.

Even if audiences weren’t willing to sit through movies; another advantage that a Nintendo Cinematic Universe has is that it wouldn’t be limited to just movies. Thanks to the medium of videogames Nintendo could very easily turn instalments of its movie universe into games – bypassing a lot of the issues all together. If Nintendo didn’t feel confident in throwing a Zelda movie out into the world – it could easily release games that tie into the larger universe so when it needs to pull in the ensemble cast it can do so in an organic way. Branching out to videogames, TV series or Anime would open up more doors for Nintendo – the likes of Animal Crossing could work in a more condensed framework. The Legend of Zelda was rumoured to be heading to Netflix (Another place where such projects could flourish) until Nintendo squashed it.

And the idea of a slow build to an ensemble film does build excitement. There was huge buzz at the end of Iron Man when Nick Fury emerged and mentioned the word Avengers – people realising that there was a bigger picture we weren’t clued in on but that we were heading that way. Nintendo could easily do the same and build towards a Smash Bros film. Imagine the excitement of sitting through an exciting Mario film and right at the end, Samus’s ship crash lands outside Peaches Castle and then it cuts to black. Not only would we be getting a Metroid movie (Which if handled right would be great in itself) but it also plants the seeds for what’s to come. It would be exciting for audiences who’ve grown slightly bored of Nintendo’s product.

For me there’s so much potential for Nintendo to re-invent itself and give its entire portfolio the kind of shake-up that could turn the companies fortunes around. Seeing the likes of F-Zero being given a new lease of life; seeing a Legend of Zelda movie realised to its fullest potential would be amazing. Sure the potential for it all to fail is there, Nintendo isn’t immune to making insanely dumb decisions and knowing how protective they are of their properties makes all of this seem slightly unrealistic. But if Nintendo was looking for a way to find relevancy in a world where the Wii U has only just cracked 12 million lifetime unit sales – this is one way it could do that.

I appreciate it’s an opinion that might not be widely held, I’d love to hear your opinions on it.

1 Comment

  • Col

    / Reply

    I completely agree, it’d be awesome to see Nintendo on the big screen. And think its got some serious potential.
    Though i can understand why a company like Nintendo isn’t overly invested in the idea.
    Despite the woes this article mentions Nintendo is in, even $500 mil revenue at the box office, even less actual profit, and usually several years production time, still isn’t a huge sum of money compared to Nintendos, still current average profit in the 10s of millions. And that’s not even factoring the risk.
    And seeing as we know almost zero about NX, it can’t really be argued it’ll be behind the competition before it hits market