It’s beginning to feel like the late ’90s all over again, what with how Mortal Kombat is all the rage. 2019 saw the release of the critically acclaimed Mortal Kombat 11, and new characters are still being added to this dark and gory fighting game. Now the MK franchise is returning to Hollywood. A new direct-to-video animated movie called Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge revisits the saga from the point of view of this iconic villain. And in 2021, the franchise is being rebooted for a new live-action movie produced by The Conjuring’s James Wan.
In light of all these big developments in the MK world, we thought now would be the perfect time to look back at the franchise’s long, colorful and occasionally baffling history in film and TV. Check out our slideshow below or scroll down for a closer look at all the Mortal Kombat adaptations and how closely (or not) they followed the source material.
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Mortal Kombat (1995)
The original Mortal Kombat movie is widely regarded as one of the best video game adaptations to date. Which, granted, is a very dubious honor. Even so, the movie still stands as a solid example of how to bring the series to life in live-action. It presents a reasonably faithful retelling of the original game’s extremely barebones storyline, while drawing in elements of Mortal Kombat II and some of the backstory from the tie-in comics. Like many adaptations, it positions Liu Kang (Robin Chou) as the central hero destined to defeat the soul-stealing Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). For purists, the movie’s biggest sin is simply that it doesn’t replicate the violence of the games, opting instead for a more pedestrian PG-13 approach.
What the movie does capture, however, is that essential undercurrent of camp and zaniness that goes hand-in-hand with the gratuitous violence. Mortal Kombat the movie definitely isn’t guilty of taking itself too seriously. It’s also the movie that introduced the world to The Immortals’ “Techno Syndrome,” the most iconic video game music this side of the Super Mario Bros. theme.
Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins (1995)
There’s some pretty stiff competition when it comes to deciding the worst Mortal Kombat adaptation ever made, but this direct-to-video release may just take the top honor. Released ahead of the live-action film and ostensibly a prequel to said film, The Journey Begins sets about fleshing out the origin stories of various MK icons. But the connective tissue is dubious at best. And as dated as the CGI in the live-action movie may be, it’s state-of-the-art compared to the archaic, sub-Playstation quality 3D fight scenes in The Journey Begins. Hardcore fans may want to watch this one out of sheer, morbid curiosity (especially since it’s included as a bonus feature on the Mortal Kombat Blu-ray), but don’t expect it to actually enhance your enjoyment of the games or the movies.
Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (1996)
The ’80s and ’90s TV landscape was littered with attempts to translate adults-only pop culture properties into kid-friendly cartoons. Case in point – RoboCop: The Animated Series, Rambo: The Force of Freedom and Toxic Crusaders. We honestly have to respect Kenner’s moxie for deciding to cut out the middleman and directly market Terminator 2 and Aliens toys to kids without even waiting for cartoons.
With Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm, USA Network threw its razor-edged hat into the ring. This short-lived series aired on the network’s Action Extreme Team block in 1996. Somewhat bafflingly, it attempts to serve as a continuation of both the 1995 movie and the Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 video game, though the all-ages approach basically renders that moot. Defenders of the Realm simplifies the complex series of alliances and rivalries that define the MK mythos, instead featuring a team of heroes led by Raiden and Nighthawk tasked with defending Earthrealm from Shao Kahn’s interdimensional invaders.
Defenders of the Realm does make one notable addition to the franchise, however. The series was actually the first to introduce Quan Chi before his roles in Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat 4.
Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
If the first Mortal Kombat movie is among the best attempts at adapting a video game to film, its sequel is easily among the worst. It’s not necessarily that Annihilation plays fast and loose with the source material. It introduces a number of popular characters like Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson), Jax (Lynn Williams) and Sindel (Musetta Vandel), along with familiar MK elements like Animalities, the death of Johnny Cage and Kuai Liang taking up his brother’s mantle as Sub-Zero. The problem is that the movie fails to string any of that together into a coherent and interesting story. There’s not much internal logic to what happens or which characters appear.
But even if the plot lived up to the first movie, Annihilation is plagued with lousy effects, underwhelming fight scenes, and actors who would seemingly rather be anywhere else. It’s telling that, apart from Chou’s Liu Kang, nearly all the returning characters were recast for the sequel. But if nothing else, at least the soundtrack is pretty good.
Mortal Kombat: Conquest (1998)
While Annihilation basically destroyed Mortal Kombat’s big-screen prospects for the next two decades, that didn’t stop TNT from airing a live-action TV series in 1998. Mortal Kombat: Conquest serves as a prequel to the movies, taking place 500 years before the era of Liu Kang. Instead, Conquest revolves around Liu’s ancestor Kung Lao (Paolo Montalbán), a warrior monk tasked with training a new generation of fighters to defend Earthrealm. While many of the series’ supporting characters are new creations, many MK fan-favorites show up over the course of Conquest’s one and only season.
The best that can be said for Conquest is that it was ahead of its time. The prequel premise is strong, and it’s certainly a better offshoot of the 1995 film than Annihilation. But even at the time, it was difficult to ignore the lousy wire-fu fight scenes and generally bad special effects. It’s hard not to wonder what might have been if Conquest had come along a decade or two later.
Mortal Kombat: Rebirth (2010)
Outside of the games themselves, the MK franchise largely went dormant in the ’00s. It wasn’t until filmmaker Kevin Tancharoen took the initiative and put together a short, unauthorized Mortal Kombat movie that the ball started rolling again.
Though produced on a very low budget and not sanctioned by Warner Bros. or Mortal Kombat’s creators, Tancharoen’s short film Mortal Kombat: Rebirth is a surprisingly professional adaptation. Rebirth is unique in that it downplays the franchise’s supernatural trappings, instead casting Scorpion (Ian Anthony Dale) as an assassin working with Captain Jackson Briggs (Michael Jai White) and Sonya Blade (Jeri Ryan) to bring down Shang Tsung’s criminal empire and get revenge on his nemesis, Sub-Zero.
Tancharoen intended for Rebirth to serve as a proof-of-concept for a possible movie reboot. He sort of got his wish as he was given the reins of the live-action web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy.
Mortal Kombat: Legacy (2011)
Tancharoen returned to the MK franchise the following year, this time with the actual approval of Warner Bros. and a greenlight for a full season of live-action webisodes exclusive to Machinima. Legacy doesn’t follow the new continuity established in Rebirth, though Dale, White and Ryan all returned to reprise their roles for Season 1. Instead, Legacy acts as a prequel to the original game, with each Season 1 episode fleshing out the backstory for a different Kombatant.
Season 2 proved to be a fairly steep departure, with Legacy shifting to a more narrative-driven approach while bringing in a number of new characters and recasting many existing roles. One bonus of that revamp is that Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa was able to reprise the role of Shang Tsung (paving the way for him to make the jump over to the games in the form of Mortal Kombat 11 DLC).
As inconsistent as it is in terms of tone and plot, Legacy shows the potential in a more earnest take on the MK mythology. It also looks surprisingly robust for a free-to-watch web series.
Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge (2020)
Mortal Kombat is returning to the animated realm in 2020, in what we can only assume will be a vastly better adaptation than either The Journey Begins or Defenders of the Realm. It helps that Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge is aimed squarely at adults. In fact, this direct-to-video release is actually the first R-rated Mortal Kombat movie.
Scorpion’s Revenge looks to be an adaptation of the original game’s storyline, but with a twist. Rather than framing the movie around the heroic Liu Kang, we’ll see the fateful tournament from Scorpion’s point of view. The movie will explore the character’s tragic origin story and the beginnings of his feud with Sub-Zero.
Mortal Kombat Reboot (2021)
After years of rumors about another live-action Mortal Kombat movie, the franchise is finally returning to the big screen in January 2021. The new movie won’t be connected to previous projects, but will instead serve as a complete reboot. Star Mehcad Brooks (who’s playing Jax) describes it as having “grounded realism” despite retaining the Fatalities and other violent trappings of the games. Here’s a full breakdown of the Mortal Kombat reboot’s cast.
The as yet untitled reboot entered post-production in late 2019, so we’re hopeful even the numerous movie delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic won’t impact its release date at this point. Hopefully, we won’t have much longer to wait before we learn whether the new Mortal Kombat movie can defeat all that have come before.
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