How I Would Write a Mortal Kombat Movie Reboot
Word reached the internet the other day that the James Wan-produced Mortal Kombat movie reboot has begun pre-production, with the film eyeballing a 2021 release. That’s pretty cool news. I’m a big fan of the Mortal Kombat games, and an even bigger fan of the characters and the lore. I’ll grant you that the characters and lore have been through the wringer over the years, but there’s just something special about those palette-swapped ninjas that I will always love.
Being the creative guy that I am, I’ve decided to muse with you all about how I would write a Mortal Kombat reboot movie. I did this only once before with the potential Warcraft movie — and they didn’t follow my advice and the movie flopped. Let this be a lesson to James Wan and his people. What that lesson is, I can’t say for sure.
Anyway, the original Mortal Kombat movies are cult classics at this point. The first one is solid, but the sequel — Mortal Kombat: Annihilation — is one of those great laughing-stock movies. After that, we got that one really great fan film, which led to a pretty cool series of web-based shorts. I really enjoyed those. They were supposed to lead to a bigger movie reboot, but that never materialized. Instead, we’ve arrived at this James Wan project.
Join me after the jump for how I’d make a new Mortal Kombat movie!
This has gotten really long. There is a TL;DR at the bottom.
My Mortal Kombat movie would have one huge difference from the previous films: make Sub-Zero the star of the film.
The original movies focused on ostensible video game main character Liu Kang and the warriors of Earthrealm. The new reboot is probably going to do the same, just like they did in all the cartoons and TV adaptations. So I’m going to say what we’re all thinking: Liu Kang is boring.
He’s a generic, Bruce Lee-inspired martial arts guy, who is a goody two-shoes do-gooder who doesn’t have a complex bone in his body. And his story is also basic: heroic martial arts guy is recruited to participate in the Mortal Kombat tournament; he does and he wins.
Then you’ve got Sub-Zero, who is a million times more interesting. He’s not only a ninja, but he’s one of the classic Mortal Kombat ninjas that everybody knows. “Sub-Zero” is a known entity as part of Mortal Kombat. Nobody outside of the fans of the game know the name “Liu Kang”. Sub-Zero also has cool super-powers and an awesome ninja costume. And most importantly, Sub-Zero actually has his own personal storyline. Heck, Sub-Zero has at least three separate personal storylines that a movie could use:
- Rivalry with Scorpion.
- Escaping the Cyborg Initiative.
- Searching for his older brother.
What’s even better is that Sub-Zero can pursue those personal storylines on top of the Mortal Kombat tournament. Sub-Zero still fights in the tournament . So you can keep the main premise of the Mortal Kombat games, while delving into some even more interesting personal storylines. What personal storylines does Liu Kang have? A half-baked romance with Kitana? Boring!
Another great benefit of switching focus from Liu Kang to Sub-Zero is that you don’t lose the Asian representation. Sub-Zero is also Asian. What’s more, Sub-Zero’s supporting cast is Asian, whereas Liu Kang teams up with a bunch of Americans like Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and Jax Briggs.
Sub-Zero is Asian. The Lin Kuei are Asian (mostly). Scorpion is Asian. Noob Saibot is Asian. Frost can be Asian, if you want to use her. So a focus on Sub-Zero gives you an Asian-heavy cast, which would be great for a Mortal Kombat movie!
Alright, with all of that explanation out of the way, let’s get to the actual story that I would write.
We open with Kuai Liang, the second Sub-Zero, as a young man training at the Lin Kuei dojo in China. He’s in his early 20s and perhaps has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. We set up and get into a sparring match between Kuai and his best friend Tomas, otherwise known as Smoke. Smoke is a bit friendlier, a bit more jovial. And it’s here that we get to witness their powers and get to know both of them, while mixing in just a bit of exposition. There are rumors about a new Mortal Kombat tournament coming up and Kuai is rather bitter about how his older brother, Bi-Han, was killed in the last tournament.
While the pair are sparring, we see other Lin Kuei students watching from the sidelines, specifically Sektor and Cyrax in their human forms. They are older students, perhaps even bullies.
Eventually, Sub-Zero wins the sparring match and the Grandmaster of the Lin Kuei comes over to congratulate both of them on a good fight. He drops a bit more exposition that Kuai Liang and Smoke are two of their best up-and-coming students, and how their respective powers are unique to just them. The ice and the smoke powers are not something that’s taught but is natural to the two of them for reasons that won’t be explained. If Elsa can have ice powers without an explanation then Sub-Zero can have ice powers without an explanation.
The pair ask the Grandmaster about the tournament rumors and he invites all of the gathered students to a major announcement. We get a bit more time with Kuai and Smoke being pals as everybody gathers around a stage in the center of the camp.
The Grandmaster is on the stage, along with Sektor and Cyrax. He unloads a lot of exposition to both the students and the audience about the nature of the Mortal Kombat tournament. This can possibly be done with a special animation effect, perhaps anime or something similar. Like the tale of the Three Brothers from Harry Potter, or the flashback origin of O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill.
This explains the situation on the macro level for everybody: the various realms are separated by space/time and the peace is kept between them by the Mortal Kombat tournament, which happens every 10 years. The winner of the tournament holds a lot of power in determining the relationship between the realms. This is coveted by Shao Kahn, a new warlord emperor of Outworld, who rose to power before the previous tournament 10 years ago. This previous tournament was the first Mortal Kombat game, which will be all flashback/backstory in this movie.
In that previous tournament, it’s explained that Shao Kahn tried to win in order to give him the right to invade and conquer Earthrealm. But the lightning god Raiden put together a team of Earthrealm’s greatest warriors to oppose him. Raiden is tight with the Grandmaster, who offered Bi-Han to join Raiden’s team.
Unfortunately, Bi-Han was killed in combat by the demon Scorpion, a ninja from a rival clan who blamed Bi-Han for the death of his family. Scorpion got his revenge in the previous Mortal Kombat tournament.
Fortunately, Liu Kang defeated the reigning champion, Goro, and became the new winner. And he was able to close the passageway between realms from Shao Kahn’s invaders.
But now 10 more years have passed and there’s going to be a new tournament, and it’s going to be held in Outworld (since the last one was held in Earthrealm). Shao Kahn has spent the past decade finding and forging the greatest fighters in Outworld, determined to win this time. And Raiden is once again putting together a team of Earthrealm defenders, and he’s once again asked the Grandmaster to supply a fighter. Kuai Liang wants to enter and the Grandmaster welcomes him on stage, explaining to everybody a bit more of the backstory about the previous Sub-Zero. Kuai is definitely someone the Grandmaster is considering sending, and, in fact, he takes this moment to bestow upon Kaui the name ‘Sub-Zero’. It was already a family name, but the Grandmaster wanted to add a bit of pomp to this moment, making it really special for Sub-Zero.
However, Sub-Zero is not the only fighter the Lin Kuei is sending this year. The Grandmaster has a brand new idea: not only will he be offering Raiden multiple fighters, but he’s going to implement the Cyber Initiative! Take all of the training and skill of Lin Kuei warriors and combine it with cybernetic bodies, with enhanced strength and abilities. They will not be so easily killed, as Bi-Han was.
Two early cyber ninjas join them on stage and the crowd is pretty excited. Sektor and Cyrax then volunteer, which is why they were on the stage in the first place. Sub-Zero and Smoke, who is still in the audience, share a look of concern.
Later that night, Sub-Zero and Smoke sneak out of bed and into the robotics lab. They watch in horror as Sektor and Cyrax are cut up and transformed into cyborg slaves. Sektor goes in like a champ, but Cyrax immediately regrets the decision, and perhaps has a moment locking eyes with Sub-Zero. That’s all the confirmation Sub-Zero needs that this is a horrible idea, so he and Smoke take off — but not before being spotted by the Grandmaster.
The pair are pursued beyond the training grounds by cybernetic ninjas. At some point, Smoke gets injured and he decides to sacrifice himself to stay back and hold off the robots, so that Sub-Zero can get away. Sub-Zero doesn’t want to leave his friend, but Smoke insists that Sub-Zero still needs to get his vengeance for his brother. Besides, Smoke would weigh him down with his injury. Smoke also suggests Sub-Zero contact Raiden, who surely won’t like the whole cyborg-ninja thing.
With great reluctance, Sub-Zero is forced to abandon his best friend as he flees into the night.
Sub-Zero wanders in the woods and the mountains for a few days, unsure of where to go or how to contact anybody. Eventually he turns to prayer. Raiden is the god of thunder, right? Sure enough, Raiden answers Sub-Zero’s prayers and saves him, bringing him to the rest of the Earthrealm team.
Raiden explains that the Grandmaster has already approached him with the Cyber Initiative, and Raiden has indeed rejected it outright as being inhumane. But he adds that the Grandmaster has found his own way into Outworld, so he and his robots are already gone. Sub-Zero asks after Smoke, but Raiden doesn’t know anyone by that name.
Sub-Zero is invited onto Raiden’s Earthrealm team, which will be comprised of a bunch of game characters. Liu Kang is returning, since he’s the reigning champion. He’s 10 years older now, so perhaps in his early 30s. Joining him from the previous tournament is Sonya Blade, and new this year comes Jax, Nightwolf, Curtis Stryker and Kung Lao, who is Liu Kang’s prize pupil from the Shaolin monks. Most of these characters will just be background characters.
The key to this movie is that the Mortal Kombat tournament is going to be going on while Sub-Zero deals with his personal storylines. Heck, lots of little MK stories can be going on, we just won’t see them. Like Liu Kang’s romance with Kitana. Not a focus of the film, but it’s clearly on Liu Kang’s mind.
Anyway, the only ones of these Earthrealm characters that matter are Liu Kang, Raiden and Stryker. Liu Kang is important to the overall tournament, and he can share some memories of fighting alongside Bi-Han in the first tournament. Raiden will be there to try and convince Sub-Zero to focus on the fight for Earthrealm. And Stryker is going to be a smarmy comedic relief character who gets under Sub-Zero’s serious skin. We’ll use Stryker to needle Sub-Zero and flesh out his current state of mind a bit more. Since having to abandon Smoke, Sub-Zero’s anger has gotten worse, and he’s fueled more and more by a desire for vengeance. Stryker can taunt him about this, how Sub-Zero’s perceived enemies list just keeps getting longer, and that vengeance isn’t healthy.
Between the journey to Outworld, the opening ceremony and the first couple of fights, we’ll have Raiden explain the infrastructure of the Mortal Kombat tournament.
It’s a bracket system comprised of fighters from all the participating realms, with no particular order in place for the fights. It’s single elimination and there is no losers’ bracket. They are not fights to the death, per se, but death and even murder are entirely possible. A fight is won either through yield, true knockout or death. And even if you survive the fight, your opponent may decide to pull a Fatality and kill you afterwards anyway. The tournament doesn’t care, as long as you legit lost the fight.
Raiden will warn the Earthrealm warriors that Shao Kahn will command his Outworld warriors to kill all of their opponents, so those fights will be fights to the death.
The tournament will eventually lead to a single winner, and that winner will take on the reigning champion, Liu Kang. This will determine who oversees the realms, and having this final fight also explains the ‘boss fight’ concept from the games.
Raiden also explains that, should two fighters from the same team come up against one another, they are welcome to either fight it out or one of them can yield. The crowd wants a fight, but you’re welcome to simply forfeit/yield any fight for an automatic loss. There is also a truce in place for outside the fights. Any violence or murder outside of the sanctioned fights is grounds for the fighter’s entire realm being kicked out of the tournament. This will be important in a moment.
So we get to the tournament itself and Sub-Zero is on the lookout for both Scorpion and the Lin Kuei. This will be the chance for a lot of cameos. Shao Kahn’s team can have the likes of Baraka, Sheeva, Mileena and whoever else we want. Maybe someone new, like Kotal. Maybe Edenia has some fighters. There’ll be the Netherrealm with Scorpion. And perhaps some others. Either way, we’ll see a bunch of quick fights here and there, along with some longer fights from some characters we care about, like the Earthrealm warriors and the Lin Kuei robots, who are indeed devastating fighters.
We’ll see Sub-Zero’s first match against…I dunno, somebody who is not very important, like maybe Rain. Or if we go with one of Shao Kahn’s minions, we’ll have Sub-Zero spare them, only for Shao Kahn to kill them later on for losing. And we’ll see a match where one of Shao Kahn’s minions defeats an Earthrealm warrior and kills them. I’m thinking Kung Lao should be the one major fatality for Earthrealm, adding a little wrinkle to Liu Kang’s story.
One thing that’s important to note is that Sub-Zero has not looked at the bracket and doesn’t care. He’s so consumed with anger and a desire for vengeance at this point that he just doesn’t care about the pageantry of the tournament. He wants his revenge and he’ll fight whoever.
After his first match, Sub-Zero goes searching for Scorpion. He’s aided by a mysterious ninja in all black, who seems to be particularly interested in Sub-Zero. Noob Saibot introduces himself and explains that he lost his first match to one of the Earthrealm warriors, who spared him, so he’s free to wander about the tournament grounds. He leads Sub-Zero to Scorpion, who is all too happy to get into a fight with Sub-Zero. But Noob Saibot reminds them both of the truce. He also points out that both Sub-Zero and Scorpion are on the same side of the bracket. If they keep winning matches, they’ll eventually face-off and then Sub-Zero can get his legally sanctioned revenge. Both Sub-Zero and Scorpion are OK with this.
We see a few more matches as Sub-Zero defeats all on-comers, not bothering to learn their name or their place in the bracket. One of these fights is against Curtis Styker, with both expecting the other one to forfeit. But Stryker sees the anger in Sub-Zero and backs off, getting in another dig at how unhinged Sub-Zero seems. Eventually Sub-Zero gets to fight Scorpion, and he’s a ball of rage at this point. This will be the center-point of the movie, as Sub-Zero finally gets to taste the vengeance that he’s sought since the start of the movie. He lets his rage fly as he taunts Scorpion about Bi-Han and eventually kills the demon, freezing Scorpion solid and shattering his body. It’s the first real fatality/kill from any of the Earthrealm warriors, which is pretty shocking.
More so than that, it does nothing to help quench Sub-Zero’s need for vengeance.
He’s still angry, he’s still lost; and Noob Saibot finds him and explains that vengeance is never as fulfilling as we think it will be. Revenge is empty. It does nothing to make up for what was lost. Surely Sub-Zero can be fighting for something else. Raiden would like him to fight for Earthrealm, but Sub-Zero doesn’t care about that.
What does he even have left without his vengeance?!
Noob Saibot has an idea, and he takes Sub-Zero to a secret meeting spot, where the two of them hide in the shadows to spy on a secret meeting (much like Sub-Zero and Smoke spied from the shadows at the start of the film). The meeting is between Shao Kahn and the Grandmaster, where we learn a startling truth: the Cyber Initiative is part of a larger plan for Shao Kahn’s invasion of Earthrealm! The Grandmaster has been promised power and prestige when Shao Kahn conquers Earth, and in exchange, he’s given Shao Kahn an army of robo-ninjas! The plan is to have at least one of the cyber ninjas win the tournament, ostensibly for Earthrealm. Then in the spirit of cooperation, Liu Kang will forfeit the championship fight to a fellow Earthrealm citizen, confident that Shao Kahn and Outworld will have been stopped. But what they won’t know is that the Lin Kuei have secretly switched sides and now fight on behalf of Shao Kahn and Outworld! So Liu Kang will be tricked into forfeiting to Outworld!
Impassioned by a sudden need to stop this, Sub-Zero rushes to Raiden to warn him. The thunder god is truly dismayed by this, but there’s nothing in the rules to say that the Lin Kuei can’t switch sides mid-tournament, and as long as those in charge know, then it’s not like the fighters have to declare it publicly or anything. So exposing them won’t mean all that much. It would be better to simply shut this scheme down in the tournament.
So it’s fortunate that Sub-Zero is in the championship fight. All he has to do is defeat the Lin Kuei’s best fighter and the plan will be thwarted. Raiden tells Sub-Zero that he even knows the other fighter, as Raiden remembers Sub-Zero asking about him earlier…
This is why Sub-Zero never looked at the brackets. We didn’t want him to know what was coming for him! Sub-Zero is, obviously, shocked.
It’s the final fight of the tournament, and everybody believes it is between two Earthrealm fighters, so all the good guys think they’ve already won. Sub-Zero and Smoke both know the truth as they step into the ring. But Sub-Zero won’t fight. Even though he knows what hangs in the balance, he won’t fight his best friend.
And it’s here we see his anger start to fade. We learn that his anger wasn’t based in his vengeance. He was angry at himself for abandoning Smoke at the start of the movie. He could have stayed and died with his friend or helped him some other way, instead he fled. Now, face-to-face with what has become of Smoke, Sub-Zero can’t fight him and gets his butt whooped. But as he’s losing, he tries to get through to Smoke, to bring his friend back. It seems hopeless, but there’s a spark of something there…And when Smoke is declared the victor, Smoke refuses the Grandmaster’s order to kill Sub-Zero.
Smoke isn’t completely won over, as he explains to the Grandmaster that killing Sub-Zero would mean Sub-Zero couldn’t be converted into a robot. The Grandmaster accepts this explanation. Sub-Zero is carted off by his Earthrealm friends to get medical aid.
Now it’s time for the championship fight: Liu Kang vs. Smoke for mastery of the realms. Earthrealm vs. Outworld. Liu has been filled in on the switcheroo, so it’s no longer a secret that Smoke and the Lin Kuei fight for Shao Kahn. Liu Kang gives it his all, but the robotic ninja seems to have the upper hand…
Until a wounded Sub-Zero limps back into the arena!
He doesn’t interfere in the fight, but from the stands, Sub-Zero continues his appeal to Smoke! He struggles with the pain and the injuries, going so far as to ice up some of his wounds, just to be a badass. Now Sub-Zero risks his own health to try and reach Smoke’s buried humanity…and he succeeds! Smoke is able to throw off his programming and become himself again, and he readily yields to Liu Kang.
Earthrealm wins! Outworld is pissed! But the rules are the rules. Sub-Zero grabs Smoke and Raiden gets them all out of there before Shao Kahn and Outworld come for them!
In the end, Sub-Zero continues to help Smoke regain his humanity, like a ninja version of Robocop. The two of them then team up to go after and shut down the Cyber Initiative. Sub-Zero has overcome his anger and his need for vengeance. He no longer has that chip on his shoulder. He’s found something to fight for, one of the most surprising parts of Mortal Kombat: Friendship.
Also in the end, Noob Saibot reports back to his boss in the Netherrealm, Shinnok! We see Shinnok meeting with both Noob and a revived Scorpion in the Netherrealm, where Shinnok congratulates Noob for his good work sabotaging Shao Kahn’s efforts. Shinnok has his own plans for Raiden and the Earthrealm.
Shinnok also reveals that Noob Saibot is…Bi-Han! Dun dun dun!
And that’s my idea! Sub-Zero goes on a journey of personal growth to get over his anger and vengeance and settle into a happy friendship with his best friend, all while participating in a crazy martial arts tournament featuring robots, ninjas, monks, monsters and more!
TL;DR: Make it about the second Sub-Zero. He’s an angry fighter seeking vengeance against Scorpion for the death of his older brother in an earlier tournament. He flees the Lin Kuei when they implement the Cyber Initiative, and he’s forced to leave behind his best friend Smoke. Sub-Zero joins up with Raiden and the Earthrealm Warriors going to the tournament. Sub-Zero fights Scorpion in the tournament, but it doesn’t quench his thirst for vengeance. When Sub-Zero discovers that the Lin Kuei plans to win the tournament for Shao Kahn, he’s forced to take on their champion: Robo-Smoke. Sub-Zero doesn’t fight his friend and instead helps Smoke overcome his programming and free his human soul. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, and Sub-Zero has found that Friendship is a better motivation than vengeance.