Sunday, April 26, 2015

Kitana Retrospective - Part II: Rebel to Princess

Welcome back to my retrospective on Mortal Kombat's resident assassin princess, Kitana.

In my last post, I covered her debut in Mortal Kombat II and went on at length about her motivation, conflicts, agency, and rivalry with Mileena. 
When we last left her in the story, she'd just fought and killed her demented clone, outing herself as a traitor to Shao Kahn.

And from here, things are really going to pick up as Earth gets invaded, friends turn against her, her mother returns, and Kitana grows into a Princess and leader.

On the Run
I'm not going to go deep into the behind-the-scenes stuff regarding Kitana's involvement with Mortal Kombat 3. Basically she—along with Scorpion, Reptile, and others—were supposed to be in MK3, but because of deadlines and legal issues, they didn't return until the updated Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3.
It has no effect on story, so no bother.

When Shao Kahn conquered Edenia and merged it with Outworld, he took Kitana's mother, Sindel, as his bride. When she committed suicide, he struck a bargain with the sorcerer Quan Chi to have her resurrected on Earth. After Shang Tsung was defeated in the first Mortal Kombat, Kahn decided to move forward with this back-up plan. We learn the Outworld tournament in MKII was only a distraction while Sindel is resurrected and, once she's brought back, this allows Kahn to finally breach the portals and invade Earth because...reasons.

Anyway, Sindel is not just resurrected, she is also corrupted by Kahn's magic to be his loyal and evil bride. As would be expected, since her mother is critical to MK3's story, Kitana winds up playing an important role. I might go as far as to say this is the high point of her individual storyline, as she has a lot of stuff going on, and it's here we see her emerge as one of the main heroes of the series.

Following Mileena's death, Kitana is put on trial for treason. Knowing that won't end well for her, and learning of her mother's resurrection, she escapes to Earth hoping to turn Sindel against Shao Kahn. Along the way, she must also elude assassins sent to stop her—among them, her best friend and fellow Edenian, Jade.

Over the course of MK3, Kitana overcomes her assassins, convincing Jade to turn against Kahn as well, and joins with the Earth heroes. She also attempts, though apparently not as successfully, to turn another Edenian named Rain against Kahn. Finally, she confronts her mother and manages to free her from Kahn's control, which leads to his defeat and the saving of Earth by Liu Kang.

Suffice to say, this was an exciting time in Kitana's story where she had a lot on her plate. As stated in the previous post, although these are only the broad strokes of a storyline, it's not hard to see the conflict, development, and drama.
This is a point where Kitana is on her own, adjusting to her role as a rebel against her step-father. She's looking for allies, trying to convince old ones she served Kahn with to join her—successfully and unsuccessfully—and it all culminates in a confrontation with her corrupted mother.

It's really not surprising she's emerged as one of the most compelling characters in the Mortal Kombat storyline. It's basic principles of storytelling in action. Audiences will be drawn to the character(s) who have genuine motivation and encounter true conflict. Dynamic characters often command attention and take center stage.
It's this same principle that saw characters like Sub-Zero and Scorpion become break-out characters.

There are aesthetic things to consider, obviously. How the characters play (it is a video game, first and foremost, after all), how they're designed, memorable gimmicks, etc.
But is it any wonder it was characters like Kitana, with all the shit she's going through; Sub-Zero, who at this time is abandoning the Lin Kuei and transitioning into an unlikely hero himself; and Scorpion, the wild card caught between both sides who must choose who he's going to fight for; among a few others who became the Ensemble Darkhorses over cookie-cutter heroes and villains whose only role in the story is "save the Earth" or "conquer the Earth" depending on their alignment.

It's organic storytelling in action, and in something like Mortal Kombat—where the audience is, more or less, able to choose their protagonist—it's more exciting and engaging when we see a character naturally grow into an important role. As opposed to a character who is designated "The Hero," we got to witness Kitana develop into a one over the course of a journey.

Hero's Journey
Although Liu Kang would eventually be designated "The Chosen One" who is destined to save/defend Earth, there was no official "Hero" until Mortal Kombat 3. When it was revealed Liu won the first Mortal Kombat, it wasn't necessarily felt it was because he was the one and only "Hero" of the story—rather, he was the character who happened to win MK1.

As such, there was no inherent expectation he was to win MKII. In fact, when MK3 was first released, it was suggested Kung Lao had won (of course, that would quickly be retconned out of the story). It wasn't until MK3 that Liu Kang became known as, not only "The Hero," but the Chosen One and that he, and he alone, could defeat Shao Kahn and save the day.

Adaptations of Mortal Kombat's story have often played this up, giving Liu Kang shades of a Joseph Campbell-style "Hero's Journey" to make his being "The Hero" more organic. Raiden becomes presented as his Mentor, Johnny Cage becomes a sort of Han Solo to his Luke Skywalker, and certain other bits and pieces of the Monomyth have found their way into his storyline.

What's interesting though—if one wanted to analyze or adapt the MK story with Campbell's Monomyth—despite becoming the official "Chosen One," Liu Kang is not the only character whose story can be interpreted with the Hero's Journey.
As you may have already guessed, Kitana is one such character. In fact, I would even go so far as to argue her story suits the Hero's Journey paradigm better than Liu Kang.

We can call her learning the truth about Edenia and her past her Call to Adventure. As explained in the previous post, her battle with Mileena is a critical moment in her development, where she begins her journey as a hero. We can call this her Crossing of the First Threshold.
Her escape to Earth, eluding assassins, turning Jade, trying to turn Rain, joining the Earth fighters—her Initiation or Tests, Allies, & Enemies.

And finally, according to Campbell's Monomyth, a confrontation or atonement with a parental figure was always a crucial moment in the hero's journey. So, fittingly, Kitana having a confrontation with her corrupted mother is a major part of Mortal Kombat 3's plot.
It's also worth noting that it's suggested Shao Kahn wanted Kitana to rejoin him at this time. Although we never find out if she has a encounter with her step-father, there's her Tyrannical Father right there.

There is something archetypical in the battle between Kitana (the heroic princess) and Sindel (her evil mother, even though she isn't evil by choice). Again, we have only the broad strokes of a story, but let's read between the lines a bit.

Although on the face of it, it would seem Kitana's goals are straight-forward and clear. Freeing Sindel is crucial to saving the Earth, and Sindel's her mother, after all. Of course she wants to save her. Also remember, Kitana had been raised to be an assassin. One could say she wants to save her mother from being corrupted by Kahn the way she was.

But there is a catch I always found potentially interesting. If you'll remember, Sindel committed suicide after Shao Kahn took Edenia. Her reasons are understandable, but she effectively abandoned her daughter in doing so.
Did this play at all in their confrontation? Was it on Kitana's mind as she tried to free her mother from Kahn's control? Does it haunt Sindel when she is freed and figure at all in their relationship?

Interesting questions that unfortunately are left to the imagination.

Closing the First Arc
Anyway, as implied, Kitana is ultimately successful in freeing Sindel from Shao Kahn's control. And because she was the key to his occupation of Earth, this leads to Kahn's defeat at the hands of Liu Kang and Earth is saved.

From here, we head into Mortal Kombat 4/Gold. Similar to what happened in MK3, Kitana was supposed to be in MK4, but left out at the last minute, and later added to the expanded Mortal Kombat Gold. A disappointing turn, but Kitana's absence would actually add some suspense to the story, as—until you beat the game with Liu Kang—it's suggested she might be dead.

After MK3, Shao Kahn is defeated and presumed dead. Kitana manages to free Edenia from Outworld (this is stated in MK: Deception's Konquest mode) and sets about restoring the realm with Sindel. However, a traitor named Tanya helps release the fallen Elder God, Shinnok, from the Netherealm (essentially MK's Hell). He takes control of Edenia, imprisoning Kitana and Sindel, and uses the realm as a base while he wages war on the gods.

In MK Gold, we discover Kitana managed to escape her prison and she proceeds to...fight to free Edenia.
Admittedly, this is probably Kitana's weakest individual story. MK4 in general has, in the grand scheme of things and despite revolving around a war of gods, pretty much become something of an epilogue for the first era of Mortal Kombat's story and brief interval before the next era that starts in MK: Deadly Alliance.

I will say this though, even during her weakest individual story, Kitana still plays a reasonably important part. Her capture and presumed death is a large factor for Liu Kang, who in this game we learn has become a love interest for her. During his ending, Kitana even proposes to him, offering to make him King of Edenia and rule at her side—which he must refuse because of his duties as Earth's Champion of Mortal Kombat.

Although it's never stated, in my personal head-canon, I like to think there was a confrontation and fight between Kitana and Tanya.

We also see her negotiating a truce with the returning Goro and his race, the Shokan, which leads to Goro making peace with rival, Kung Lao.
This is also relevant because it illustrates her growth into a true Princess and leader. Remember, although Kitana was introduced as Shao Kahn's daughter, she served primarily as his personal assassin. Her MKII ending also implies her discovery that she's royalty was something of a surprise to her.

My point is, Kitana was likely NOT a leader. She was a killer who would not command troops or be involved in state affairs unless it involved eliminating Kahn's enemies. MK4 is where we see her really embracing her role/title as Princess of Edenia and acting as a true leader of her people. Before Shinnok invades, she's working to restore the realm. She's negotiating peace with Outworld races like the Shokan and their long-time enemies, the Centaur.

So Kitana has grown and changed over the course of the story. She was first introduced to us as a lone assassin and rebel, and we end her first character arc with her as a leader and diplomat.
This evolution, I think, is exemplified in her second battle with Mileena.

After Mileena's death in MKII, her soul was damned to the Netherealm. There, she was forced into Shinnok's service and resurrected to act as a spy for him. In MK Gold, Mileena makes it easy for Kitana to escape the dungeons so she can get a second chance at fighting her. She again fails to defeat her "sister," but rather than have her killed, Kitana has her imprisoned.

First, I think it's worth noting Mileena's actions reveal just how much fighting and defeating Kitana means to her. If all she wanted was Kitana dead, she could've just killed her in her cell. But she instead allows Kitana to escape—something I can't imagine Shinnok approving of—so they can have a fair fight.
So it really isn't about just killing Kitana for Mileena. She needs to prove she's better in combat.

To take it back to Kitana, she again manages to overcome her clone, but unlike their first fight in MKII, she chooses to spare Mileena's life.
Never stated outright, but I think this illustrates Kitana believes Mileena can be reformed. And perhaps that's thematically appropriate—when they first fought, that was Kitana trying to free herself from Shao Kahn and begin her change into being a hero. Now, in this second fight, she not only has changed, she's already helped Jade and Sindel change.

We end Kitana's first character arc as, not only a leader, but a more merciful person who strives to help those around her. She is more than just a killer now. She is not just redeemed, she is a redeemer.

A New Era
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance was a significant installment in the MK franchise. It was the first game to embrace 3D fighting. It featured a completely revamped gameplay engine. And it also harkened the start of a new era in the storyline.

MK:DA begins some years after MK4. Evil sorcerer, Quan Chi, manages to escape the Netherealm and discovers the mummified army of the legendary Dragon King, which was said to be unbeatable. In order to revive them, he seeks out Shang Tsung and offers an alliance. Together, they manage to assassinate Shao Kahn and Liu Kang and begin re-animating the Dragon King's army.
Raiden, furious over Liu Kang's death and knowing nothing good will come of this, summons the heroes to venture into Outworld to stop the Deadly Alliance before they can threaten Earth.

We catch up with Kitana leading the Edenian army in an alliance with Goro's Shokan. Shortly after MK4, she learned Shao Kahn had survived his defeat on Earth, but was severely weakened. Knowing he'd only threaten Edenia and Earth again if he regained his power, she leads her armies with Goro in a pre-emptive strike to wipe out Kahn once and for all.

We see in Deadly Alliance Kitana has grown into a capable and strong leader. Learning of Kahn's survival, she takes charge, forges an alliance, and sets out to stop him before he can pose a threat again, personally leading her armies into battle. And she has great success at first, systematically wiping his forces from Outworld.

Unfortunately, this hits a wall when they come against the last remnants of Kahn's army. Despite repeated attempts to break through this last line, Kitana's troops can't end the stalemate. This eventually leads to the apparent death of Goro, which leaves the Shokan forces in disarray.

Shortly after Goro's death, she learns of Shao Kahn's assassination, but her return to Edenia is put on hold when she learns of the Deadly Alliance and Liu Kang's death. She joins Kung Lao in seeking out Bo' Rai Cho, the master that taught Liu Kang, for training.

Unlike previous installments, which only offered the broad strokes of the story with character bios and endings, Deadly Alliance was notable for its Konquest mode, which actually delved deeper into the cast's individual stories. Because of this, MK:DA has, arguably, the most detailed and polished storyline of any MK game.

As such, we are given direct insight into Kitana's development through this story. The deaths of Goro—whom she'd come to see as a friend—and Liu Kang—whom she'd fallen in love with—haunt her throughout the story. We also learn, when she & Kung Lao do find Bo' Rai Cho, she actually doesn't complete her training.
Bo' Rai Cho, it turns out, is something of a comical character.His fighting style is Drunken Master, and he frequently farts and burps whenever he fights. It's pointed out in Konquest that Kitana doesn't appreciate his humor, which leads to her leaving without completing her training. Given the severity of the situation and the losses she's suffered, it's not hard to understand why.

However, despite not finishing her training, she ends up fighting Quan Chi in the final battle anyway. And, tragically, things don't turn out so well for our girl.
Deadly Alliance was also notable for being an installment with a full-on downer ending. Kitana is killed by Quan Chi, Kung Lao by Shang Tsung, and the remaining Earth heroes die fighting Tarkatan troops. Raiden then tries to fight the Deadly Alliance himself, but he too fails. The bad guys win.

Second Act Downfall
Kitana's choice to lead a pre-emptive strike against Shao Kahn was an interesting place to take her story. Aside from establishing her as a leader of her people, as explained, it presents her as a pro-active and practical one at that. She knows—personal experience, no doubt—that so long as Kahn lives, Edenia will not be safe. And I would guess the safety of other realms plays into this as well.

I mentioned earlier that at the end of Kitana's first arc, we see her more than just redeemed, but a redeemer. Her drive to wipe out Kahn, I believe, lends credence to that. Because she isn't just restoring her home realm, she's actively trying to establish peace in Outworld—first by negotiating truces between races there, then by destroying any trace of Shao Kahn's dominion over the realm.

To take it back to something I suggested in the previous post—if we consider guilt a motivating factor in Kitana's actions—there may also be a sense of setting things right for her at play. She loyally served her step-father for thousands of years, helping to maintain his hold over Outworld. Maybe her drive to bring peace to the realm is, for her, another way of making up for that?

But if one looks at Deadly Alliance's story, we see another interesting aspect of Kitana's character start to emerge: she has a tendency to overwork herself. She personally leads her armies to battle in Outworld. When the Deadly Alliance emerges—despite mourning the deaths of Goro and Liu Kang—she rushes off with Kung Lao to seek Bo' Rai Cho's training. And despite not completing said training, she fights Quan Chi anyway.

Read into that however you choose. Maybe it really is guilt? Maybe she just desperately wants to go home and not have to worry about villains knocking on her door? Maybe it's a compulsion?

At any rate, this builds up to something hinted at throughout MK:DA, before being outright confirmed in Mortal Kombat Unchained: the stress is getting to her. Constantly pushing herself, the continuous enemies, seemingly endless battles, and mounting tragedies are wearing on her, to the point where—in her Unchained ending—she actually has a mini-breakdown.

And I think this is an interesting dimension to Kitana's character. I would say perseverance has always been one of her defining attributes—one need only look at her story to see she's endured and survived a LOT of shit (hell, she even has an entry on TV Tropes Iron Woobie page). But here we see even she has limits. She pushes herself too hard and now the cracks are starting to show.
She is still a strong and determined hero, but I like that she has moments of weakness. It makes her human, which I think is remarkable for a fighting game.

And if I may indulge some potential thematic storytelling...
A common trope in stories with three acts or trilogies is to open with a rousing triumph. In Star Wars, it was the Death Star's destruction. In The Matrix, Neo's emergence as The One. Then in the second part, everything goes wrong. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is beaten by Darth Vader and Han Solo is frozen in carbonite. In The Matrix Reloaded, Neo finds the prophesy of The One was a lie and the machines are on the verge of wiping out humanity.
There are dozens of other examples. Simply put, the first part ends on a grand, high note. The second part ends on a dark, low note.

Kitana's first arc was triumphant—escaping Shao Kahn, overcoming Mileena, turning Jade, saving Sindel, and her rise to Princess of Edenia. But this second arc...everything goes wrong.
Despite initial success against Kahn's armies, she hits a stalemate, which leads to Goro's death. Just when she thinks she can go home, a new threat emerges in the form of the Deadly Alliance—which involves Liu Kang's death. She doesn't finish her training and is killed by Quan Chi. And believe it or not, things only get worse with her resurrection, the return of the Dragon King, and Armageddon itself.

If her first character arc was her rise, was her second arc her fall?

All Good Things...
Maybe it's fitting I wrap this post up on that note and Kitana's demise, because this, unfortunately, is where the good times come to an end.

Even if you don't want to read between the lines, Kitana is still a stand-out character amongst the Mortal Kombat cast. She has a solid, personal motivation with agency. She's encountered conflict and grown over the course of the story.
But now we hit the bad times, where it falls apart. Coming up, we look at where it all went wrong and how Kitana goes from a strong protagonist to a damsel-in-distress "princess" stereotype.

I said her second story arc could be seen as a "downfall." Sadly, that would turn out to be true...just not the way I would've liked.

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