“[We] made it for the fans.” Although this quote is specifically attributed to a David Ayer tweet following the relentless pans of his 2016 Suicide Squad, the sentiment could have come from any franchise director of the last few years. As Hollywood has become more and more IP driven, the fans have become more and more of a shield for bad movies. Marvel and especially DC have consistently put out lifeless films with just enough fan service to get their die hard supporters to flood into theaters multiple times. Now it seems that Warner — purveyors of both the DCEU and the recently ended MonsterVerse — is attempting to graft this format onto Mortal Kombat.
While the Mortal Kombat video game franchise has been wildly popular since its inception, attempts to bring the hyper-violent fatalities to Hollywood have failed to connect with audiences. Paul WS. Anderson’s 1996 version has a bit of a cult following, but was mostly forgotten by time. Twenty-five years later, blockbusters are all franchises and Mortal Kombat wants a piece of the action.
Twelve minutes into Simon McQuoid’s new Mortal Kombat a title card reads: “Earthrealm is on the verge of catastrophe. Should it lose one more tournament, the savage realm of Outworld will invade.” Those unfamiliar with the games, comics or previous films may find themselves with a few questions remaining as they are thrust into the journey of Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a former MMA fighter recruited to fight for the aforementioned Earthrealm. What is Mortal Kombat? How does it work? Why is there an invisible lizard and also a separate lizard man?
In fact, Mortal Kombat is practically unintelligible for someone not thoroughly steeped in the lore and intimately familiar with the characters. As far as I understand, Mortal Kombat the tournament doesn’t even happen in this film. Rather most of the runtime is committed to pre-tournament assassination attempts before directly teeing up a sequel. Call me naive but maybe the first movie of your Mortal Kombat franchise should actually set up the core premise of Mortal Kombat. Parachuting into the pre-game of round 10 of a tournament, with absolutely no explanation of how or why that tournament began is a truly baffling decision.
This obfuscation extends to the characters as well. Without former knowledge of the series, the most I can tell you about any of the players in this film is that Kano (Josh Lawson) is incredibly annoying and Sub Zero (Joe Taslim) makes things icy. It wasn’t until hours after finishing the movie that I even learned that Cole Young was a character invented for this film. And why would I? He’s simply one of dozens of characters who get little to no backstory.
Therein lies the fundamental problem with Mortal Kombat and all the franchise films that inspired it. Filmmakers no longer feel the need to even attempt to make their blockbusters accessible to broader audiences, let alone do the work of building characters and themes. All it takes now is a property with existing fans and tens of millions of dollars to passably realize it. Those who adore Mortal Kombat get the thrill of seeing their favorite fighters come alive and the rest of us can’t complain because the film was for those fans all along.
That line of thinking will likely net Warner a profitable film, even amidst a box office dampening pandemic. As of this writing the global gross of Mortal Kombat is just a few million shy of its stated budget and that is without factoring any potential HBO Max subscriber growth. But safe as it may be to pander to the base, a film “for the fans” does a disservice to outsiders, the franchise and yes, even the fans.
Mortal Kombat left me — and I would venture to guess many other MK neophytes — colder than Sub Zero. A well structured film that dug deeper than the series’s trademark gore might have made a number of new fans. That would undoubtedly be good for both viewers and Mortal Kombat as a property. Building a fan base through quality is the key ingredient competitors have forgetten when trying to replicate the success of the MCU. Nobody will go see your sequel if they hated the original.
More than anything though, movies like Mortal Kombat are a disservice to the very fans they claim to be serving. Instead of an exciting, kinetic adaptation of something they’re passionate about, fans got a bloated, overly complex checklist of Easter eggs that somehow didn’t manage to check the most important box: an actual Mortal Kombat tournament. It’s been over two decades since the last big adaptation of this property fizzled out and that long wait for the reboot resulted in another disappointment. The fans, like everyone else, deserve better.
Only Warner knows if this reboot attracted enough eyeballs to actually launch a full fledged Mortal Kombat franchise but those involved are signed on for sequels if it did. Should the numbers cause Mortal Kombat 2 to materialize there’s a built in incentive to not change the formula. If those metrics cause Warner to cut bait then the potential series will succumb to a premature fatality and the fans will be robbed of another chance to see their favorite characters on screen. It’s a no win situation.
2/10 Mortal Kombat is convoluted mess that does a grave disservice to both fans of the franchise and film lovers more broadly.