With Charles Martinet Retiring, Where Does Mario Go from Here?

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With Charles Martinet Retiring, Where Does Mario Go from Here?

The turn of the 2010s was a weird time to be growing up as a Sonic fan. Partway through 2010, Roger Craig Smith took over the role of Sonic the Hedgehog from Jason Griffith, who had been voicing the character since Sonic X’s debut on 4Kids in 2003. As a Wii kid during this time, the two Sonic games I remember growing up with the most were Sonic and the Black Knight and Sonic Colors, two games starring the same character played by two different voice actors who each took a decidedly different, if still ultimately faithful, spin on the character. In my mind, I still associate two voices with the character, even now that Smith has been in the role for over a decade, far longer than any of his predecessors. Your childhood impression of a character makes a big difference in what you feel like they’re supposed to sound like.

Kids growing up now with the Nintendo Switch are likely going to be in the same situation with Mario, as his current voice actor, Charles Martinet, is on the way out after nearly 30 years in the role. It’s not hard to imagine kids now in my same Black Knight/Colors bind with Super Mario Odyssey and Super Mario Bros. Wonder, which Nintendo has confirmed will be the first game starring Martinet’s as-of-yet unnamed successor.

It’s hard not to feel like this case is different, though. Sonic, and honestly most videogame characters like him, change voice actors every now and then as the years go on and the characters evolve, and it’s just normal. Fans still cling to their favorites and argue about which era was “the best,” but the fact that things will change has been largely accepted. But Charles Martinet is different. He’s been playing Mario for so long, longer than pretty much any other voiced character in a videogame, that his voice has become the voice for the character. With multiple generations growing up with that same voice, and his take on the character being the established norm for so long, it’s admittedly hard to imagine Mario sounding any different. He’s so thoroughly associated with the character that this feels like it has to mark some sort of turning point for the series as a whole. And while the most common reactions from fans so far have been celebrations of Martinet’s tenure, there’s already some vocal dissatisfaction with the change. And as a lifelong fan of Mario and of Martinet’s performance, I have to admit that I’m awfully ambivalent about it myself—of course I knew it was inevitable and I’m glad to see him leave before he burns himself out, but still, dramatic as it may seem, it feels like letting a piece of my childhood go.

Martinet’s retirement comes in the context of a weird time for the voicing of such iconic characters. If there’s one company known even more than Nintendo for keeping a large roster of well-known childhood characters, it’s our overlords at the Walt Disney Corporation. Disney’s current business model is one built almost entirely around preserving and re-selling nostalgia to its fans, sticking to the script of their vast empire of established properties and taking care not to rock the boat so as to keep their content as digestible to a wide audience as possible.

This business model, of course, also bleeds into their philosophy around actors and voice actors for their characters. For Disney, the original, most iconic incarnations of their characters are sacred ground, not to be trudged upon and tainted by a recast if they can avoid it—and they’re willing to go to great lengths to preserve that. And so we have their terrifying, uncanny valley recreations of aged, or even dead, Star Wars actors. After a crass test run in Rogue One with cameos from a de-aged Carrie Fisher and a creepy resurrection of the late Peter Cushing, the studio went all in on this strategy with a fully-digitized, from face to body to voice, Mark Hamill playing a younger Luke Skywalker in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, willing to dump obscene amounts of money into tech which can kinda-sorta reproduce an old actor before they dare to recast. And even when they aren’t attempting digital necromancy, they’re still clinging to the original portrayals of the character in spite of all logic—appearing in the same shows as not-Mark-Hamill is Temuera Morrison reprising the role of Boba Fett (kind of—clone shenanigans) from the Star Wars prequel trilogy, despite being visibly much older than the character should be at this point in time.

And of course, if something works for Disney, it spreads to the rest of the industry too. 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife recreated the late Harold Ramis, and this year’s The Flash is filled to the brim with tasteless, soulless computer recreations of beloved actors. And with AI recreation technology ever advancing, studios seem to be gearing up to lean even further into these pseudo-actors, an issue which has become a core point of contention in the ongoing joint WGA-SAG-AFTRA strike.

With all of this in mind, it feels like a small blessing to know that Mario will continue to be voiced by a human at all. While Nintendo is staying silent on who specifically will take up the mantle, we can at least tell from the brief clips we’ve gotten of the plumber’s voice in Super Mario Bros. Wonder that it is indeed coming from a human, and importantly, a human other than Martinet himself. No matter what else happens with this transition, that knowledge is comforting—I’ll take a million Chris Pratts over one AI-doubled Martinet.

Still, though, I can’t help but feel like the core ideology behind said AI doubles is still present in this conversation. Obviously, AI actors are an innovation adopted primarily for the bottom line, but there is still an underlying ideology and outlook on art that informs their use and popularity as well. The idea that characters should adhere to their most iconic, most nostalgic iterations, that they shouldn’t ever change or evolve lest they risk disrupting that childhood fantasy, has become very prevalent not just among studios, but among many fans as well. It’s likely no coincidence that Disney Star Wars has leaned so hard into preserving the status quo of its characters after their last real attempts at rocking the boat, Rian Johnson’s different take on Luke in The Last Jedi and the decision to recast the titular Han in Solo, both were met almost instantly with severe fan backlash, which may well have helped contribute to Solo’s underwhelming box office performance. While it’d be very easy (and not entirely inaccurate) to pin all of this on just corporate greed, there’s still a certain extent to which many fans contribute to this kind of approach. And with some Mario fans responding to the news of Martinet’s retirement with great disappointment or even direct criticism of Nintendo for the move, I worry that this mindset may risk holding the series back.

While Nintendo may not be AI-replicating Mario’s voice, what we’ve heard so far of him in Super Mario Bros. Wonder, and of Wario in the upcoming WarioWare: Turn It!, the new voice actors seem to be sticking very closely to what Martinet already established for the characters—essentially, they’re doing impressions of Martinet’s voice, like any of us might do if we tried to mimic the iconic “It’s-a me!” There’s nothing inherently wrong with this—it’s a great and iconic voice, after all, and it seems to be what the people want, or at least think they want—but it still demonstrates an unwillingness to step outside of Martinet’s shadow. And the thing is, I’m not sure anyone else will be able to do a better job than Martinet at what he specifically did; he was pretty much perfect at capturing the vibe he set out for. So if we end up getting a succession of new actors just trying to do the same thing, we could end up with essentially just more of the same but a little bit worse, a little bit less lively. While not nearly so crass or disrespectful as an AI replacement, a human successor who isn’t allowed to step outside of the bounds of the character’s current status quo still runs the risk of stagnation.

Experimentation and change are super important for keeping such long-running characters fresh. Something many people forget due to just how ubiquitous Martinet’s voice has become is that he was not, in fact, the first voice actor for Mario, and that his take on the character was a huge departure from what had come before. Mario appeared in a handful of animated movies and TV shows across the late ‘80s and early ‘90s voiced by a few different actors, most prominently the late pro wrestler Lou Albano and the recently deceased Walker Boone. Both of them gave Mario a rougher, gravellier voice, leaning hard into the stereotypical vibes of the character’s initial conception as a Brooklyn Italian. There was nothing wrong with these performances, and they definitely worked to define what the character of Mario was for that time period, but when Martinet came aboard, he took Mario in a completely different direction, and the series’ identity was better for it. Sometimes, big changes are good, even necessary, to keep things alive and new.

However, at the same time, I completely get the hesitancy of a lot of people towards that idea. As I said before, Martinet’s voice is a big part of my childhood, and it’s definitely weird to imagine the games without him. And my view of this whole situation is definitely tainted a bit by the fact that we got a glimpse into what a different take on Mario could look like in the form of Chris Pratt in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and it is not a very bright glimpse. While Pratt’s performance was serviceable and not nearly as bad as I and many others had feared prior to the movie’s release, it’s still strikingly bland and uninspired, especially in the face of Martinet’s mastery. If Mario sounded like that in every game, it would definitely make for a worse experience, and it’s because of that that I can easily empathize with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset for the series.

But at the end of the day, if I really think about it, I’m willing to face the risk of a few mediocre performances if it means we might just experiment our way into a fun, genuinely new direction for the character, maybe even one that could stand just as tall as Martinet’s in its own right. Just as Jason Griffith and later Roger Craig Smith carved out new paths for Sonic, just as Charlie Day gave a surprisingly entertaining new light to Luigi elsewhere in The Super Mario Bros. Movie, and just as Charles Martinet himself redefined what Mario could be all those years ago, I want to see a new actor’s vision of what Mario could sound like. And in general, if we have to be stuck in IP Hell (which it seems like we are for the foreseeable future, unfortunately), I’d at least like to see more actors breathe new life into old characters, to redefine who they are for new generations instead of dogmatically sticking to their base incarnations. Even within the realm of old, time-tested worlds and characters, I believe we could be doing so much more to make them interesting and exciting instead of half-assed bundles of recycled tropes and ideas, and I worry that with tighter release schedules and tantalizingly cheapening technology, more and more projects will continue to choose stagnation over these opportunities.

But hey, whatever happens, wherever things go from here, we’ll at least always have these years of Martinet’s work to look back on. And if Mr. Martinet is, by some wild chance, reading this: thanks for the fun. It’s been a wild ride, and while I’m sad to see you go, I hope we get to see a bright, exciting future for both you and the character you brought to life for so many of us.

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