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Mortal Kombat (prelude)

In 1992, Mortal Kombat premiered with a roster of seven playable characters (Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, Raiden, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Kano). The stop-motion Goro was also included as a non-playable sub-boss, and Reptile (a palette-swap of Scorpion/Sub-Zero) was a non-playable secret opponent. But when the time came to create the big final boss of the game, the creators found there wasn’t enough hard drive space for a tenth character. To get around this, the game’s creators devised a boss who could transform into the other characters, using moves and animations that already existed.

Thus Shang Tsung — the devious, shape-shifting, soul-stealing sorcerer that MK fans around the world love to hate — was borne of the era’s technical limitations.

In 2006, “Mortal Kombat: Armaggeddon” (the seventh main entry in the video game series) came out with a whopping 62 playable characters, plus an option for two user-created characters, and another slot for the Wii-exclusive Khameleon. By this point, the entire Mortal Kombat mythology had grown so huge and unwieldy, with so many powerful and detailed characters, that the whole franchise was in danger of getting crushed under its own weight.

No, really. That was literally the premise of the game. Even in-universe, there were so many beings of godlike power running around that all of creation had grown unstable.

Long story short, the game ended with a sprawling and epic battle in which huge swaths of established Kombatants [sic] ended up dead. It was ultimately Taven, a brand new protagonist introduced in this game (we’ll come back to that), who lived to attain godlike powers, ready and waiting to become the new face of the franchise.

Then 2009 happened. Midway — the company that had fostered Mortal Kombat since its inception — finally went bankrupt and the lion’s share of their assets were picked up by Warner Bros. Shortly afterwards, the new corporate overlords spun off the IP, development team, and all things Mortal Kombat into their own dedicated company, christened NetherRealm Studios. Their mandate: To revitalize the Mortal Kombat brand for a new generation of gamers and a modern video game industry.

In 2011, “Mortal Kombat (2011)” came out with 28 playable characters, and another four as DLC. With a bit of minor retconning and some time travel shenanigans, the developers were able to successfully and respectfully close the book on the previous continuity while rebooting the franchise for a new modern audience. In point of fact, with roughly eight hours of gameplay and cutscenes, this one game provided an altered retelling of the first three games in the series.

To repeat: It took three games in the ’90s to tell as much story as one game in the early ’10s. That’s how far the technology and the franchise had come.

More than that, this was an opportunity for the game’s developers to start fresh while accounting for two decades’ worth of trial and error. We could actually see the characters and concepts that had supposedly been in-universe from the beginning, without having to pretend that they had been retconned in with later games. The developers had the chance to make (and the fans had a chance to play) the original “Mortal Kombat” as it might have been if the developers back then had the experience and technology of today.

I expect that Mortal Kombat (2021) is a similar case in point. If nothing else, the movie is certainly another front in WB’s ongoing plan to revitalize the franchise for a newer modern audience.

Of course the first game (with a few elements from the second game, which was in development at the same time as the movie) had already been adapted to film by way of Paul W.S. Anderson in 1995. It’s hard to overstate the film’s impact on the greater franchise — Raiden and Shang Tsung, for instance, were both pretty much immediately reshaped to fit their cinematic counterparts and they’ve stayed that way ever since. That said, I still maintain that Scorpion and Sub-Zero (both of whom have been in nearly every MK game since the beginning) deserved better than to be treated as faceless, voiceless, generic goons and quickly dispatched as such.

The ’95 film’s place in history is highly contested. Yes, it is still widely regarded as the best game-to-film adaptation yet, though Detective Pikachu might have taken that title in more recent years. And as to whether or not it’s a good movie on its own merits… well, that’s been a subject of blazing debate for the past twenty years. Nostalgia is certainly a factor, ditto the universally reviled and ill-fated sequel. Still, even the most ardent supporter of the ’95 film would admit that the franchise deserves better. And with modern CGI, a more robust franchise mythology, and a film industry more amenable to big-budget R-rated action, we might finally be in a position to get a superior Mortal Kombat film.

Thus we have Mortal Kombat (2021), with James Wan producing and commercial director Simon McQuoid making his feature debut. Quite notably, the film’s roster features every single one of the original ten characters from the first game… except for Johnny Cage.

Yes, freaking Reptile made it into the movie, yet Johnny Cage somehow didn’t. He’s a recurring fan favorite, providing both a necessary source of comic relief and an equally necessary mundane viewpoint to ground all the bonkers magic and sci-fi flying around, yet he didn’t make the cut for this film.

Instead, we have Cole Young, played by Lewis Tan. Who is Cole Young? We don’t know! He’s a character created specifically for the movie. In numerous interviews and press releases, the filmmakers have justified Cole’s invention and inclusion as an audience viewpoint character, providing the filmgoers and newcomers with a gateway into the vast and convoluted Mortal Kombat mythology. But that doesn’t track. Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, and freaking Johnny Cage all served as audience viewpoint characters in the previous attempt (ditto the recent Scorpion’s Revenge DTV animated film) and there’s absolutely no reason why any or all of them couldn’t have served that purpose here. No, I think there’s something else going on here.

The earlier games had all firmly established Liu Kang as the de facto protagonist of the series, the reigning champion of Earthrealm and chief defender of humankind. But somewhere around Mortal Kombat 4 of 1997 — when video games were gradually being held to a higher standard regarding things like dialogue, character development, storytelling, etc. — it soon became obvious that Liu Kang didn’t really have much in the way of personality. He was a Bruce Lee knockoff made into a generic Chosen One archetype, and that was pretty much it.

So it was that in the fifth game, Liu Kang got killed off and wasn’t even included as a playable character. The sixth game introduced Shujinko as a new main protagonist. The seventh game had the aforementioned Taven. We don’t talk about the eighth game.

Hell, during “Mortal Kombat: Legacy” — the web series that spitballed so many potential takes for a new live-action iteration of the franchise — Liu Kang didn’t even show up until the second season! Then again, Shujinko and Taven didn’t appear at all. In fact, the two prospective new franchise leads proved to be so underwhelming that I don’t think either one has even been mentioned since the reboot.

Partway through the 2011 reboot, Liu Kang got killed off again, to be resurrected as an evil zombie revenant in the tenth game. This is also where we got Cassie Cage, Jackie Briggs, and a whole new generation of younger, deeper, more diverse, more relatable potential franchise leads. Most recently, the end of “MK11” showed Liu Kang ascending to godhood and succeeding Raiden, selecting longtime friendly rival Kung Lao as the new Chosen One.

The point being that the franchise has been struggling for the past several years to find a more viable protagonist. Yet all the efforts so far have been scattershot and the PTB haven’t really committed to any one new lead. (Though to be fair, the whole bankruptcy thing would’ve definitely thrown a wrench in those works.) Of course I can’t know for sure whether WB/NRS are using the film as a means of setting up Cole to be the new face of the franchise, but if he shows up in that capacity for “Mortal Kombat 12”, just remember that I called it.

Then again, it occurs to me that the Liu Kang/Sonya Blade/Johnny Cage has already been done multiple times before. (The ’95 film, the ’11 game, and Scorpion’s Revenge all come to mind.) At least Cole might bring something new and potentially surprising to the table. Also, the Patton Oswalt Principle totally applies here — if Cole’s origin story means that we can gloss over everyone else’s origin story, such that Scorpion and Sub-Zero and all the rest are fully formed and ready to hit the ground running, that’s A-OK by me.

And I should damn well hope that we’ll be going through everyone’s origin stories at a brisk pace, because the film only has a runtime of 110 minutes. This huge sweeping fantasy with a sprawling cast of characters and a bonkers mythology to explain, and the multitude of fight sequences… all crammed into less than two hours. A whole ten minutes more than the ’95 film had.

Once again, I have to ask — did Warner Bros. learn fucking NOTHING from the theatrical cut of Justice League?!

Mortal Kombat (2021) is already out in the international markets, but it’s set to hit American theaters and HBO Max on April 23rd. Let’s see what happens.

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