Air Mario

Two cinematic brand extensions and how they grow on you

April 7, 2023

Once upon a time, "branding" referred solely to the grotesque physical marking on skin or hide of a living creature as a means of connoting ownership. A brand was something you had designed for you and burned onto another to show you possessed that living thing completely—or it was the thing a creature bore to show he or she or it was an owned thing. As a word, it was at best purely descriptive and at worst a suggestion of something horrifying.

Now, with a modified definition that takes its literal meaning and turns it symbolic, "branding" is the central preoccupation of the mass entertainment business, and maybe of business altogether. Most entertainment products are made not just to produce a profit but to serve a corporation’s "branding"—the image and idea of itself it wants to impose on the world. If it could do so with a physical mark, it would, but since it can’t, it seeks to do it through sheer force of will and propaganda.

We are now drenched in branding. We’re drowning in it. Case in point: Wednesday, April 5. Two movies opened that day. One is Air, a fact-based tale about the making of a sneaker with two of the last old-time movie stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who also directed). It is the best-reviewed film of the year so far. The other is Super Mario Bros, an animated version of a classic series of video games. It is the blockbuster of the year so far and will earn close to $150 million when the final tally of its first weekend results come in. You’d think they have nothing in common. But in fact, they are both studies in branding—so much so that their entire emotional impact is based on how you respond to the evocations of the products they are showing and celebrating.

Air is set in 1984, and throughout the movie director Affleck is constantly hearkening back to the consumer products at that moment. We see the Wendy’s "where’s the beef" commercial. We see people playing on Coleco hand-held gaming devices. Pepsi is the choice of a new generation. Affleck and the movie are trying to have it both ways here. Good student of the vile work of Howard Zinn that he is, he wants Air to be a critique of commodity capitalism and its effort to hypnotize us into wanting things (even as Affleck is literally buying and selling $50 million mansions in and around Los Angeles). But the entire film depends on its target audience (basically American adults who have some memory of the 1980s) swooning every time they see a blue Slurpee come out of a 7-Eleven dispenser.

Air is about a billion-dollar business that wants a player named Michael Jordan to endorse its sneakers. Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery have made this a scrappy underdog story, because we’re told that in 1984, basketball players and black people didn’t like Nikes and Jordan was going to sign with Adidas.

Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro, who has been engaged by Nike to spot coming professional hoop stars. He’s a shleppy and out-of-shape gambling addict, but he’s smart and funny and fearless—and Damon is, as usual, just an utter pleasure to spend time with. Sonny becomes fixated on Jordan, who wasn’t even the top draft choice the year he made the pros. He bets it all on a longshot bid to convince Jordan’s mother to convince Jordan to go with Nike. So this movie asks us to root for one sneaker corporation against two others.

I’m sorry—what? We’re supposed to think Nike is better than Adidas and Converse because Sonny Vaccaro sees that Michael Jordan might be so good and so charismatic he will transmute himself into the greatest brand in the history of sports. That’s nice and all, but there’s one too many speeches from Viola Davis about how "my son is going to change the world." Mrs. Jordan was a smooth and clever negotiator, and it turns out she understood stakeholder capitalism so well she forced Nike into giving her son a piece of the action—a piece that is, the movie tells us, worth $400 million a year in passive income to Jordan even now, almost 40 years later.

But, um, how exactly did Michael Jordan change the world? By making athletes richer through the act of separating generations of kids from oceans of money by convincing them into thinking they will somehow have Jordan’s spirit enter their bodies by putting on an expensive sneaker? "A shoe is just a shoe, until my son steps in it," says Mrs. Jordan in a line Viola Davis improvised. No, a shoe is still just a shoe. Air is very entertaining, but it’s one of the most sheerly hypocritical movies ever made.

Super Mario Bros is, by contrast, a peculiarly honest example of brand exploitation. It doesn’t do what cleverer branded fare, like The Lego Movie, tries to pull off, which is to play subversive riffs off the very product they’re using to sell tickets. It’s the story of a Brooklyn plumber named Mario who is considered a loser by everyone from his old boss to his own father and has only his loving younger brother Luigi on his side. When the two of them get sucked into a pipe and into a magical land, Luigi ends up in a hellscape prison while Mario finds himself in the cutesy Mushroom Kingdom. Mario needs to rescue Luigi and the Mushroom Kingdom needs to save itself from the hellscape.

Along the way, I’m told—I’ve never spent a second playing these things—the movie features musical cues and character design and imagery from four decades of Mario video games. This is done without apology or any effort to wink at the audience to make it clear the movie’s makers are superior to the product they’re exploiting. Kids of all ages love these Mario things and the movie does not condescend to them, which is why it is and will continue to be so successful.

How much has branding taken over the world and colonized our brains? Well, the other day, I was asked a question about the daily podcast I host and what its purpose is. And I said we did it to "extend the Commentary Magazine brand." And then I—the steward of a 75-year-old publication that seeks to explore and advance the best that has been thought and said in Western culture—suddenly wanted the earth to open and swallow me whole.

Published under: Movie Reviews , Movies