Ranking Mortal Kombat’s On-Screen Adaptations
Mortal Kombat’s colorful fighters, deep (read: ridiculous) lore, and over-the-top violence lends itself to film and TV better than most game franchises. Who doesn’t want to watch a demonic hell ninja rip the heart out of a shape-shifting wizard? That’s money baby, and Hollywood clearly agrees. The beloved franchise has a long history of spilling blood outside of the confines of video games with varying degrees of success, from the ’90s films, to an animated series, to a few live-action shows – and I’ve watched them all.
So with the new Mortal Kombat film bringing our favorite kombatants to the big screen once again, I figure I’d give my personal ranking, from worst to best, of Mortal Kombat’s on-screen adaptations. From the surprisingly awesome to the hilariously terrible, everything on this list is worth taking a even a peek at if you fancy yourself an MK enthusiast.
Honorable Mention: Mortal Kombat: Live Tour (1995)
This wasn’t a film or TV adaptation, but I’d be remiss not to mention Mortal Kombat: Live Tour. For those of you who weren’t kids in the early ’90s, I really can’t overstate how popular Mortal Kombat really was back then. Sure, it’s still a big franchise today, but it was something of a pop culture phenomenon during its early years and their 200-city traveling stage show was a prime example of that. Young MK fans flocked to conventions centers, theaters, and arenas to see their spine-ripping heroes in the flesh, who would engage in choreographed fights and martial arts demonstrations while garbed in pretty bad costumes (even for its time). It’s super cheesy, but I love watching clips of this weird thing now and again. I never got to see it live, but I’d love to know if any of you were lucky enough to have your parents drag you to watch Sub-Zero backflip to techno and laser lights.
Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
Annihilation‘s tagline of “Destroy All Expectations” may be the most prophetic in cinema history. What can you say about Mortal Kombat’s horrific sophomore film that hasn’t been said already? In short, Annihilation is an unmitigated disaster and one of the worst movies ever made. It takes everything that worked in its predecessor and uppercuts it into a spike-filled pit, trading narrative coherence for, quite literally, cheap fan service and quantity over quality. “Hey look, it’s Mileena, Ermac, and Baraka! Who the hell are they? Who cares, they’re here – and they look like trash!”
The movie recasts almost every returning character for the worst, has the lamest versions of Shao Kahn/Shinnok ever, the plot just kind of happens, and it even ruins Animalities. Seeing Liu Kang morph into a dragon should have been amazing, but the laughably bad special effects make the old Godzilla films look like they came from Weta Workshop. In the decades since its release Annihilation has only become redeeming as a “so bad it’s good” type of experience. As a kid who saw it opening night, though, it was no laughing matter and everyone watching alongside me knew we were in trouble the moment Johnny Cage bit the dust in its opening minutes.
Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins (1995)
The Journey Begins is a direct-to-video animated film that’s really only noteworthy for how laughably bad the animation is. The movie’s sole purpose was to build hype and set the table for the 1995 live-action film, focusing on the good guys’ arrival to Shang Tsung’s island. For some reason the film mixes traditional animation with fight scenes rendered in crude CG that looked terrible even by mid-’90s standards. On the flipside, though, it does provide probably the first 3D representations of the characters pre-Mortal Kombat 4. Outside of some intriguing background on Goro and his brother that I don’t think ever resurfaces in the fiction again, The Journey Begins is good for a decent laugh if you have nothing better to do for an hour. The entire film can be found on YouTube, so have at it.
Mortal Kombat: Conquest (1998)
Conquest was a live-action series that ran for one season and was basically churned out of the same daytime-TV-fantasy-show factory that spawned Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good or memorable as those shows. This largely forgotten series acts as a prequel to the franchise and stars the Great Kung Lao (legendary ancestor of the present day version), who teams up with an ex-guardsman named Siro and a thief, Taja (played by Kristanna Loken of BloodRayne movie fame).
The fearsome threesome spend 22 episodes battling Shang Tsung n’ pals as well as embarking on other random adventures at the behest of Raiden. The show tries to cash in on the popularity of the ’90s films, featuring the same visual imagery and some costume designs. It also has perhaps the second-worse-looking Shao Kahn behind Annihilation‘s incarnation. Conquest isn’t great, but it’s a totally harmless cheesefest with a surprisingly dark finale.
Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (1996)
Defenders of the Realm pulled off the impossible feat of turning this gorefest of a series into a more sanitized, family-friendly action cartoon. Officially, it serves as an alternative sequel to the first movie as well as Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 and centers on Earthrealm’s defenders doing what they do best against various invading forces. It’s not an amazing series, but it’s fine for what it is and as an MK-obsessed child, I ate this cartoon right up.
Defenders did have some good things going for it. For example, Nightwolf has an actual wolf named Kiva that can jump into his chest, giving him more power. That’s dope. It also has the least lame version of Stryker. Defenders is semi-infamous, though, for Sonya Blade’s annoying catchphrase of “Kombat time!” I think it was supposed to be endearing/cool in a Ben Grimm way, but winds up being this show’s equivalent of the Zelda cartoon’s “Excuuuse Me, Princess”
Also, here’s a fun fact: Defenders of the Realm featured the first-ever appearance of Quan-Chi, who appeared in a single episode a year before his video game debut in 1997’s Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero.
Mortal Kombat: Legacy (2011)
This intriguing web series ran for two seasons on Machinima’s YouTube channel and was spun out of a cool 2010 short film called Mortal Kombat: Rebirth. Legacy takes a chance by reimagining the fantastical series with a grittier, more grounded perspective but it still respects the source material and the elements that make Mortal Kombat great in the first place. Not all of the changes land (Raiden as an asylum inmate is a little too out there for me), but most of them are pretty cool. I especially love Legacy’s take on the origins stories for Johnny Cage, Scorpion, and Kitana/Mileena.
In a Marvel-like approach, Legacy devotes season one to introducing the characters before bringing them together for the tournament in season two. Some fans complained this approach was too slow at the time, but I enjoy Legacy’s commitment to world and character-building. The performances are solid, the fight scenes rock, and the production values are good given its scope. Well, except Shao Kahn. Seriously, why is he so hard to depict in live-action?
Anyways, season two takes a hit due to a ton of recasting that hurt the continuity; Johnny Cage’s change in performers bummed me out most. It did, however, feature Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa reprising the role of Shang Tsung on-screen, years before he did again in Mortal Kombat 11. Unfortunately, season 3 never saw the light of day despite plans to make it happen. Legacy definitely isn’t your parents’ Mortal Kombat, but it’s a bold and fascinating remix worth checking out.
Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge (2020)
Scorpion’s Revenge serves as a reimagining of the events of the first game that puts Hell’s favorite vengeful ninja front and center. The animation and character design look sharp and the performances, like Joel McHale’s Johnny Cage, are pretty good as well. The action is a blast to watch and is incredibly violent; Scorpion’s Revenge is the goriest MK adaptation by a mile. Purists may be put off by how the film takes heavy creative liberties with the established fiction (namely making Liu Kang look kind of useless), which makes me wonder if telling a Scorpion-centric story using the original tournament as a backdrop was perhaps a bad call. Still, if you’re looking for a fun way to kill 80 minutes and love you some Hanzo Hasashi, Scorpion’s Revenge is an entertaining and kick-ass martial-arts flick.
Mortal Kombat (1995)
I mean, c’mon. You knew this was topping the list even if you hadn’t read my piece gushing about all of the things this movie does right. Mortal Kombat remains the gold standard for live-action MK goodness as well as video game films in general. It captures everything that works about the games and translates them almost effortlessly to the big-screen. Sure, some aspects haven’t aged gracefully (namely the CG effects) but the film maintains the same narrative and tonal balance of the games in that it’s violent and self-serious but also completely aware, and proud, of its absurdity. Most of all, it does a great job of properly introducing newcomers to its world while still satisfying long-time fans. That’s something many adaptations still struggle to do.
Mortal Kombat crams a ton of MK goodness without going overboard, making it easy to follow and avoiding fan service bloat. The characters are well-casted (even the Hail Mary of Christopher Lambert’s Raiden), the world and atmosphere oozes MK, and the fights are awesome. And, of course, there’s that signature theme song that still resonates with fans decades later. Mortal Kombat achieves a near flawless victory that few video game films have come close to matching.
Oh, and somehow this movie still has the best live-action version of Shao Khan, which is both amazing and sad at the same time.
We’ll see where Warner Bros. Mortal Kombat ranks on this list come April, but that’s where things stand for now. But don’t just take my opinion for gospel! I’d love to hear your personal rankings as well as what Mortal Kombat adaptation is your favorite. Hit me up with your picks down in the comments!