Mortal Kombat has been, from the very beginning, an exceedingly simple idea. Two characters on each side of the screen punch the holy hell out of each other. And early on, in the era of the original trilogy, half the characters were just color swapped versions of one another. It didn’t have to be remotely complicated. But from the snippets of intro that played before the game, and the information in the instruction manual, players were able to piece together an actual story behind the fighting and found that information to be shockingly endearing and intricate. These color swapped ninjas? They had a complex feud reaching back hundreds of years. Every character had a backstory, often tragic, always interesting. For all its fighting game simplicity, the world of Mortal Kombat proved to be especially rich, right out of the gate.
The film adaptation cemented all of that. It is, for my money, the best video game adaptation of all time because it nails that world and those characters while also telling a singular story about an unlikely group of heroes who each have something to prove, fighting for the sake of the world. It’s pure blockbuster popcorn entertainment. It doesn’t go too deep into many of the characters, but it doesn’t really have the room to. And that’s basically the problem with any attempt to do a Mortal Kombat movie from here on out. There are so many different characters with different agendas from literal different worlds, that balance is almost impossible to maintain.
But under the Mortal Kombat banner, there are worlds within worlds. Not only are there so many characters who could carry their own franchise, but there are so many groups of characters with specific relationships to (and vendettas against) one another, that this is one of the rare, rare cases in which a cinematic universe might actually be the best and most feasible way to bring any of these stories to life on the big screen. Even the original Mortal Kombat didn’t have room to depict the complicated rivalry between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, but could that rivalry support a film of its own? Absolutely.
With that in mind, here are several stories within the Mortal Kombat universe that could make for great movies.
Sub-Zero would be a perfect starting point, as he’s one of the most well known characters and also starred in the first spinoff game, Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero. Naturally, this film would have to center on the rivalry between he and Scorpion, as it’s the most well known feud in the Mortal Kombat universe. Scorpion blames Sub-Zero for the death of his wife and child, murders that Sub-Zero has no memory of committing, so he massacres Sub-Zero’s clan, the Lin Kuei, in retaliation. This spurns a hatred that lasts years and years, and the film could even track different time periods, for that matter.
But when confronted with the evidence, Sub-Zero has to confront the fact that he might have done this, he might be responsible, only for both warriors to eventually learn that they were tricked by the sorcerer Quan-Chi so that he could lead two powerful ninja clans to simply wipe each other out without having to lift a finger to do it himself. That’s what ultimately makes this misguided feud so endearing: after years wasted on revenge and so much blood spilled, neither one of them is responsible for what happened to the other. As far as a director is concerned, James Mangold has more than proven himself capable of bringing a personal, emotional core to extremely violent fantasy storytelling.
Naturally, that could launch us directly into a Scorpion film. And the prospect of a spinoff for Mortal Kombat’s most famous character after a movie in which he’s effectively the villain could have so much potential. Imagine a film about an undead ninja that takes us from earth to hell and back again. Now that he knows the truth, now that he’s learned that he was made a puppet to serve the one who killed his family when he thought he was avenging their name, Scorpion could literally track Quan-Chi to the Gates of Hell to make him answer for what he’s done. With the seamless blend of horror and action this would call for—and the fact that he was on board to produce the last attempt at a movie—James Wan would be the perfect director for this one.
Outside Scorpion and Sub-Zero, the most powerful rivalry in Mortal Kombat might be the one between Princess Kitana and her twin sister, Mileena. When Shao Kahn invaded Edenia and murdered Kitana’s father to become Emperor, he knew the girl would never forgive him and never serve him as loyally as he wanted, so he commissioned a clone—Mileena—who would. Raised as sisters and trained as assassins, there would be a rift forming between them as Kitana realizes they’re in service to genocide. They care for one another, but Mileena’s only joy comes from killing. She loves it. And the idea of re-imagining the “princess flees home for a new world” story for Kitana is deeply appealing. This could be one part Coming to America and one part The Fugitive as Kitana is tracked through Earthrealm by her sister who’s been ordered to take her down. Coralie Fargeat brought such a stylistic eye for action to Revenge that she would be absolutely perfect for this.
With so many literal gods and monsters in the Mortal Kombat universe, there’s room for a grounded approach as well. That’s where characters like Jax and Sonya Blade come in. A movie about the two of them, possibly just as they’re thrown into working together—as almost all adaptations have picked up with them already being old friends—tracking the Black Dragon organization to bring down the crime boss Kano, that’s an easy movie to imagine. Bonus points for bringing in an unlikely witness to the Black Dragon’s crime in disgraced celebrity Johnny Cage, who’s forced to help with their investigation, laying the seeds for the MK world’s most unlikely yet endearing romance. As for a director, everything about this film feels entirely within David Ayer’s wheelhouse.
A film about the Lin Kuei clan as a whole doesn’t sound all that intriguing on paper, but it undergoes a shift over the course of the second and third games that could definitely make for an endearing film. The main character would this time be the younger Sub-Zero, training alongside a new generation of ninjas, including his close friend Smoke, as well as Cyrax and Sektor, who are unquestionably loyal to the clan. When the clan decides to undergo a literal transformation to force their soldiers to be given a cybernetic upgrade, Cyrax and Sektor volunteer without question while Sub-Zero and Smoke try to run. Sub-Zero escapes, Smoke does not, and so he finds himself being hunted down by his closest friend, who has now been turned into an android. With all the questions of technological advancements in combat training—relevant for a world in which we actually are doing weird shit like building robot soldiers—Paul Verhoeven would naturally be the perfect choice, but he’s also eighty years old. Leigh Whannell, on the other hand, gave us the incredible Upgrade touching on all of these themes, and a movie like this would let him expand on those ideas and get real weird with them at the same time.
The best episode of the Mortal Kombat Legacy web-series revolved around a man in a mental institution claiming to be the Thunder God Raiden. There was so much going on in that ten minute short that almost aches for a feature film. Imagine an Immortal being choosing to be mortal for a day or a week, but unable to convince anyone of it and beginning to doubt it himself the longer he stays in a weakened mortal body. Naturally, he’d have to try and reclaim his power, or regain his access to it, in order to confront an outside threat—in this case, the diabolical Elder God Shinnok would make the most sense. Essentially, this movie would be a combination of the first Thor and a distinctly Mortal Kombat take on Neil Gaiman’s Death: The High Cost of Living. Just through his work on Legion alone, Noah Hawley would be an excellent choice to helm this.
Imagine a Conan-esque movie about Goro as an aging warlord who has long since succumbed to his own pride. Goro is not a good person, Goro is an arrogant ruler, and he doesn’t want to admit that there could be outside threats he’s not aware of or even treason within his own Shokan kingdom, as Sheeva makes an alliance with Baraka and his Tarkatan assassins to strike a treaty, usurp Goro and claim the throne for herself. Joe Carnahan would be a perfect director for this one, able to take an alpha male hypermasculine character and make something that doesn’t celebrate those aspects of the character, but portrays them bluntly and severely, with a slightly satirical edge.
It would be jarring to do a series of Mortal Kombat universe movies without including the character so widely recognized as the hero of the saga—at least in the early games and movies—that of course being Liu Kang. A film centering on his training alongside his mentor Kung Lao, as he struggles to overcome his doubts and the pressure that comes from being told you’re destined to save the entire world, could be amazing. Honestly, a younger Liu would even make total sense for this. Someone unsure of himself and in totally over his head. The film could lay the seeds for his eventual fight with Shang Tsung in the tournament while drawing both Liu and Kung Lao into battle with Shao Kahn’s other in-house sorcerer, Ermac. With Liu having proven himself ready for the fight ahead, Shang Tsung kills Kung Lao in retaliation for Ermac, setting up Liu Kang’s quest for revenge. The Raid’s Gareth Evans would be a great choice to helm this one.
With all of the seeds in place, the ensemble film does not have to do any heavy lifting other than bringing the audience up to speed. These intricate arcs don’t have to be told in full or in flashback because we’ve seen them. And now the movie actually focusing on the Mortal Kombat tournament doesn’t feel like a straightforward remake and actually feels like an event, as it should. On the sides of both Earth and Outworld, we have characters bringing their own baggage to the table, who don’t know how to interact with one another and have to learn to get along to either save the world or allow it to be devastated by the Outworld Empire. For a fresh energy, ability to handle an ensemble of wildly different personalities, but with a clear eye for action that this needs, let’s give the flagship film to Ben Wheatley.