The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the most recent adaptation to come out of Nintendo’s iconic IP Super Mario Bros., has a lot to offer longtime gaming fans. In addition to clever Easter eggs—dozens upon dozens that run the gamut from references to Mario’s earliest incarnation as “Jumpman” to cameos of Diddy and Dixie Kong—one of the film’s main continuations of the story told through the games is in the relationship between Bowser (voiced by Jack Black), the primary Big Bad of the Mario universe, and the damsel Mario must eternally save from distress, Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). As it is in many of the hundreds of Mario games, Bowser’s main motivation for villainy in the movie is that he wants to kidnap Princess Peach and force her into marriage.
There’s been no shortage of opinion pieces debating whether the treatment of the Princess Peach character over the course of the development of the Mario-verse is sexist—and for good reason. This tired dynamic of Peach needing rescuing, the earliest iteration of which was created in 1981’s Donkey Kong in service of easier gameplay comprehension, only furthers the stories of the men around her, leaving Peach with no agency (and a stalker to boot). And if this trope makes Peach helpless, it makes Bowser kind of gross. Bowser kidnapping a woman to force her to be his bride is, erm, creepy, to say the least.
Though Princess Peach was always kidnapped, and saving her was a part of Mario’s overall objective, Bowser’s goals weren’t always marriage. Back when Mario was simply a character in Donkey Kong called Jumpman, before receiving his own game with 1985’s Super Mario Bros., the plumber consistently saved the princess, but Bowser’s motives for kidnapping her showed no hint of romantic fixation. Though it’s unclear when, exactly, Bowser’s stated incentives turned marital, forum participants on the Mario subreddit cite the 2000 game Paper Mario as likely the first example of this progression in Bowser’s motivation. In Paper Mario, Peach finds Bowser’s secret diary, which contains proclamations of love for the blond princess of the toadstools. The idea that Paper Mario was the inception point is corroborated by articles about Bowser and Princess Peach’s relationship, which primarily use Paper Mario as the example of Bowser’s more romantic intentions.
Over the years, Nintendo has halfheartedly tried a few times to inject some feminism into Peach’s story. In her own game, Super Princess Peach (2005), she must rescue Mario and his motley crew from Bowser, instead of the other way around. In Super Mario Odyssey (2017), Peach is given the option to choose between Mario and Bowser, deciding to reject both of them. (Girl power trappings notwithstanding, Odyssey’s attempts to modernize Peach’s story have been heavily critiqued.) But Bowser’s intentions don’t change much. Instead, it’s Peach’s reaction to Bowser that changes—albeit rarely.
Then there are the unanswered questions brought up by the story that unfolds in 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine game. In Super Mario Sunshine, Peach and Mario encounter Bowser’s son, Bowser Jr., who believes that Princess Peach is his mother. By the end of the game, it is revealed that Princess Peach is not, in fact, Bowser Jr.’s mom, but plenty of Mario fans think that the fact that Peach doesn’t immediately naysay the possibility that she could have had Bowser’s child serves as evidence that the princess and Bowser have had romantic relations. And in 2007’s Super Paper Mario, Peach actually asks for Bowser’s help to save their fantasy worlds.
There is no shortage of fan theories that nod to a consensual attraction between Bowser and Peach (or even to the idea that they could form a throuple, along with Mario). A particularly popular entry on the fanfic site Archive of Our Own describes an enemies-to-lovers narrative starring Bowser and Peach. (Or, rather, if we’re getting specific with the tropes, a bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold narrative.) Fans could be picking up on some attraction underneath all of Bowser and Peach’s animosity. Or they might be trying to inject a bit of agency back into Peach’s story.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie gives Peach a definite update. The movie made headlines ahead of its release for its attempts to girlboss-ify the pink-dress-wearing leader of Mushroom Kingdom. And, indeed, in the movie it is Peach who teaches Mario how to hone his superpowers, and it is Peach who leads the charge against Bowser. Bowser’s main motivation is still marrying Peach, and the climax of the film does involve him capturing her and pressuring her to wed him, but the film makes this a bit better through good casting, which turns Bowser’s lovelorn-ness into one of the funniest parts of the movie. Bowser’s love for Peach is so strong that, in a classic Jack Black move, he sings a passionate ’80s-style ode to her, a gag so funny it’s repeated in the midcredits scene.
So, where does this little history leave us? Well, it’s clear Nintendo hadn’t tried that hard to bring a more modernized version of Peach to Mario fans until this movie. The movie is proof that Nintendo seems to be married to the idea of Bowser attempting, again and again, to capture the heart of his coveted princess. It is clear, however, that Nintendo is trying to change the constitution of Peach: what she wants, how powerful she is, and how much Mario needs her, instead of her needing him. As for Bowser and Peach’s love? Well, we can simply say: It’s complicated.