One thing I read online often enough when Mortal Kombat’s story is brought up is, “Wait, Mortal Kombat has a story?” Or more specifically, “Wait, people care about Mortal Kombat’s story?”
Of course they do. Haven’t you been paying attention? Long before the games started featuring cinematic story modes (first seen in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe), the franchise has been stretched out to nearly all forms of media. Its martial arts grindhouse mythology has been seen in comic books, movies, TV, and more.
The original tie-in came in comic book form. I’ve talked about Mortal Kombat comics at length before, so here’s the gist of it. The first two games had one-shot prologues that you could order off the arcade machines, written and drawn by series co-creator John Tobias. Over the years, they would do the same type of gimmick for Mortal Kombat 4 (the console version), Mortal Kombat: Deception, and Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
Meanwhile, across 1994 and 1995, Malibu Comics released a bunch of Mortal Kombat comics that very loosely followed the events of the first two games. Rather than a streamlined story, it took place over the course of various miniseries and one-shots. They were pretty bad, though still a step up from Malibu’s attempt at a Street Fighter series.
DC Comics released a Mortal Kombat X prequel comic that both set up the game’s story and killed off a handful of guys who wouldn’t show up in the games regardless (Hsu Hao, Kintaro, Reiko, Havik). The series ended with a cliffhanger (involving Kenshi being kidnapped by an armless Goro), hoping for another volume, but that never came to pass. Still, events from the comic were referenced in Mortal Kombat 11.
Okay, so comics are out of the way. What else?
Well, back when they were readying the console versions of the first game, they released a special album. Mortal Kombat: The Album wasn’t the game’s soundtrack or anything so simple. In actuality, it was a ridiculous set of techno tracks by a group called the Immortals who put together various songs about the characters in the game. Everyone and their mother knows about “Techno Syndrome,” otherwise known as the game’s theme song, but all the other tracks were completely batshit.
Most notable, in my opinion, is this wonderful, haunting song about the Chinese ninja warrior Sub-Zero.
It took me years to realize he was saying, “Warrior with a mask,” and not, “Why do you wear that mask?” Not that one is all that much better than the other.
There have been plenty of commercials for the games over the years, but the ad for the console version of Mortal Kombat II is where it’s at. It was put together by David Anderson and Bob Keen (director of Lost World). While it doesn’t have any more narrative than, “game characters meet up and fight each other,” it’s one of the most badass things done with the series and makes you wish the movies could have looked more like it. Check it out.
In 1995, a novel was released by Jeff Rovin known simply as Mortal Kombat. I myself have read it, but that was over 20 years ago, so my memory is shoddy. The book was a prequel to the first game, featuring most of the roster and a few names from the second game (I know Baraka showed up to sacrifice some poor sap at one point). A big chunk – probably too big a chunk – was dedicated to telling the story of the original Kung Lao and how he won the first tournament and then got dethroned by Goro. Otherwise, it takes place about a year before the first game, telling the story of Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, Raiden, and Scorpion working together against Shang Tsung, Goro, Kano, and Sub-Zero.
Sadly, Johnny Cage didn’t get mentioned even once.
The only weird thing I recall about the book was Scorpion’s backstory. Since the game’s lore had yet to name him Hanzo Hasashi, the novel explained him as being Yong Park, a Lin Kuei ninja who left the clan and was punished by having Sub-Zero chop him up with a katana. Then his ghost merged with his adult son Tsui Park and they became Scorpion.
1995 was when the first movie came out, but before that came Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins. It was put together by Threshold Entertainment, fittingly the same people who gave us Foodfight!, the infamously bad animated movie about grocery mascots. As a free VHS rental at video stores, the animated prelude was a way to promote the new movie. It retold the events of the first third of the movie, only with far more exposition and a lot of awful animation.
Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, and Johnny Cage all meet up on a boat, only they’re using the designs from the game, meaning Liu and Johnny never wear shirts. Sub-Zero and Scorpion attack them until Raiden shows up to ward them off and never shuts up for twenty minutes. He tells them all the stories of Kung Lao fighting Goro, Goro killing his brother, Sub-Zero killing Scorpion, and Shang Tsung killing some random dude.
While the main story was shown in 2D with lots and lots of reused animation (to the point of adding slow motion in order to make it look fresh at times), the flashbacks were done via CGI. 1995 CGI animation wasn’t a pretty sight (cue angry Reboot fans in the comments) and this was no exception. While the motion capture was fine, everything still looked like bad Sega Saturn cutscene footage.
Finally, we got Mortal Kombat: The Movie, directed by Paul WS Anderson. People have lots of differing opinions on this one, but I absolutely love it. It’s flawed to the gills, but it so fully embraces the campy mythology of what makes up the game when you get past the blood and guts and not-quite-as-good-as-Street-Fighter gameplay. It understood the ridiculousness of the games and didn’t try to be something else. That’s why people constantly refer to it as one of the best – or possibly only good – video game adaption.
Part of it comes from how much fun everyone was having with it. There are so many great performances that have since become iconic for some of the characters. Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage acts as our window by constantly making reference to how ridiculous everything is while powering through regardless. Trevor Goddard as Kano was so wonderful for how little he appeared that they ended up retconning Kano into being Australian in the games themselves. Christopher Lambert’s Raiden added a loving smirk to everything going on. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung chewed almost all the scenery. Goro, created with animatronics and voiced by Kevin Richardson, was a delight to watch.
Then there was Scorpion’s hand snake. That was odd.
Two years later, we got the sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, directed by John R. Leonetti and…hoo boy. The first five minutes were the only time I’ve ever considered walking out of a movie in my entire life. The first movie was based on the first game, which itself borrowed a lot from Enter the Dragon. The second movie was based on the third game, which had a complete mess of a storyline.
It didn’t help that the great cast and characters from the first movie were long gone. Robin Shou as Liu Kang and Talisa Soto as Kitana were the only ones to return. Kano, Shang Tsung, and Goro were already killed. Sonya and Raiden were recast. Johnny Cage was both recast and killed within the first few minutes.
It was cheesy, but without anything holding it together to make it good on any level. Characters from the games would just show up, do something, then leave and never be mentioned again. Dialogue, acting, and most definitely special effects were worse than before. The funny thing is, the movie originally had a stinger to promote a third movie where Shinnok and Quan Chi were going to plot against the heroes. Knowing that a sequel wasn’t in the realm of possibility, they wisely left that on the cutting room floor.
Probably the best thing to come out of that sequel was the official website, where one of the people involved in the movie went on this huge, desperate, yet smug rant about how fans should help keep the movie from bombing by seeing it multiple times. As explained, they tossed in a bunch of random crap from the games with zero context out of love and therefore the movie is good. Years later, people are still laughing and cringing at this cry for help.
Speaking of laughing and cringing, it’s time to discuss Mortal Kombat: The Live Tour. Diving headfirst into the kiddy crowd, the franchise lent its name to a 1995 tour across America where people got to see a live stage show filled with martial arts, flipping, lasers, and smoke machines. The story had to do with some of the heroes rescuing their friends from Shao Kahn’s clutches and who knows what else.
I’ve never been to one of the shows myself and it’s something that will forever haunt me. All I have to go on is footage like this.
In the tail end of 1996, we got Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm, a Saturday morning cartoon series with an animation style that seemed to be trying a little too hard to be Batman: The Animated Series. It acted as a follow-up of sorts to the first movie, where the team of Raiden, Liu Kang, Kitana, Sonya, Jax, Sub-Zero, Stryker, and Nightwolf all hung out in a high-tech cave and watched out for otherworldly invaders. It was pretty crappy, but not the worst thing out there. If anything, the episode where Shang Tsung was resurrected was legitimately good.
There were a few notable things about the show. It gave us the very first appearance of Quan Chi in any media, including the games. Kurtis Stryker was voiced by Ron Perlman while Luke Perry played Sub-Zero. But the most interesting thing about the show was that it’s the closest thing we have to an official crossover between Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.
And no, Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t count. That wasn’t actually Kano.
On USA, the channel that aired both animated shows, they had a big crossover thing about a guy called the Warrior King. He would appear in various cartoons (also including Savage Dragon and Wing Commander) in an overarching story that links them all together. While the character also appeared throughout an episode of Street Fighter, they were a bit more subtle in the Mortal Kombat tie-in by having it revolve around the Warrior King’s mystical orb and not the character himself. So yeah, while Capcom and NetherRealm may never see eye-to-eye and give us a real Ryu vs. Scorpion fight, at least there’s this roundabout meeting between the two franchises.
Defenders of the Realm lasted a mere 13 episodes in the end with the finale being a cliffhanger. In it, Shao Kahn was dethroned in Outworld, but then Shang Tsung and Sheeva went to war over who would take over while the heroes had no choice but to flee for safety.
Mortal Kombat would return to television in 1998 with Mortal Kombat: Conquest. The live-action series acted as a prequel, taking place in-between the original Kung Lao defeating Shang Tsung in the Mortal Kombat tournament and his fatal loss to Goro. In other words, it took place roughly 500 years ago, making it easier on the budget. Kung Lao hung out with his buddies Siro and Taja (played by Terminator 3‘s Kristanna Loken). It featured a lot of Mortal Kombat characters who were old enough to appear back then, such as Raiden, Shao Kahn, Shang Tsung, Quan Chi, Kitana, Mileena, Reptile, and Noob Saibot. Otherwise, there were some legacy characters like earlier incarnations of Sub-Zero, Scorpion, and the Black Dragon.
It was your usual second-rate Hercules/Xena fare. Less-than-stellar fight choreography, bad acting, awful special effects, and try-hard sexuality. If anything, at least Jeffrey Meek did well enough in his double role as both Raiden and Shao Kahn. His Kahn skull mask was pretty cool and made it more annoying that Kahn in Annihilation only wore it for one scene.
Being late-90s and being shown on TNT, a couple of episodes had guest appearances by WCW wrestlers Meng and Wrath. It also had an appearance by pre-famous Eva Mendes.
Much like its animated brother, Mortal Kombat: Conquest lasted a single season and also ended on a cliffhanger. This one stuck out a lot more, considering the final moments had all the good guys killed and Shao Kahn standing tall. I guess he didn’t need Goro after all. Whoops.
For years, Mortal Kombat stayed out of the public spotlight and all we had were rumors that someone was trying to make a third movie, which never seemed to go anywhere. The most we got for a while was Scorpion (voiced by Ed Boon) making a cameo appearance on Comedy Central’s animated reality show Drawn Together. The gag was that they were doing auditions for replacement housemates and Scorpion tried out. Xandir, a Link pastiche, was happy to see another video game character and…
You know what? I’m just going to let the clip speak for itself.
Huh. Didn’t know Scorpion was Jewish.
In 2010, just prior to the announcement of Mortal Kombat 9, a video was released on YouTube called Mortal Kombat: Rebirth. Created by Kevin Tancharoen, the short film acted as an introduction to a rebooted take on the series. There’s no Outworld or fight to save Earthrealm or anything so fantastic. It’s a gritty, down-to-earth reimagining about a crime lord in Deacon City and his circle of psychopaths in some underground fight club.
In it, we get Jackson Briggs (Michael Jai White) informing captured assassin Hanzo Hasashi (Ian Anthony Dale) about Shang Tsung’s activities, the reimagined identities of Reptile and Baraka, the death of actor-turned-informant Johnny Cage, and how if Hanzo enters the tournament and kills the bad guys for them, he’ll get a chance to kill his longtime rival Sub-Zero. It’s a pretty inventive take on the mythos, reminding me of Marvel’s Noir comics from around the same time.
That ultimately led to two seasons of Mortal Kombat: Legacy, a YouTube series on Machinima that also reimagined the series, but in a way that meets the concept halfway. While certain characters are given a more relatable redesign, it’s still about Outworld’s invasion and we get stuff involving Kitana and Mileena backstory as ancient assassins for Shao Kahn and Raiden being an actual god.
Once again, it ended on a cliffhanger that never got to be finished, mainly focusing on Liu Kang’s descent into being Shang Tsung’s lapdog. Otherwise, the tournament wasn’t really so much a tournament as it was basically Hunger Games with Kung Lao, Stryker, Johnny Cage, and Kenshi running around on an island.
There was supposed to be another season of episodes called Mortal Kombat X: Generations, but whether or not iit was supposed to tie into the Legacy series is hard to say. Casper Van Dien reprised his role as Johnny Cage, but it focuses more on the events leading into Mortal Kombat X than whatever was going on in Legacy. Before we even knew anything about Mortal Kombat X, a cast list for Generations was leaked onto the internet, revealing character descriptions for the likes of Takeda, Erron Black, and Kung Jin.
Apparently, while the whole thing had been filmed, it was never released in any capacity and the only thing close to footage is one or two behind-the-scenes photos.
With Mortal Kombat once again a big enough name, we’re FINALLY set for another movie. Currently set for a March 5, 2021, the new Mortal Kombat movie is produced by James Wan and directed by Simon McQuoid. It will be rated R and it’s already begun filming. So far confirmed characters include Liu Kang, Kung Lao, Raiden, Mileena, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Sonya, Jax, Kano, Shang Tsung, and Nitara. Wow, somebody remembers Nitara?
Now if they could just give us a new techno soundtrack, that would be just super.