Must every cinematic property receive the extended-universe Marvel treatment now? It’s getting exhausting. The new movie adaptation of the Mortal Kombat video game is absolutely doused in the stink of the MCU, functioning more as a desperate franchise starter than a standalone film. This is a near two-hour shared origin story for longtime Mortal Kombat characters like Scorpion, Jax, and Sonya Blade (as well as the entirely new, entirely forgettable protagonist Cole Young). They spend the entire runtime learning to summon & hone their personal superpowers for the titular fight tournament, which never actually occurs; you have to wait until the next film for a proper payoff. Meanwhile, the cyborg jackass Kano sarcastically quips his way throughout the entire process to constantly remind the audience to not take its supernatural martial arts genre tropes too seriously, distancing itself from any potential for genuine nerdiness. It’s all explained-to-death and relentlessly undercut with corny “That’s so random!” humor to the point where you never really feel like the movie has actually started in earnest; it’s only the first piece in a planned 20+ film franchise, more concerned with justifying its sequels than satisfying its audience in the moment. The only MCU touchstones it’s missing are a post-credits teaser and a Stan Lee cameo.
It’s especially difficult to not look at the new Mortal Kombat film as an example of everything wrong with contemporary franchise filmmaking, since we have a clear example of how much better this same property would’ve been treated just a couple decades ago. Paul WS Anderson’s Mortal Kombat movie from 1995 only briefly introduces its central Human cast before diving headfirst into its titular fight tournament, working its story beats & character moments into the structure of a supernatural combat competition instead of delaying that payoff for another film. The 2021 version can’t help but over-explain every single step of its characters’ journey towards that competition, as if it were cowering from hack YouTube critics’ inevitable critiques of its “plot holes.” As a result, all of the film’s fun genre payoffs feel delayed & rushed, pushed out of the way to make room for the downplayed, normalizing drudgery of post-MCU franchise filmmaking. To put it in pro wrestling terms, it’s like watching an hour of promos followed by a few quick squash matches – the kind of lopsided booking that can drain a Pay-Per-View of all potential excitement no matter how may fun, crowd-pleasing payoffs are crammed into the final half-hour.
Despite the MCUification of its tone & plot structure, there were just enough over-the-top gore gags scattered throughout Mortal Kombat to make the film passably okay as dumb-fun entertainment. The film would’ve been a total disaster had it not leaned into the hyperviolence that made its arcade game source material controversial to begin with in the early 1990s, but it gets by okay. Combatants are disemboweled, sawed in half, stabbed in the skull, frozen & shattered, and just generally separated from their blood & vital organs in every way the 12-year-old hedonist still lurking in the back of your brain can imagine. It’s fun to watch. Too bad the film appears to be embarrassed of its source material’s more out-there details, so that it has to go out of its way to explain the practical reason for Scorpion’s chain-spear weapon or to have a character joke that Mortal Kombat is “spelled wrong.” By the time all that normalizing groundwork is laid out, there’s very little space left for the actual climactic fight scenes, which are edited together in a simultaneous, overlapping flood of violence that would’ve been much better served as individual action set pieces.
Maybe now that all the plot-obsessed foundational work is out of the way, the second film in this series will be able to just jump right into the ultraviolence fantasy fight tournament promised here without wasting any valuable time. It’s just a shame that we used to be able to pull that off in a single 100min goofball action movie without any concerns for appearing level-headed or respectable; now you’ve got to put up with at least an hour of eating your vegetables before you get even a small taste of the good stuff.
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