The culture of gaming is one that is almost always portrayed on-screen with some form of derision—a way for many filmmakers to flaunt their superiority to the pimply, often overweight schlubs who reside in basements across America, sweating over beating whatever game they’re playing as fast as they can. But one of the many original, insightful ideas posed by Seth Gordon’s excellent debut documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is that the culture is far more diverse than a gaggle of Kevin Smith-weened dweebs. Sure, you see guys like this roaming arcades and such throughout the film, but its two central subjects, Gamer of the Century and hot sauce magnate Billy Mitchell and dedicated, sensitive family man Steve Wiebe, are anything but. Gamers can be your landlord, your neighbor, the handsome jock from high school, the corporate CEO, or even the pretty girl from sociology class (this movie only concentrates on men but, believe me, there is such a thing as girl gamers).
Gaming has developed drastically since the days of Donkey Kong, which is why seeing these figures extol the virtues of classic arcade machines is such a nostalgic treat. The games were often very simple in design, but not to play (an average Donkey Kong game is lost in one minute). Mitchell was the best player of the game for a whopping 20-plus years—that is, until humble science teacher Steve Wiebe, using a stand-up machine in his garage, surpassed Mitchell’s record and additionally became the first player to reach an unheard-of 1,000,000 points. Then Mitchell, a devious, cunning scoundrel of a man, seeks to reclaim his title, which leads to a proposed showdown between the two. Or does it?
The subtitle of the film is actually an unneeded addition since what the film highlights with piercing exactitude are the lengths grown men won’t go to in the long run to prove themselves. In the purest way, the film finds searing ways to suggest that men really are overgrown boys, despite their families or wealth or sociability. And this is omnipresent in both Mitchell and Wiebe in the film, which gives it a fairer balance than it might have had. Mitchell is a capital-A asshole and I defy anyone to actually find him sympathetic here, but the trick of it all is how much he seems to know it. When he’s not front and center, he scowls like a scorned child, and only seems to comment on action when it’s in the abstract, but this is no petulant fool: He is very successful and followed by a legion of disciples, many of them the film’s supporting subjects, which include a lawyer pal from the arcade days, a wormy informant type who views Wiebe as an outsider, and the film’s most touching figure, aging, affable Walter Day, the gamer referee who established Twin Galaxies, a well-regarded online hub for supplying factual info on game stats.
The King of Kong is clearly a bit in love with Wiebe, and it should be. He’s a stand-up guy, and clearly our Daniel LaRusso in this film. (In another of the film’s savvy, funny moves, a key montage is scored to The Karate Kid‘s anthem “You’re the Best”). But the film shows more than a few iconic images of Wiebe to support the men-as-boys theory too. One scene of the large, athletic Wiebe sitting at his young son’s drum set and proceeding to play on it crystallizes this idea. He is described in the movie as a second-bester, and anyone who’s just almost missed any achievement will find much to identify with here. And as Wiebe’s journey builds, so does our appetite for seeing him triumph, which certainly bleeds over into the other figures in the film. Perhaps the single most affecting moment in the movie happens late, when Walter Day, a reassuring presence throughout, publicly congratulates Wiebe not just on his singular game-playing skills, but on being an honorable fellow and a newfound friend, which shows that despite the icky trappings of this world they’re in, sometimes being a decent person is what really counts to them.
Even at a short, brisk 79 minutes, the movie repeats information a few times too many, and some reaction shots here and there are a second longer than needed, but director Gordon’s touch has just the right mix of snark and sweet. Just when the movie seems to be having a little too much fun with these guys (and it should—some of them are just plain silly), it uncovers a fresh insight or layer to them that makes it all smooth out in the end. A terrific documentary always starts with one simple idea that spirals out into several, but who knew that one about video gaming could be so prescient about the wants and needs of a generation with a touch of Peter Pan Syndrome in them? Perhaps the only unsettling thing to know about the film is that Gordon plans to make a feature version of this same story, which sounds like it could turn this into the movie it happily is not. One can see it now: Steve Carell as Billy Mitchell and Matt Damon as Steve Wiebe, the movie’s simple delights turned to studio mush before our eyes. But hey, some of the guys depicted here might even think that would be the most kick-ass, awesome movie ever made.