Superhero summer blockbusters and licensed sequels have rewritten the box office rulebook for Hollywood in the 2010s. These days you're nothing if you aren't striving for a total media blitz, building a multi-pronged franchise "universe" across spin-offs and tie-ins. Marvel's Avengers has become the multimedia benchmark, extending its Disney-owned tendrils across multiple major movies, an on-going television series, several upcoming Netflix original series, and various other projects. It's the model everyone now aspires to - but did you know Mortal Kombat actually kinda did it already in the nineties?
The announcement of the first-ever Region 2 DVD release of Mortal Kombat: Conquest - The Complete Series has stirred a massive amount of interest within the fan kommunity. As well it should! Conquest isn't just a time-locked series that's only been available in its entirety to digital pirates, Australians [via a 2005 Region 4 release], and devotees of late night reruns. It's a unique piece of Kombat franchise history, and a rare example of a video game license thriving in a film environment.
Whether you're new to Conquest and the world created by Larry Kassanoff and his Threshold Entertainment Group, or simply revisiting, we hope you'll join us as we look back at what we generously consider the Mortal Kombat Cinematic Universe. Here's the rundown:
Mortal Kombat: Conquest (1998-1999)
Taking liberties with some of the least explored corners of the Mortal Kombat mythology; Conquest expanded the universe in reverse, acting as a loosely related prequel. The series took viewers back to the ancient reign of legendary Mortal Kombat Champion: The Great Kung Lao!
Kung Lao wins his first tournament by defeating Shang Tsung in the series' two-part opener (or movie length pilot, in some broadcasts). This begins a familiar rivalry between the sorcerer and Earthrealm's immortal champion, which extends from Tsung's imprisonment in the Cobalt Mines of Outworld, to the ancient walled city of Zhuzin where Lao makes his home.
A lot of the series hinges on original characters and storylines. The serial follows Kung Lao as he navigates various threats sent by Shang Tsung and other enemies, accompanied by his constant allies: Siro (Daniel Bernhardt) - an exiled guard for the murdered Baron Reyland, and Taja (Kristanna Loken)- a thief briefly imprisoned by the Baron. Both are on a path to redemption, and train with Kung Lao to apply their skills as chosen warriors on the side of good.
For the most part, the show's greatest contribution to the cinematic universe is its world building. The show provides a tangible understanding of a lot of the mythology merely alluded to in the movies. Arch-villain Shao Kahn, in particular, is given significantly more dimension as Emperor of Outworld. He is a constant presence in the show, pitting his wills (and warriors) against Raiden and the heroes of Earthrealm, while also juggling his enemies and paranoia close to home.
Movie bit players like Scorpion and Reptile are given clearer backstory, albeit removed from the canon of the games. Scorpion is a guard named Takeda who was friends with Siro, but voluntarily accepted possession by an ancient demonic entity. Reptile, and his still living race, play a major role late in the series, and factor in through other characters. The ancient setting plays a big part in adding lineage to a lot of well known characters in the franchise. An ancestor of Sub-Zero assumes the Lin Kuei mantle, whilst struggling with his own morality, lost family, and developing rivalry with Scorpion. Even the Black Dragon Clan appear in an episode - revealing mysticism and cutthroat criminal tactics established centuries before Kano joined.
The show would ultimately be the only live-action film appearance of Quan Chi -- a villain excised from the final cut of the second feature film, and a long rumoured major player in the aborted third movie. He was memorably played by Adoni Maropis with a dry, camp wit and game-faithful costume that marks a high point for the show. His "Unholy Alliance" with Shang Tsung is one of many favourite trivia beats that also played out in subsequent video games.
The show ran for a single 22 episode season, failing to resolve an apocalyptic ending that, in isolation, seems problematic for the cinematic universe. Had a second season been commissioned as expected, you can safely assume the cliff hanger would have been resolved, probably pretty effortlessly. As it stands, it's arguably an example of Shao Kahn's propensity for breaking the rules, and the means by which he can achieve it if motivated.
Mortal Kombat: The Motion Picture (1995)
Still among the most successful feature films to be based on a video game; Mortal Kombat is the centrepiece of Threshold's cinematic MK universe. Directed by Paul Anderson (Resident Evil), the movie galvanized the already confirmed status of the games as 90s pop culture icons. It established a look and style unique to the movie universe, featuring a blend of popular martial arts action movies, and a techno score with tracks from The Album, and burgeoning mainstream acts.
Despite its considerable deviations, Mortal Kombat: The Movie remained recognizably linked to the grand designs of its source material. Hong Kong actor Robin Shou stars in his most memorable American role as Liu Kang. In the film, he's a modern martial artist distanced from the mysticism of his family's past. When it comes time for the tournament, Kang confronts his destiny head-on, haunted by visions of his brother Chan's death at the hands of Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Travelling to the tournament aboard a rickety old ship, he is united by fate with fellow chosen warriors Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson). They are Earthrealm's greatest hope under the eternally watchful eye of Raiden (Christoph Lambert) - protector god of thunder.
Like his ancestor (Kung Lao); Liu becomes the nemesis of sorcerer Shang Tsung, defeating him at the conclusion of the hero's quest, saving Earthrealm from its tenth and final tournament loss and becoming Mortal Kombat Champion in the process! Liu's win has a greater sense of finality than the tournament shown in Conquest, ending in a spiked floor stage fatality inspired by the finishing moves of the games. Despite Tsung's apparent death, it isn't the final appearance for Shang Tsung in what we consider the greater cinematic universe.
Like the games themselves, the first Mortal Kombat movie is the only one to really dwell on the tournament. It establishes the literal rules of the universe that inform everything around it. While most other projects are about the perils still facing the Earth, it is the circumvention of the rules of the tournament that define the threat. As in the film sequel...
Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
Remembered in infamy for it's cheesy dialogue and perceivable drop in quality: Annihilation was never the less a noteworthy cultural moment in the build to its '97 theatrical release. Cinematographer turned director John Leonetti grapples with a conceptually ambitious, loose adaptation of Mortal Kombat 3, introducing much of the same world building as the game.
Picking up immediately after the events of the last movie; Annihilation sees the triumphant heroes confronted by Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson) and his invading forces of Outworld. Shang Tsung may have failed to gain license through tournament victory, but The Emperor has discovered means of invading through the resurrection of Edenia's Queen Sindel (Musetta Vander), and a little brute force. Or as Raiden - now played by film & television stalwart James Remar - so ambiguously puts it, "What closes can also open again."
The film sequel notoriously creates new connections between related characters, most notably through the introduction of an all too mortal Elder God Shinnok, who is father to warring brothers: Shao Kahn and Raiden. The rivalry between Earthrealm's protector god and his Outworld warlord counterpart was connected far better in Conquest, where actor Jeffrey Meek played both parts, heavily disguised under wigs and skull masks. The blood behind their feud isn't specifically referenced in Conquest [which came a year after Annihilation], but the stakes of their hatred may have benefitted from the unspoken backstory.
It's difficult to defend Annihilation. By and large, it's probably as remembered for everything it destroyed, as much as what it created. Many unused characters from the game sequels were introduced to the movie universe, only to be unceremoniously killed after brief on-screen embarrassments. Baraka doesn't even get the dignity of his own death scene - infamously falling to his demise in a clip reused from an earlier, even less impressive Rain death. The less said about CG monster fights - the better.
Franchise remakes, reboots, and nostalgia revivals are a dime a dozen in 2014, but in the late nineties to early millennium, the impact of Annihilation's failures was enough to condemn Mortal Kombat on the screen. Conquest endured, probably through the sheer tenacity of Larry Kasanoff and prior development interest, but the much discussed third film -- known anecdotally as Devastation -- never managed to recover. It was the end of Mortal Kombat in cinemas, but not the cinematic universe. There were still some surprises on the horizon!
Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (1996)
Still flying high on the success of the 1995 feature film - Threshold Entertainment brokered new ground in '96 with Mortal Kombat's first Saturday morning cartoon. Defenders of the Realm repackaged the characters from the film with designs more familiar to the video games - opening the cinematic universe up to the full threat of Outworld and "warriors from other domains, as well."
The series is reminiscent of similarly titled King Features mash-up, Defenders of the Earth, and other team-based cartoons of the time. Raiden - given true gravitas by the voice of Clancy Brown - oversees a group of chosen warriors who response to frequent tears in Earthrealm's dimensional fabric. Nightwolf mans a secret base, where he and his pet wolf command advanced technology (including "dragonjets" the team travel with) to monitor Earth's unique space. Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, Jax, Kurtis Stryker and Princess Kitana make up the core team, with another iconic fighter joining in the first episode.
While Conquest reused special effects scenes from the movies, and made vague allusions to the future foretold by them; Defenders went all out - basing key plot points around the story of the first feature film and recreations of key scenes.
Sub-Zero -- curiously voiced by 90210 heartthrob Luke Perry -- joins the heroes as an outsider [Ep. 1: Kombat Begins Again], distrusted for his Lin Kuei origins, and the movie-based death of his older brother (at the hands of Liu Kang). The tomb of Shang Tsung plays a role in the second episode, the sorcerer's death later depicted in a retelling of the movie's final battle. As promised; Shang Tsung (Neil Ross) is resurrected mid-series by Shao Kahn. Kano makes a similar recovery, emerging from the shadows with his MK3 appearance and a more elaborate backstory to his rivalry with Sonya.
Pundits will note the cartoon preceded Annihilation and exclusively references the first film, but its vague placement in time, and broader inter-dimensional threats don't clash too significantly with Threshold's other projects. Depending on your persuasion, its use of game references may leave Defenders in higher esteem than the '97 movie sequel. It was ultimately the only time Stryker (Ron Perlman) was depicted - a hard-nosed, by-the-book interpretation that features as a member of the titular team.
Quan Chi famously makes his first ever appearance in episode eight of the cartoon: The Secret of Quan-Chi. While his scheme is fairly stock standard for cartoon villains, he debuts with a recognizable design and manner, even wielding a living weapon, of sorts! He would become a major player in the games universe just a year later, featured in: Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat 4! As noted - he was deleted from scenes in Annihilation, but became a major player in Conquest, and was to have been an arch-villain in the third film. To this extent, Quan Chi is the closest Threshold came to planning greater integration with the rest of the franchise.
On the subject of integration: Defenders of the Realm would provide the closest thing Mortal Kombat has come to a crossover with Street Fighter. Airing in an inglorious moment for that fighting game franchise; Street Fighter shared the airwaves on the USA Network, participating in a multi-part crossover between shows hinged on a powerful glowing orb. The orb would also travel to the universes of Savage Dragon and Wing Commander Academy.
Mortal Kombat: Federation of Martial Arts (2000-2001)
A decade before Legacy; Federation of Martial Arts became the first official webseries for Mortal Kombat! It was part of an elaborate high concept inspired by the serialized fighting of professional wrestling, originally pitched as a new series for the UPN broadcast network.
The series became a feature of Threshold's MortalKombat.com, utilizing fight scenes from other projects, and original live-action battles [full archive] in conjunction with a fighter's stock exchange game. It weaved together an elaborate collection of original fighters, and characters taken from all of Threshold's previous projects.
Storylines bridged elements of Conquest and Annihilation, building a new federation system to replace the traditional Mortal Kombat tournament. Fan interaction influenced the course of events, while fighters from various realms - including the Conquest originated realm now ruled by Queen Vorpax - fought for controlling stakes. Annihilation's Jax (Lynn Red Williams) reprised his role, appearing in a particularly elaborate plotline that saw him framed for murder and put on trial.
Of all the branches of Threshold's cinematic universe, "FoMA" is inarguably the most disposable. It's also the most unique, and the final piece that would be constructed before the franchise languished in development hell. You have to admire its forward thinking. Live-action online productions aren't just common place now, they're presently the only format Mortal Kombat is appearing in -- pending new movie plans. Threshold Entertainment, still holding on to designs for a third movie, sued Warner Bros. in 2010 after their IP acquisition from Midway. The issue has since been resolved, leading to the new DVD & Blu-Ray releases we're seeing today.
[Related Article: New WB Digital Division Announces Mortal Kombat Webseries]
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