Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Mortal Kombat takes itself seriously now, and we're missing the "so bad it's good" days

Mortal Kombat 1 is so vigorously earnest that it leaves us pining for the pure fun of 1995's Mortal Kombat movie

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Mortal Kombat 2021 (Warner Bros., Max), Mortal Kombat 1995 (Warner Bros., Max), Mortal Kombat 1 (NetherRealm Studios)
Mortal Kombat 2021 (Warner Bros., Max), Mortal Kombat 1995 (Warner Bros., Max), Mortal Kombat 1 (NetherRealm Studios)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

The 1995 Mortal Kombat movie has never been regarded as a good film, but there was at least something perversely appealing about it. Rather than trying to class it up beyond its origins or tell some kind of new story with vague Mortal Kombat-y aesthetics, director Paul W.S. Anderson just kind of took all of the things people would want to see in a Mortal Kombat movie and did all of it—comprehensibility and limitations of special effects technology be damned. The result is a movie that, despite pretty much everything about it, just kinda rips. It’s one of the definitive examples of “so bad it’s good.” Or it was in 1995, and that continued to be true until the last couple of years, when Mortal Kombat decided to grow up.

2019’s Mortal Kombat 11 video game marked an exciting turning point for the franchise after a couple of increasingly well-received entries, with all of the iconic characters you’d want to see, some new delightfully violent Fatality moves, and a time-traveling story mode that reckoned with the silliness of Mortal Kombat without turning the whole thing into a lazy joke. Then, Simon McQuoid’s 2021 Mortal Kombat movie pulled the same trick as the original film, doing the same “here’s everything you want out of something called Mortal Kombat” move but with more competent effects and a little less cheese. If nothing else, that movie will hold up a little better than the 1995 movie.


Now, NetherRealm Studios is releasing Mortal Kombat 1, a reboot/prequel of sorts that seems to fully take the Mortal Kombat mythology seriously. In order to know what’s happening in this game, and why series star Liu Kang has gone from a regular guy to the zombie king of Hell to the all-powerful god of fire, you actually need to know what’s been going on in these games for the past decade. That’s a far cry from the days of just picking which color ninja you prefer and mashing the buttons in hopes of taking somebody’s head off, and it seems to indicate that the series has evolved past the days when “so bad it’s good” was good enough. Now it aspires to actually be good.

Mortal Kombat 1 - Official Announcement Trailer

But is it really any different? In Anderson’s Mortal Kombat movie, they throw more exposition at the viewer than you ever got in the games at the time, but the details don’t really matter. There’s an inter-dimensional martial arts tournament, the good guys are mostly regular humans and one all-powerful deity who wants to help but can only do so much, and the bad guys are mostly magic monsters. Mortal Kombat 1, the video game, is technically about the exact same thing. And since Scorpion and Sub-Zero are among the most iconic video game characters ever, they’re still in the game and you can still just pick which color ninja you prefer and mash buttons until someone gets their head knocked off.


Mortal Kombat is still Mortal Kombat, which is part of why the newer games have been so good. Very little about the formula has changed, it’s just that technology and modern game designers have caught up to the wacky characters and heavily stylized violence that the games were always going for. It’s like how superhero movies got good when the people making them stopped being embarrassed and started embracing why superhero stories were popular in the first place. The current Mortal Kombat games are good because they’re just trying to do Mortal Kombat as well as they can.

The McQuoid movie was like that too, even if it wasn’t quite as well-reviewed as MK11 and MK1. But is there any room left in the hearts of Mortal Kombat fans for the old Anderson movie? After all, superhero fans don’t really look back fondly on the more embarrassing cinematic entries in their genre, so why bother reminiscing about the thing where Scorpion’s spear is a snake that comes out of his hand and four-armed warrior Goro is some kind of puppet and Christopher Lambert plays immortal thunder god Rayden (not Raiden, as it’s spelled in the game) like he’s in a weird karate stoner comedy. We’ve seen that Mortal Kombat can be good now! MK11 and MK1 are no less silly than other things in the franchise, but they actually make sense out of this saga of colored ninjas and guys with multiple arms and guys with swords in their arms and women with evil magic hair … or at least they put in the effort to try.

But what good is being good anyway? The franchise has grown up and gotten more legitimate, but the thing about the old Mortal Kombat movie is that it still rips. It still captures a specific moment in time for video game fandom, when it was enough to just put Scorpion in a movie and you’d end up with a pretty good movie. No other movies had Scorpion at the time, and very few have had Scorpion since. Mortal Kombat takes itself relatively seriously now, but there’s no point in pretending that was always the case.