In the interest of not dragging out these reviews one by one, I’m doing what I did with Wonder Woman 84 and Soul last year and combining this year’s Mortal Kombat movie with the second MCU series Falcon and Winter Soldier.
Mortal Kombat 2021
I review this film not as a fan of Mortal Kombat but more as an observer of the series. The fighting game genre has never gelled with me as an appealing side to gaming though I can understand why others would latch onto it. A series of one on one battles between either a computer opponent or someone real on the other side grew very repetitive as I played through the tenth Mortal Kombat title and Injustice 2 (MK but with DC characters). It’s more fun for me to watch other more in-the-know kind of gamers play through these titles and master them like Youtuber Maximillian Dood.
When it comes to my understanding of the stories, lore and characters of the Mortal Kombat game universe, I gleaned most of it from watching the cutscenes for the three contemporary entries in the series which act as soft reboot after the series lost the plot around the seventh game in 2006. Mortal Kombat 2011 or MK9, Mortal Kombat X in 2015 and Mortal Kombat 11 in 2019 are surprisingly enjoyable as viewing experiences, with a workable tone of cheesy self seriousness that never gets too grim for its own good despite how grim the violence can be.
Of course, there is also the pioneering violence of the series itself that made controversial waves so big with its debut in 1991 that it led to the creation of the ESRB rating, the game equivalent to the MPAA for film. By current standards, the original three MKs are tame. The MKs of the modern era are anything but, borderline if not simply disturbing half the time, only tempered by how impossible most of that violence is to perform in real life.
For the sake of the squeamish, I won’t give details on the fatalities, brutalities or x-ray moves which helped propel Mortal Kombat to becoming once again one of the headlining fighting games of the past decade. Another great appeal was the colorful roster of guest fighters that were added to the mix.
MK9 had Kratos from God of War and Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. MKX gave us the Alien, the Predator, Jason Vorhees and Leatherface. MK11 was the most crowd-pleasing by including the Terminator, Robocop, The Joker, Spawn and Rambo. The actor who played the villainous sorcerer Shang Tsung in the original 1995 Mortal Kombat movie, Cary-Hiroyuki-Tagawa, reprised the character for MK11 in both appearence and voice. Neat.
But enough about that. How does a relative Mortal Kombat fan who doesn’t actually play the games think of the cinematic reboot for what some argue is maybe-sorta the best adaptation of a video game? It’s….fine, I guess.
I wasn’t expecting much and the track record for video game movie adaptations continues to be abysmal. There are some exceptions but they are often as animated television, not as feature length movies. The Netflix Castlevania series has been great for not one, not two but three seasons thus far and based on what I have heard and glimpsed at, the anime adaptations for Persona 3 and 4 are mostly good as well. It’s not an impossibility to make something good out of a video game’s narrative and world, but it’s a shame it’s taken so long to have more than the bare minimum.
Is Mortal Kombat 2021 another case of the bare minimum rather than going beyond the low expectations that we’ve been conditioned to by this point?
To an extent, yeah. The two redeeming aspects for this movie that I think does it make it worth watching( assuming the violence isn’t a deal-breaker) is the mostly good fight choreography, especially with the climatic duel between eternal revenant rivals Scorpion and Sub Zero and Josh Lawson’s performance as Kano.
Kano was one of the seven original fighters from the first Mortal Kombat game, a red laser-eyed mercenary with few scruples if any and a penchant for knife-fighting. His Australian characterization in the original Mortal Kombat movie became a retroactive staple of the game character and he’s been a ruthless Aussie criminal ever since.
Lawson does the remarkable job of making the film’s resident asshole character the most relatable and enjoyable figure in the proceedings. This is due to him being the only figure in the movie to remark and laugh at the overly serious framing of the out-there premise he finds himself embroiled in.
That premise is thus: Earth-realm(our plane of existence, of course) is about to lose the last of ten Mortal Kombat tournaments against Outworld, an alien plane of existence ruled by the barbaric Shao Kahn. As laid out by the Elder Gods, If Earth-realm wins even one of those tournaments, Outworld cannot magically invade and absorb our plane into theirs. That’s the basic gist straight out of the series. Shang Tsung, now portrayed by Chin Han, wants to cheat the rules and guarantee victory early by getting his henchmen, lead by the undead Chinese warrior Sub Zero, to search out and kill the destined champions for Earth-realm.
You got all that? I ain’t repeating it. This film is overly expository as it is.
Anyway, Earth-realm champions are determined by being born with a birthmark that is shaped like the MK Dragon, the series icon. One of those champions is Cole Young, a brand new character meant to be audience surrogate but as so many have pointed out, doesn’t really succeed in doing so. It’s on account of him being a boring, two dimensional dude. The only cool thing about him is his heritage: Being the descendent of the Mortal Kombat series’ mascot: Scorpion.
The current developer of the games, NetherRealm Studios, officially puts the guy on their logo and company head/series co-founder Ed Boon, has him as his “main”, which stands for the character he regularly plays with.
Cole is also a family man and mixed martial artist, but whatever, the aforementioned Kano, through his Aussie demeanor and constant jabbing at the silliness of what he’s gotten involved in works better at easing newcomers into the world.
The birthmarks signify more than that you have been supernaturally chosen to fight in the tournament, they also mean you have an “arcana”. When I think of arcanas, I think of tarot cards and their symbolic power, as demonstrated in the Persona games. Here, they mean you have super-powers that will give you a chance against the much more powerful denizens of Outworld like the four-armed brute Goro( who is wasted here, thank you very much).
Another way of explaining it is like mutant powers in Marvel’s X-Men or the meta-gene in DC’s comic universe. Another cool feature of these arcana birthmarks is that if the person with an arcana dies, the killer gets the birthmark and they in turn activate their own arcanas. That’s convenient I’d say. Many fan favorite characters like Sonya, Kano and Jax receive theirs in this manner with Jax’s in particular being a real head-scratcher over the circumstances of what those powers are in context. For the lay-man’s sake, I’ll just say that the internal logic of this interpretation of the Mortal Kombat universe is hardly spotless.
It was never a deal-breaker and I was more invested in the whole thing than I thought I would be. I was initially considering skimming through it to the good parts( the fighting what else) but sat through the whole experience. It’s not a terribly long film, clocking under two hours so even the stuff character-and-plot wise that is lesser doesn’t linger for long.
That being said, I will understand those who do indeed skim to the parts you are wanting to see and for fans who are looking for fan-service, you might just choke on it. The references and vocal call-backs to the games can be so on the nose and obviously pandering, it’s almost like getting punched in the game itself. Hearing out loud “FATALITY!”, “FLAWLESS VICTORY!” and other game quotes was not so much endearing as distracting from making this a more grounded adaptation that can appeal to a casual audience.
The MCU is more careful about featuring obvious lines from the comics meant to appease comic-readers, often saving the good stuff for the right moment, like Cap finally proclaiming “Avengers Assemble” at the last moment.
The one moment of vocal fan-service that I did like involved, unsurprisingly, Kano saying “Kano wins!” followed by a very Australian expletive after his first fight. It could also have been the manner of how Lawson said it that worked out too. The visual reference to the games that I got a kick out of is featured in the header image for the review, that of a shot of Scorpion and Sub-Zero preparing to duke it out that is framed like the start of a round of Mortal Kombat.
It does help my opinion that the final battle of MK 2021 is the best filmed with Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s battle being the most enjoyable and successful at capturing the visceral nature of the games. It also feels like a supernatural version of a ninja vs ninja battle from Cannon-Globus’ gloriously dumb Ninja trilogy of movies. The climax’s environment reminds me of the indoor arena from the conclusion of Enter the Ninja, though if it was iced over by Mr. Freeze.
If you’re not a fan of Mortal Kombat, I seriously doubt this will do much to make you one or have you try out any of the games. Like myself, you might come to like them by watching via YouTube, the cutscenes for the modern trilogy of games. If I was to recommend anything really worth seeing, it would be skipping to the Kano scenes and the Scorpion v Sub-Zero brawl. The latter could honestly be cut out of the film and made into an awesome short film all its own.
Yes, I would say Mortal Kombat (2021) is a victory, though with plenty of issues to iron out should there be follow ups. Based on the commercial success, both from the big and small screens, perhaps greater victories for a cinematic Mortal Kombat remain possible.
The Falcon and Winter Soldier
I was delayed, or so I tell my lazy self, in getting around to ‘the Sam and Bucky show’ portion of this double feature due to getting my second Covid shot, which as expected, was much rougher to get through then the first. I also took a longer time to think through how I would compare it to Marvel’s first canon TV series set in the MCU: Wandavision.
I think across the board I do prefer Falcon and Winter Soldier over Wandavision and part of it is not just necessarilly to it being better in my opinion but for personal biases based on my experience with the MCU.
Take for example the duo leads for each series. Wandavision has in the title Wanda Maximoff and the Vision, two Avengers who were featured in Avengers 2, 3, 4 and Captain America 3 as part of a large ensemble cast. I don’t believe they were underfeatured and were quite important to the events of Age of Ultron and Infinity War in particular, but they weren’t quite as in focus as Sam Wilson ala the Falcon and Bucky Barnes ala the Winter Soldier.
Sebastian Stan’s Bucky first appeared nearly a decade ago in the first Captain America film while Anthony Mackie’s Sam began his MCU period with the second. Both in and out of the comics, they were Steve Rogers Captain America’s sidekicks and more importantly best friends outside of any other Avengers member. Bucky was all that remained of Steve’s distant past and Sam represented his new present and future.
Being connected to one of the most significant figures of the first era of the Marvel cinematic universe naturally made Sam and Bucky more dynamic for myself than Wanda and Vision. Sure, Wanda entered the picture to initially get revenge on Tony Stark for his past life’s sins while Vision was an evolution of Stark’s AI butler Jarvis. But the Wanda/Vision connections to Tony was more removed than being directly connected to Rogers that Sam and Bucky were and as their new show proves, still are.
Ever since Captain America Civil War forced Sam and Bucky to be begrudging comrades-in-arms back in 2016, it seemed natural that the two would have some amount of involvement down the line. Temporary erasure from existence couldn’t hold off their passive aggressive bromance forever. At the end of Chris Evans’ run as Cap, now a really old man thanks to wibbly wobbly-timey wimey reasons, he gives the shield to Sam, the man he thinks that can carry that weight. For a long, long time.
Bucky, due to his Manchurian candidate trauma, is quite alright with the outcome. A year or so has passed and the world is coping with having half its population returned thanks to the Avengers and friends on top of all the new people that were born in the five year gulf of time. Despite a legendary victory against Thanos in Endgame, the new world had a honeymoon period. It’s over and now someone has to get back to both protecting our asses and figuring out new problems.
The exact nature of the Avengers as it now stands is curiously never addressed. Sam continues being the Falcon assisting the Air Force on covert ops and Bucky is making amends for all the terrible actions of his brainwashed Winter Soldier days while also attending mandatory therapy, lest he end up back in a secure cell. Just because you save the entire universe doesn’t mean you’re free of your obligations nor your past.
Sam and Bucky are brought back together for two crises that ultimately become intertwined: the rise of an anarchist group known as the Flag-Smashers and someone else taking up the shield and mantle of Captain America despite Wilson’s explicit desire for that to not happen.
I will say that when it comes to the politics of Falcon and Winter Soldier, I am still not certain how well it meshes as a whole with either my worldview or a worldview that is honest enough about the dark realities of the 21st century.
Of course, the return of roughly 3-4 billion people and figuring out how to help them isn’t really an issue parallel to any real life one, that’s more a matter of its own universe. It can still be allegorical to the ethics or lack thereof for contemporary immigration and settlements policy, namely for America’s southern border.
I was finding myself, as the show did intend, sympathizing with Karli Morganthau and the Smashers’ views on how the GRC( Global Resettlement Council) was causing more harm than good and how perhaps the rules of the world that Thanos’ purge created made their world better and farther away from self destruction than ever before. For all the lives the Avengers restored, a whole many more lives have and may be ruined in the process.
An area of criticism I remain split on for FAWS is if the Flag-Smashers and Karli’s motivations/goals are cogent enough. On the one hand, what the GRC is doing would incite some kind of negative retaliation and Sam & Bucky themselves recognize that their opponents are not as starkly evil like with Hydra or Thanos.
It does boil down on some level to the “good intentions” dilemma of other sympathetic villains of the past but I do wonder if this show’s politics does harm to the real life sentiment that is steadily growing of resisting an unfavorable status quo.
Superheroes, in spite of their genuine heroic attributes, are often criticized for being figures that perpetuate consciously or not many of the systems that give rise to the issues that create their enemies. Iron Man and especially Batman have become figures that are much harder for me to reconcile my enjoyment for in light of the nefarious things they may be defending, intentional or otherwise.
Falcon and Winter Soldier is a Marvel show that wears its balance of featuring black and white ideals clashing with grey reality on its sleeve and the self-assuredness it has in it’s tonal approach can be oddly relieving despite being possibly the darkest entry in the entire cinematic universe, if also the most violent. It’s safe to say that no other MCU property comes as close to an R rating as it does here.
The character of Zemo, the antagonist of Cap 3: Civil War is the best example of Falcon and Winter Soldier exploring a non-binary approach to morality. Despite being one of Steve Rogers’ greatest comic villains, having successfully divided the Avengers albeit temporarily and being revealed as a baron like in the comics( When’s the last time a baron was ever not a bad guy in fiction?), Zemo isn’t a villain in regards to this series.
You could argue he is a criminal anti-hero, anti-villain or not a hero period. But he is not the main antagonist or even a antagonist like I was expecting. He commits an action midway through the series that honestly could be framed as genuinely heroic. Yes, many of his other actions remain unheroic, but his philosophy of being anti-superhero is not flatly condemned by any character or by the show. I don’t think it much a spoiler to say that Zemo won’t end the age of superheroics in spite of his deeply personal convictions against them, but to the show’s credit they do have him be a convincing mouthpiece against power, no matter who uses it.
One area of subject matter that Falcon and Winter Soldier excels at comes through giving us a deep dive into who Sam Wilson is in a way never really seen in any earlier appearence. That’s quite important if he eventually becomes the new Captain America and more importantly the MCU’s new Captain America.
We see his family based out in everyone’s favorite part of the United States: swampy, humid Louisiana, complete with a fishing boat. I don’t know much about Sam’s comic background but it is curious that here he shares the same state of origin as another up and coming MCU hero: Monica Rambeau, as seen in Captain Marvel and Wandavision.
It’s here that we see that the MCU is not a more egalitarian society than ours. 2018’s Black Panther already exposed that the MCU’s Earth’s racial history is indistinct from ours and the villain of that entry was a violent representation of the consequences of that unfortunate reality persisting.
Again, you can be on the front lines of saving the earth multiple times as well as the universe, it can’t change the racist history of the past or the implied, systemic racism of the present. You can be an Avenger, Captain America’s best friend and yet.
It’s infuriating, but based on what I know of the world we live in, it is also unsurprising. A more cynical deconstruction of the modern representation of superheroes, The Boys, an adaptation of Garth Ennis’ venomous critique of the superhero comics’ industry, has a guy called A-Train.
A-Train, both in terms of his actor’s appearence and the goggles he uses, looks remarkably like Mackie. While he is part of the Seven, a morally corrupt, corporate superhero team( the most likely outcome of a real life Justice League/Avengers sadly), A-Train is also the victim of modern day implicit racism like Wilson of the MCU.
A scene from the 1st season of the Boys has him at a clothing store for a reason I’ve forgotten since I last saw that episode when it first premiered on Amazon Prime( It’s great if you can tolerate the very mature content and tone). A nearby cop begins to harass him in spite of being a world famous superhero whose popular perception despite the very sad reality being good. It doesn’t matter, “arguing while black“, in a way that does not whatsoever suggest violence will happen, can get you a visit from a boy in blue. You don’t have to have a black character be a paragon of virtue, let alone to the same high standard as Sam’s, to find that messed up.
A similar moment happens when Sam and Bucky get into a heated but again, not violent argument, following a moment that would be soul-crushing for me if I were in the former’s shoes. A cop car pulls up, and the officers immediately come to the conclusion that Sam is trying to instigate something bad even though they likely wouldn’t notice if it were two white dudes doing the same thing.
The reasons for why cops have and continue to pull these stunts range from a paranoid viewpoint they are instructed to follow( watch John Oliver’s police segment that showcases that training) to finding an excuse to exercise power unethically because they know they can get away with it. Again, who’s side will most take?
Following the George Floyd protests of last year and the hopefully landmark Derek Chauvin trial verdict, we might be leaning towards a wider and wiser skepticism of the police side of things, but for the time being, depictions of fictional black superheroes being mistreated is unfortunately a believable thing to showcase.
The moment that got Sam and Bucky almost in hot water with some Baltimore cops until one of them recognized who the former was them meeting Isaiah Bradley, the second Captain America, not that anyone publicly knew that.
An African American marine during the Korean war was given along with many of his segregated unit the super soldier serum that Steve was given. Only Isaiah was the one who succeeded in surviving the process. They dropped him into the war torn ruins of South Korea and had a chance encounter with Bucky as the Winter Soldier. Being a super soldier was enough for him to survive and report his success to the US military.
In return, 30 years of experiments in a prison to see why he not only survived but if it could be duplicated for the future. It’s not like Isaiah had any say in the matter and it left him a broken man with the most sour view imaginable on what America really is to people like himself and Sam.
What makes Isaiah’s fictional plight so painfully understandable is that America actually did unethical experimentation on African Americans without their consent all for the sake of improving public health, ostensibly. Ever heard of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments? Well, it would be best for all our sakes if you did learn about them.
If there is a subject of debate that I believe Falcon and Winter Soldier successfully follow through on alongside its commentary on race, it is it’s musings on power and who does and does not deserve it. Tying back to the first Captain America film, Steve was not just physically capable of handling the super soldier serum, he was ethically capable of handling it.
It was the moral character he had before his transformation that made him for all intents and purposes the Superman of his universe. Only rarely was Steve ever pushed to be a harder person than he is and he never truly broke away from being himself, even if doing so in the heat of the moment could’ve been believable if tragic.
John Walker, the man chosen against both Sam and Bucky’s wishes to wield the shield is not a wholly bad person, but he is certainly flawed enough that he does not deserve the honor. To his credit, he wasn’t selfishly desiring to be Captain America, it was thrust upon him. A mixture of responsibility, to be better than he was and some measure of his ego factor him into being the most multi-faceted and possibly consequential figure of the narrative, save for Sam.
Much has been said and will be continue to be said on how it all turned out by the time Falcon and Winter Soldier reached the end of its six episode run. As you would expect, it sets up for further entries in the MCU, as if there were ever any doubt of that. What remains divisive, as it was with Wandavision, was if the end-of-series execution was good or not.
I was unsatisfied with the conclusion of Wandavision, finding unfortunate narrative and thematic discrepancies. I can now see why some may find Falcon and Soldier’s conclusion less than solid but I did find it much more satisfying and with much more merit in how it resolved several matters.
When it comes to how it leaves Sam, Bucky and Zemo, I consider it an A effort. For everyone else, like Walker, Karli and the returning Sharon Carter from Caps 2 and 3, it is a much less clear grade for me to make. It’s possible like with Wandavision that the ongoing story of later MCU tales will better clarify what might be leaving you feeling cold about the first two Disneyplus shows under Marvel’s belt. I can understand the frustration of having to wait to feel satisfaction for a product after the fact. But at least you might get it one day.
Falcon and Winter Soldier does suggest wider reaching implications for the future of at least the Earth side of the MCU. It leaves me much more curious and excited for what will come next than Wandavision which in and of itself is a great accomplishment for the just beginning Fourth phase.
The show ends on a promise to its MCU viewerbase it cannot easily if ever walk back. And for now, that is a great enough reward.