October 8, 2019
Billy Mitchell: Evolution of a Documentary Villain
This article is part of our Villains Week series.
There are definite real-life villains in the world. Oppressive and murderous dictators. Serial killers. The guy who organized the Fyre Festival. Then there’s Billy Mitchell, the arcade game icon who became one of the most memorable documentary characters while being villainized for entertainment purposes by the makers of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. His portrayal in the film has inspired ethical debates about the narrative manipulation of real people and their lives in nonfiction cinema. Ultimately, though, the truth about Mitchell beyond what’s seen in the doc has only perpetuated his legacy as a bad guy.
When The King of Kong premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in early 2007, documentaries were still a very niche area of cinema despite their rise in recognition theatrically and at film festivals. They were also still generally thought to be directed at the niche interests of their particular respective subject matter. The King of Kong, which focuses on competitive players of arcade games, could very well have had a limited appeal. But rather than just being about high scores and their record holders, the doc leans into a real-life plot of the underdog sports variety as it follows a competition to be the greatest Donkey Kong player of all time.
In doing so, the doc pits the two central figures in the story as rivals, with one signified as the hero and the other, Billy Mitchell, defined as the clear villain. “By the end of the film, we know them pretty well and we know who to root for. Steve [Wiebe] is a guy who is out to prove himself and does so time and time again, only to be screwed over by the influence and power Billy has within the gaming community,” writes Nate Deen in FSR’s review of The King of Kong from 12 years ago. Deen admits that he’s not normally into docs but this one entertains as it enlightens viewers about a world they’d never have thought about otherwise.
Other critics similarly acknowledged the way The King of Kong has viewers rooting against Mitchell. “The documentary stares incredulously at the Machiavellian Mitchell, who seems to play the same role in the world of Donkey Kong as masked marauders do in pro wrestling. We hate this guy,” wrote Roger Ebert, who also named The King of Kong one of the best docs of its year. Slant’s review called Mitchell “a devious, cunning scoundrel of a man.” For the New York Times, Matt Zoller Seitz noted that in the film Weibe is “a plaster saint” while Mitchell is portrayed “as a pretentious, manipulative swine.”
It was rare to see a critic, such as the Austin Chronicle‘s Marc Savlov, who looked past the construct and black and white vilification. “Mitchell sets himself up as the antagonist the moment his goateed mug scrunches up in overconfident distaste at the mention of [Wiebe],” Savlov wrote in 2007. “You end up rooting for the good guy, sure, but you never feel the often jerky Mitchell is anything less than a human being, warts and all.” Some journalists put “villain” in quotes in writing about the film, but that wasn’t the norm.
Such descriptions of the film’s dynamic between Mitchell and Weibe have since made the history books, too. “The two main characters…fit so perfectly into the villain and hero roles they could be sporting respective black and white cowboy hats,” writes Michael Peters in his 2018 guide The Great Sports Documentaries. And in Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, published in 2012, author Jeff Ryan harshly describes Mitchell as coming off “somewhere between Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant and wrestling’s Mr. Perfect.”
A lot of people who caught The King of Kong at the SXSW Film Festival and later on home video and streaming thanks to word of mouth were, like Deen, not your typical doc watchers. But they were engaged by the Rocky-like narrative. They passed the recommendation onto others in part because of its accessibility as a doc that played like a “regular movie.” As its popularity increased, in part due to Mitchell being not just an unmistakable but also an instantly iconic bad guy, so did the attention on the real man, for better and worse.
Mitchell never saw the movie (“I guess they paint me as a son of a gun” he acknowledged of reviews to MTV News), and initially he didn’t seem to mind the portrayal too terribly (“I don’t have a problem being laughed at and being made fun of,” he told the New York Times in 2007), but he did take issue with two of his associates in the doc being painted as criminals for seeming to break into Wiebe’s home in order to check his Donkey Kong machine for fraud. But in the months that followed, his negative reputation grew, he received more direct hate mail and prank phone calls, and he found the need to defend himself from the continued character assassination even from the filmmakers he claims duped him and the audience.
He tried to set the record straight on who he really is and how The King of Kong falsely represents him in an essential impromptu exchange with Josh Modell at the AV Club in early 2008. Modell even points out that the DVD extras for the doc show more footage that counter how he’s viewed in the film itself, arguing that he’s more friendly and charming than the audience is led to believe. Mitchell disputes some lies created in the editing of the doc. However, Modell also shares responses from director Seth Gordon and producer Ed Cunningham defending the validity of their work.
“It’s not our job to stamp someone and say that they’re this or they’re that,” Cunningham says in the interview. “All of us live in gray areas, so, depending on your point of view of the film… Everyone’s had different reactions to Billy in different ways. It’s not up to us to judge what’s on the screen; that’s for the audience to judge.” The implication here is that any perception of Mitchell as a definite bad guy is on the viewer. Cunningham also argued then that much of the audience has been overlooking the way the man is positively depicted at the start of the film.
Gordon gives a less defensive response to the idea that they purposefully created a monster out of Mitchell. “When we were putting the piece together, we arced out our own experience of him, including, as time went on, the sort of hypocrisy of his actions. Not because we were interested in painting him in one way or another, just showing what we witnessed.” Later the same year, the director told SpoutBlog, “The way we painted Billy and his actions is so much gentler than we could have…his true actions were so ugly that we couldn’t use the complete truth, meaning we didn’t show him as dark as he really is.”
Mitchell’s cockiness wasn’t easily dismissed given the continuation of the story anyway. He went and beat Wiebe’s record, the one seen achieved in the doc, right before the film’s theatrical release. Of course, the occasion was also the 25th anniversary of his original record score for Donkey Kong. Over the next few years, he was beaten again by another gamer, then he reclaimed his title again, and then he lost it again and hasn’t gotten his crown back. Meanwhile, his notoriety in pop culture has seemed to inspire fictional versions in everything from the animated series Regular Show to the sci-fi movie Pixels. Gordon even had Colin Farrell watch Mitchell in The King of Kong to prepare for his role as an antagonist in Horrible Bosses.
Mitchell was unsuccessful in suing over some effects, such as the supposed Regular Show character likeness. But then he also took advantage of his involvement in the documentary. While he never seemed to say if his infamy boosted business at his restaurant or with sales of his hot sauce brand, and it’s uncertain if he ever benefited from being a part of other gamer documentaries or potentially making special public appearances, he did open an arcade named after the doc located at the Orlando International Airport, which he owned and operated for a few years.
Then something happened that made all of Mitchell’s villainization seem justified. About a decade since the release of The King of Kong on DVD, footage of his achievements shown in the film plus videos of his later record attempts were presented as evidence that he cheated to achieve his high-ranking Donkey Kong scores. First, the Donkey Kong Forum made the case and then removed his high scores. The official scorekeeping organization Twin Galaxies conducted their own investigation a few months later and concluded that Mitchell did use a modified machine and he was henceforth stripped of his titles and banned for life from competing. Guinness World Records followed suit with removing all of Mitchell’s scores, even those for other games, from their books. “It all seemed to make sense now,” Wiebe said in response to the news. “I’m just in awe.”
Mitchell isn’t going down without a fight, though. Now, more than a year since that blow to his honor, he’s threatening legal action against both Twin Galaxies and Guinness World Records over the unfairness of their decisions, demanding retractions. Again, a lot of the issue with how he was “framed” as being a cheater involves the manipulation of the film and how it was shot, as well as allegedly-staged videos put forth as “evidence.” Twin Galaxies’ attorney formally responded that after reviewing his case and the extensive materials provided to them in his defense they don’t plan to retract their decision or reinstate Mitchell’s scores and titles to their database.
Mitchell has also been defending himself the best way he can: by playing the game. He’s been streaming his Donkey Kong performances on Twitch, and a recent profile on him by Electronic Gaming Monthly (that’s also a deep investigation into the whole convoluted story, its technical evidence, and the conspiracy theories, etc.) reminds us that he’s a real man, no matter his warts and all, and deserves more respect than his continued vilification suggests. “He remains what he has been for decades in documentaries, interviews, and fan encounters: an avatar of himself,” writer Josh Harmon recognizes in his intro. But what’s really at stake: “The persona as a gaming superhero—and the ruling that threatens to destroy it—are what matter.”
The real person hasn’t been harmed, according to Harmon. “Mitchell makes for a great villain, and no doubt many of these people feel as though they’re lashing out at the persona, not at a real human being,” he writes on the social media reactions to Mitchell’s purported crimes. “But another part of me wonders what it must be like to have hundreds of thousands of strangers hate you, what effect that might have on a person or their family over the course of 12 years. When I broached this topic with Mitchell, he deflected any notion of being wounded. Instead, he said that no one ever confronts him face-to-face, and that he has become skilled at defusing his haters online.”
As for the gaming superhero persona, Mitchell does maintain that favorable reputation among many friends, fans, and associates who continue to believe he’s not a villain in some movie story. And regarding the recent events, they also believe he’s innocent. Still, it’s going to take a lot of convincing for the general public and popular culture to overturn his legacy. The EGM article only makes for a more complicated case, but more than that most of Mitchell’s haters are pretty certain in their opinion of him. “These are people that literally, if Jesus Christ himself floated down from Heaven and said, ‘Listen, Billy didn’t cheat,’ they’d say, ‘I’m worshiping Satan now.,’” Mitchell’s son, Billy Jr., said to Harmon.
But it’s not just people spouting on the internet. Today, even the most revered documentary scholars accept his true status as an evildoer. “How do you become the greatest villain in documentary history (with all due recognition to Idi Amin, Robert McNamara, Steve Bannon, and all the other real monsters-turned-subjects)?” asks Robert Greene in a recent Sight & Sound article. “Well if you’re video game champ Billy Mitchell, chief antagonist of Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters, first it helps to be an actual bad guy.”