Mortal Kombat X: The Strange History of Kung Lao

Mortal Kombat X arrives tomorrow to test your might! Catch up on the life and times of Kung Lao before then.

Mortal Kombat X arrives on Tuesday, and we’re celebrating by taking a look back at many of the great characters from across the franchise. Today, let’s revisit the strange life and times of Kung Lao, the hat-wielding hero from the Shaolin temples, who returns in Mortal Kombat X.

No longer the young upstart, the new game shows Kung Lao to be aged and weathered, tying in with how the storyline spans several decades. Kung Lao made his first appearance in Mortal Kombat II, but in a way, he’s been a fixture in the Mortal Kombat mythos since the very beginning.

Kung Lao is named after his ancestor, a great Shaolin monk warrior who used to be the champion of Mortal Kombat. As the story of the games go, the only way for outside forces to take over Earthrealm legally without the gods smacking them down is to win 10 straight Mortal Kombat tournaments. The Great Kung Lao was Earthrealm’s ace to prevent that. As explained in the first game’s attract mode screen for Goro, the four-armed monster showed up one year as a representative of Outworld and killed Great Kung Lao in battle. Since then, Goro’s won nine Mortal Kombat tournaments in a row, and the first game is the last bastion of hope in stopping Outworld’s invasion.

In two panels, the original Kung Lao was shown in the official Mortal Kombat preview comic that you could order through the arcade machine. Shown dying at the hands of Goro, Kung Lao was just a regular-looking bald guy, but interestingly enough, he wore a very similar ensemble to what Liu Kang would wear in Mortal Kombat II: puffy pants, a headband, and spiked wrist guards.

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Kung Lao’s descendant of the same name showed up in the cast of Mortal Kombat II as played by Anthony Marquez. Like his buddy Liu Kang, Kung Lao is part of the White Lotus Society, a secret sect of Shaolin monks who train rigorously for the sake of defending Earthrealm in Mortal Kombat. In terms of personality and story, Kung Lao was a piece of wet paper compared to the rest of the cast. Really, his bio and ending are just, “blah blah blah ancestors blah blah temples blah blah monks.”

Luckily, his design was so badass that it overcame all that blandness. Dressed in black, Kung Lao came with his trademark bladed hat, inspired by Oddjob from Goldfinger. Through his hat toss, spinning attack, dive kick, and jumping teleport, Kung Lao was easily one of the most fun to play and carried a unique style. Personally, I wish later games would have kept the chinstrap. I always thought that made him look cooler and almost made him seem like he had a slick beard going on.

They should just give Kung Lao a beard at some point is what I’m saying.

Kung Lao’s hat toss decapitation Fatality wasn’t worth the pain in the ass that it was to make it work, but his ability to split his opponent in half down the middle is one of the most iconic finishers in the series and never gets old.

Marquez would reprise the role in Mortal Kombat 3, where Kung Lao played the same as the last game, but it didn’t look like Midway had any plans to use him afterwards as Kung Lao got the worst omen for a fighting game character – an ending where you die. Dying in someone else’s ending is one thing, but when your ending says, “You killed the big bad, but then you succumbed to your injuries,” it means the guys in charge aren’t in favor of keeping you around. To add to that, Liu Kang’s ending also stated that Kung Lao died, which fueled him with the rage needed to save the day. At the time, Kung Lao was considered out of the picture.

As this was the height of Mortal Kombat’s popularity, Kung Lao had a real scattershot role in the franchise’s attempts to branch out into different forms of media. With the two Mortal Kombat movies, the modern-day Kung Lao didn’t make a single appearance, becoming one of the few characters from the first two games to be completely absent. His ancestor got namedropped by Liu Kang real quick, but that was it.

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Actually…that’s not quite accurate, now that I think about it. The first Mortal Kombat movie had an animated intro/prequel/abomination called Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins. This was a free rental at video stores meant to get people interested in the movie. It acted as a different take of the movie’s first act, only with lots of flashback fight scenes to pad out the backstory. If you haven’t seen it, the animation was terrible on all accounts. The main story was a limited 2D style filled with tons of reused animation, while the flashbacks were done with really primitive CGI that made the characters look like something out of Virtua Fighter. The first one.

This time they went straight into making him look like the modern Kung Lao. They gave the same nod in the late-90s live-action series, Mortal Kombat: Conquest, where the original Kung Lao was played by Paolo Montalban. The series, which lasted 22 episodes, took place in the distant past, somewhere between Kung Lao beating up Shang Tsung in one Mortal Kombat tournament and getting killed by Goro in the next one. Kung Lao wore the hat for about five seconds in the first episode and that was the end of that.

The show was strange. It was filled with constant prequel references to Mortal Kombat characters and concepts (Quan Chi, the Black Dragon, Scorpion’s predecessor, etc.) and lots of blatant sexiness. Like to pad out an episode, they would follow up a villain plotting scene with a minute of scantily clad women giving each other hot oil massages. Conquest ended with the ill-advised “give the show a huge cliffhanger season finale in hopes that we can get renewed” gambit where all the heroes were killed in one way or another and Shao Kahn was triumphant. Then it didn’t get renewed. That’s a downer.

Kung Lao never appeared on the Saturday morning Defenders of the Realm cartoon, but he did show up in Malibu Comics’ Mortal Kombat series. You’d barely even notice him. First appearing in Mortal Kombat: Battlwave #1 by Charles Marshall and Patrick Rolo, Kung Lao was part of a rather unexpected alliance of Kitana, Sub-Zero, and Baraka, all out to destroy Shao Kahn. Kung Lao did nothing of note other than try to calm down the barbaric Baraka and look all stoic.

And speak in third person too, I guess.

Marshall and Tim Devar released Mortal Kombat: Kung Lao, a one-shot that ended up being the last comic made for Malibu’s take on the franchise. In it, Kung Lao meditated on his mission, only to be confronted and/or attacked by his so-called allies. After Kitana tried to put the moves on him (the Liu Kang/Kitana relationship hadn’t been established in the games at this point), Kung Lao figured out it was Shang Tsung using his morphing trickery. The two fought it out with Shang getting the advantage by turning into Kung Lao’s ancestor. Then the Great Kung Lao’s soul took over long enough for his descendant to land the knockout blow and set him free. That was about it.

Back to the games, Kung Lao finally made his return in Mortal Kombat Gold, the Dreamcast expansion of Mortal Kombat 4. His profile explained that he faked his death in Mortal Kombat 3 in order to live a life of peace, but with Shinnok’s invasion, he’s backed out of that. His ending is kind of hilarious to watch, featuring animation that’s only an iota better than The Journey Begins and voice acting that was probably used after the first take. The game had Goro change into a good guy, so we would see he and Kitana knock out some details over a big peace treaty only for Kung Lao to almost ruin it with his bullshit.

Goro turned back to being evil two games later, so maybe Kung Lao was onto something.

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With the next game, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Kung Lao would get to play the role of main hero…almost. In the opening cutscene, Liu Kang was killed by Shang Tsung and Quan Chi. This time Kung Lao would be the angry Shaolin guy inspired by his buddy’s death. Along with Raiden and all the other heroes, Kung Lao would go after the two sorcerers intent on stopping them from resurrecting an unkillable zombie army.

On one hand, most of the game’s endings acted as pieces of a larger story. Removing a couple endings (mainly the villains), you still got a coherent narrative that showed Kung Lao exacting revenge on Shang Tsung and the good guys saving the day while setting up the next big bad, Onaga. When they made the sequel, Mortal Kombat: Deception, they decided not to go quite in that direction. Yes, Onaga was set up, but Kung Lao and his buddies failed. Hard. The opening seconds of the game’s intro cutscene showed that Raiden’s band of good guys all got killed by the Deadly Alliance, Kung Lao included. The game’s story had them all revived as slaves to Onaga, but Ermac helped bring them back to normal.

Taking a break from the one-on-one games, Midway released the excellent Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, a co-op beat ‘em up adventure game where players got to play as Liu Kang and Kung Lao in an alternate take on what happened during Mortal Kombat II. Starting at the end of the first Mortal Kombat game, the opening cinematic gave a good enough explanation as to why Kung Lao wasn’t involved in the all-so-important Shang Tsung tournament. He was really in the background, undercover in the disguise of one of the sorcerer’s guards, finally making himself known during the climax when everything was going to Hell.

While the Shaolin Monks game isn’t exactly canon (considering nearly every bad guy is horribly murdered as part of the plot), it did establish that Liu Kang and Kung Lao have a heated rivalry with each other despite being comrades. Together, they got over their differences, killed Shao Kahn, and saved the world, all while Kung Lao cut up a million bad guys with his hat. Years later, that part still never gets old.

Mortal Kombat: Armageddon featured every Mortal Kombat playabe character, so naturally that meant Kung Lao was in the fray. The story was about a big good vs. evil melee in the middle of a desert where a giant pyramid showed up out of nowhere. From there, it became a big game of King of the Mountain where the winner got ultimate power. Kung Lao’s ending had the ultimate power send him back in time to meet his ancestor. Modern-day Kung Lao convinced Kung Lao Classic to let him take his spot in the Mortal Kombat tournament, where he went on to defeat Goro. Not only did he prevent all of the series from happening, but he also won his rivalry with Liu Kang by making it never exist in the first place.

That’s not what happened in the Mortal Kombat canon, though. As shown in the 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot, Kung Lao died on the battlefield against Shinnok. Though at the very least, he did successfully take out Baraka before going down. Shao Kahn won the epic Royal Rumble and in a last ditch effort to save reality, Raiden sent a message back in time to his younger self, creating a new timeline.

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Like in Shaolin Monks, Kung Lao was incognito as a guardsman during the events of Mortal Kombat 1. Angry that Liu Kang was chosen to compete in the tournament over him, he made an impromptu challenge against Scorpion and promptly lost. Then Raiden chewed him out for his brashness.

During the retold events of Mortal Kombat II, Liu Kang and Kung Lao appeared towards the end of the tournament, making it really questionable if they even know how tournaments are supposed to work in the first place. Since Raiden needed to figure out how to change the timeline for the better, he sent Kung Lao into the fray instead of Liu Kang – the first of many acts in the game that would make Liu Kang question Raiden’s sanity. Kung Lao successfully defeated Shang Tsung and Quan Chi at the same time, then took down Kintaro. During the middle of Kung Lao’s self-congratulation, Shao Kahn walked over, grabbed him from behind, and snapped his neck.

The game would feature a lot of random deaths, but Kung Lao’s was the first and perhaps most shocking. Liu Kang was able to defeat and seemingly kill Shao Kahn while Raiden mourned his own bad decision-making skills. Later on, it was revealed that Quan Chi had ownership of Kung Lao’s soul in the Netherrealm, as well as the souls of all the other killed heroes.

The game’s arcade mode ending featured an interesting twist about Kung Lao. Had he survived the adventure, he would have come to inherit the memories of his ancestor’s training centuries ago and his death at Goro’s hands. As Raiden figured, Kung Lao is in fact the reincarnation of the original. I’m not sure how that works out, considering Shang Tsung presumably ate that dude’s soul in the first place, and having a soul is the lynchpin to being reincarnated, but whatever.

To tie into the game, Machinima released two seasons of Mortal Kombat: Legacy, a webseries based on telling the Mortal Kombat mythos in its own way. Kung Lao appeared in the second season as played by Mark Dacascos. Kung Lao was set up to play the hero for the non-existent third season. As shown, his friendship with Liu Kang fell apart as Liu fell down a deep hole of despair, getting jobs working for the mob and then later working with Outworld. Kung Lao’s job was to just stand around and argue with him for several episodes, while telling him, “There’s still good in you!” The finale showed the two about to fight against Kung Lao’s will. Who knows if we’ll ever see any follow-up on that.

In a few months, Mortal Kombat X will see the light of day, and after being “killed off” five times over the course of the series, Kung Lao will be making his return. How he’s alive is up in the air, but we do know that he certainly hasn’t simply been reincarnated again. The gray in his hair speaks to that.

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Glad to see he finally went with facial hair, though. Told you he’d look better.

Gavin Jasper is rather surprised that they never came up with some kind of unnecessary backstory for Kung Lao’s magic razor hat. Follow him on Twitter!