As explained in Part I & Part II, Kitana—assassin & step-daughter of Shao Kahn turned rebellious & heroic Princess of Edenia—was a rich character with (for a fighting game) dimension, motivation, development, conflict, and agency who grew over the course of the series into a strong hero and leader.
Not surprisingly, combined with her striking look and memorable choice of weapons, she emerged as a beloved fan favorite and icon of the franchise.
Here's where things turn sour.
Now, as I've tried to keep clear, a great deal of Mortal Kombat's "depth" is reading between lines, connecting dots, and filling in gaps. In regard to Kitana in particular, I've tried to maintain a distinction between what is actually presented in the game's story and what is me putting pieces together.
Because Mortal Kombat is, first and foremost, a video game—meant to be played. For better and worse, the story is a low priority for the developers and they are pretty much making it up as they go along. This can be good when it leads the type of organic storytelling I talked about in the previous post, which is partly what made Kitana a solid character to begin with. But it also means there's likely little-to-no plan or deliberate consistency.
So when I talk about the thematic meaning of Kitana's battles with Mileena, the full implications of her internal conflict to redeem herself, and how her story can be interpreted with Joseph Campbell's Monomyth...that's me reading into the story, and no, I'm sure the developers of Mortal Kombat do not/did not have any of that in mind when making the game.
I'm pointing this out because, when I say things are going to go bad for Kitana, I'm sure some probably think it's because the developers did something or took the character in a direction that didn't sync up with my interpretations and I'm mad they've clashed with my personal head-canon.
Believe me...if only it was that simple.
Foreshadowing in Adaptation
|Mortal Kombat: The Movie|
On the surface, this might seem like an easy task. After all, logically, the "Hero" of the story is simply "whoever saves the day at the end." But remember what I mentioned about the principles of storytelling: audiences are drawn to the dynamic and engaging characters. Usually, one wants the protagonist of their story to be the character(s) with distinct, fleshed out motivation, conflicts, and has an arc.
Under normal circumstances, this sort of thing is not/should not be mutually exclusive. Ordinarily, if you're a writer, you have the dynamic character with motivation and conflict BE the one who saves the day in the end, and that usually IS their arc.
Then you have something like Mortal Kombat.
In Mortal Kombat, Liu Kang is the "Hero"—the "guy who saves the day at the end."
He's also not the most compelling of characters. He has little backstory (he's a Shaolin monk...that's it), his motivation is very broad (save the world because not saving the world would be bad), he has almost no conflict (at least none that doesn't require REALLY reading between the lines), and what arc he has is minimal (he develops a kind of Connor MacLeod, Who Wants to Live Forever sort of thing).
If you're looking for the protagonists of Mortal Kombat—in terms of fleshed out backstory, motivation, conflict, and arc—your heroes would be the likes of Sub-Zero, Kitana, maybe Scorpion...hell, even Reptile has more going on. But then you have another roadblock: these characters' stories are told over the course of multiple games. Kitana's first arc, as explained, begins in MKII and ends in MK4.
So, if you're trying to adapt the MK storyline, how do you approach it? What kind of structure do you apply? And perhaps the most relevant question: if you're a movie producer, writer, or director, are you really putting this level of thought into your movie about a video game best known for blood and gore?
|Defenders of the Realm|
As a result, certain other characters are assigned roles in relation to Liu Kang and his buddies, Johnny Cage & Sonya Blade. Raiden becomes a mentor figure. Scorpion and Sub-Zero become henchmen for Shang Tsung—their feud almost entirely omitted.
And finally, there's Kitana, whose function in the story is to offer advice to the hero and become his love interest. As such, her own backstory and motivation is simplified. All that stuff about serving Shao Kahn, learning the truth about her past, turning against him...all gone. She was always against her step-father, and she wants to save her realm—full stop. No Mileena until the sequel...and even then, she fights Sonya.
Looking at the first film by itself, this isn't horrible or offensive. Given it's based mainly on the first Mortal Kombat game, which had probably the simplest and most straight-forward story, it's understandable and practical they would limit Kitana's characterization. Presumably, they could always acknowledge or explore her past in a sequel or something.
The problem is they don't, and I'm not even going to bother talking about Annihilation. The TV show, Mortal Kombat: Conquest has her feigning loyalty to Kahn, but there's never an indication she was ever genuinely loyal and, either way, she was only an occasional guest supporting character.
|Mortal Kombat Legacy|
The only exception is the recent Mortal Kombat Legacy web-series, which is probably the best portrayal of Kitana outside the games.
So by stripping her of her backstory, motivation, and conflict, and casting her primarily in a supporting role, she becomes defined as "the helpful princess who becomes the hero's love interest." No more, no less.
And when you go down that road, you've a very bland character.
Ah, but the movies, television shows, and comic books are simply non-canon adaptations. Mortal Kombat and Kitana would hardly be the first or only example of a movie or show changing things, re-arranging roles, and/or portraying a character inaccurately. It's the actual canon story in the games that matter, and those who play the games know Kitana (among others) is a more important and compelling character than the adaptations would present her as.
All true, but I think it's relevant to acknowledge how Kitana was portrayed in adaptations of Mortal Kombat. Because, looking back and considering what's going to become of her in the storyline, one can see early warning signs. Especially when the presentation of the story and characters in an adaptation, even if it is non-canon, can influence how they're perceived by the audience...and sometimes even the creators.
Especially when elements of the adaptations start finding their way into the source material.
Beginning a Slippery SlopeOne of the pitfalls of being a fan of serialized storytelling—especially the kind that's being made up as they go along...like comic books, pro-wrestling, and some video games—is when you can see something coming or a direction the creators are going that you know you're not going to like. You see the warning signs, but you might tell yourself—or other fans will tell you—you're just being pessimistic or paranoid. So you reassure yourself things will work out.
Then one day you wake up, everything's gone to shit, and everyone's wondering when and how it all went wrong.
Ultimately, there was no specific Jump the Shark moment for Kitana. We can't point to any particular moment or game where we can say that was the instant she derailed. Rather, it was a gradual accumulation of different things that, taken by themselves, didn't seem like big deals at the time, but eventually grew into a cancerous mass.
Looking back, I would say Kitana's spiral began in Mortal Kombat: Deception, but I remember even then there were some rumblings she was stagnating. Some fans didn't care about her pre-emptive strike against Shao Kahn or mounting stress in Deadly Alliance—only seeing it as "Kitana trying to save/defend Edenia again." Further, that "trying to save/defend Edenia" is all she'd ever done, and that she was in need of a new story direction.
At any rate, Kitana would sit out Deception.
Following her and the other heroes' deaths at the end of Deadly Alliance, they would be resurrected by the revived Dragon King, Onaga...because he could do that, conveniently. Upon bringing them back from the dead, he brainwashes them to be his loyal servants with a magic spell. Kitana herself assists in an invasion of Edenia where she's used to hold Sindel prisoner. Jade manages to free Sindel, and their goal in the story is to save Kitana from Onaga's control.
There was an interesting role reversal from MK3 at play—with Sindel now the one who must save a corrupted Kitana. In addition to Sindel, her absence also allows Jade a chance for some spotlight.
Unfortunately, nothing comes of this. The fallen heroes are saved, but by former Shao Kahn enforcer, Ermac, and the ghost of Liu Kang, whose spirit we later learn is being kept in the mortal world by his bond with Kitana.
For what it's worth, Deception's story—while certainly ambitious in many respects—was a mixed bag overall. But it was not a great showing for Kitana.
One could forgive her being defeated. After all, Quan Chi is established as a powerful villain. Not to mention, as previously explained, she didn't finish her training and was going through a lot of stress. And besides, the other good guys died, too. But whatever impact her death might have had is immediately undermined by her resurrection, thus revealing the victory of Quan Chi & Shang Tsung in Deadly Alliance was done merely for shock value.
There's a saying/joke among MK fans: "No one really stays dead in Mortal Kombat."
Not unlike comic books, death has become something of a revolving door. I don't want to get sidetracked into a discussion of how death is handled or should be handled in MK (or comics, or fiction in general). I'll simply leave it at, however you feel about the subject, the deaths/resurrections of the heroes at the beginning of Deception was handled poorly and should've been reconsidered.
Making things worse is, once under Onaga's control, Kitana merely becomes a minion—and a mindless one, from what we're told in the story. You'd think having the (in-universe) "greatest heroes" under the control of the villain would have significant impact and leave the good guys in dire straights. But aside from Sindel's unwillingness to attack her daughter and Jade's discomfort fighting her friend, nothing comes of it.
This is further emphasized when we learn Ermac single-handedly fights all five heroes at once while Liu Kang's spirit frees them. His ending, which is confirmed canon, states he—by himself—is "more than a match" for the five supposed greatest heroes of Mortal Kombat.
I'm sorry, but that doesn't make Ermac look strong...it makes the heroes look extremely lame.
It also doesn't help that Liu Kang's ghost is the one who does the freeing.
When Liu was killed off in Deadly Alliance, it created a great deal of excitement. The designated Hero was gone, and now someone else would have to fill the void. In fact, I'd argue having just one hero over all is itself a bad idea in an ensemble story—which is what Mortal Kombat is. Why have one, and only one, designated Hero when there are multiple protagonists?
But no...Kung Lao, Kitana, and the others fail miserably. And who has to clean up the mess? The previous Hero's freaking ghost. So we're left with a message—unintentional or not—that without Liu Kang, the good guys are worthless. Again...really lame and bad way to book your supposed "greatest heroes," especially when Liu Kang has never been the most engaging of protagonists to begin with.
Revisiting the Past
After Deception, the developers of Mortal Kombat decided to take another foray into making a spin-off action/adventure game. Previous attempts—such as Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces—were met with lukewarm response, if not outright failure. But their next effort, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, promised a better gaming experience with a retelling of Mortal Kombat II.
So, needless to say, it's regarded with a lot of fond nostalgia within the fanbase, and if there's anything that can guarantee attention and money from a fandom, it's playing the nostalgia card.
Let me just say, from a purely gaming perspective, Shaolin Monks was very enjoyable. If you just want a fun, entertaining game to play, Shaolin Monks was very good.
But the story...just from a narrative perspective...was a complete and utter train-wreck. Despite supposedly being a retelling of Mortal Kombat II's story, its relationship to the canon was dubious at best. Even if you ignored the numerous contradictions, and looked at it as a stand-alone thing, it was a terribly written story. The dialogue was laughable, there was virtually no plot, and what little plot there was was dependent on the main characters—Liu Kang & Kung Lao—being complete idiots.
I could devote an entire blog post to everything wrong with MK:SM's story alone. But let's keep it on Kitana.
You know, given that Kitana used to be "evil," there's always been some intrigue in the fanbase by the possibility of actually seeing what she was like then. When she was first introduced, she was only feigning loyalty to Kahn and since then has been established as a good guy. So there's always been some interest in getting the chance to see what she was like in the "old days."
I don't think that was what people were expecting.
We quickly learn she is under a magic spell that is keeping her under Shao Kahn's control.
The explanation that Kitana's loyalty to her step-father was the product of a spell or brainwashing was first introduced in the non-canon comic books of the mid-90's. It's never been a good idea, and the prospect it might find its way into the games' canon was always met with dread.
Much of Kitana being a developed and engaging character is based on her previous, genuine loyalty to Shao Kahn and changing herself into a hero. The suggestion of a spell shallows that by hand-waving it all away in the quickest and cheapest fashion. It frees her of responsibility and allows an instant shift from "evil" to "good" without the character development that should emerge from it. It's hackneyed, childish storytelling that dilutes the tragedy of her character and strength of her heroism.
Anyway, this leads to a boss battle with Kitana, Mileena, and Jade. During the course of the fight, Kitana is freed from her spell—pretty much by accident. She spends the rest of the game chasing Mileena around, only to get captured by her towards the end. Yes, one of the things that definitely happened in MKII—Kitana kills Mileena—gets changed.
I should point out that, although the developers initially claimed Shaolin Monks was canon and, therefore, overrides MKII, the response to the story from the fans was so negative they quickly backed off on it. Since then, it's become accepted that Shaolin Monks is a non-canon entry in the story.
Blatant contradiction to the canon aside, if you actually accepted the stuff I said about the thematic importance of Kitana defeating Mileena during MKII...well, this is just appalling. But that, and the inclusion of a brainwashing spell, is symptomatic of a larger problem.
And it goes back to what I had said about agency.
In the original story, Kitana was being used and manipulated by her step-father, but SHE learned the truth about her past and changed HERSELF into a "good" person. SHE feigned loyalty to Kahn until she found the right time to turn against him openly, and SHE defeated her evil clone. She is in control of her destiny.
In Shaolin Monks, Kitana is being held against her will with an evil spell and is only freed when Liu Kang and Kung Lao stumble across her. She fails to defeat Mileena, gets taken prisoner, and needs the heroes to save her.
Simply put: in one story, she escapes Shao Kahn. In the other, she is rescued from Shao Kahn.
See the difference?
Remember what I said about adaptations?
Liu Kang and Kung Lao are the main, playable characters of Shaolin Monks. Therefore, the story is structured to revolve around them. But, as said, Liu Kang is not the most compelling of characters. So, in order to give him a more personal stake in the plot, he's given a damsel-in-distress to fight for. So Kitana, the "love interest," gets thrown under that bus. Throughout the game—despite repeatedly denying she's his "girlfriend" like a child—helping Kitana is always on Liu's mind, and it's made clear she needs his help.
This is conveyed best when you actually free Kitana from the spell. We get a little cinema scene where she swoons and Liu dives forward to catch her before she falls...all done in dramatic slow-motion. He then cradles her in his arms as she wearily thanks him for saving her.
The visual shorthand is blatant: Kitana is the helpless damsel-in-distress who needs her knight-in-shining-armor, Liu Kang, to keep her safe.
Shipping WoesAll right...let's talk about the Kitana/Liu Kang ship.
This relationship originated in 1995's Mortal Kombat movie. As explained, Kitana's main role in the film was to offer advice to Liu Kang. Honestly, there wasn't much presented to suggest their relationship was anything more than platonic on her part and a vague attraction on his. Then at the very end, after Shang Tsung is defeated and Earth is saved, we see Liu and Kitana holding hands, smiling at each other.
I can only guess the filmmakers felt the hero should "get the girl at the end," but since Sonya Blade was paired off with Johnny Cage, Liu gets Kitana. And bear in mind, there was nothing to suggest they had ANY relationship in the games. The closest to an interaction between the two is a cameo in Liu Kang's MK3 ending.
So, if you're like me, you responded to their holding hands at the end of the movie with confusion. I can distinctly remember sitting in the theater and thinking: "WHAT?!"
Because of the movie, I guess, the ship was officially incorporated into the games' canon in Mortal Kombat 4. As explained, Kitana's capture and supposed death is a major factor in Liu's individual story, and in his ending, she proposes to him.
Since then, their relationship has been retroactively added to the story. It's become accepted the unspecified Earth warrior Kitana meets in secret during MKII was Liu Kang. It's generally assumed that, once she joined with the heroes in MK3, their relationship developed into a romantic one.
As you can guess, this relationship was just thrown in and not developed well at all. I suppose, if one wants to connect dots and fill in blanks, we could speculate what she might see in him. As we know, Kitana leads a rather unhappy life, surrounded by vile people, in a world where evil winning is the norm. But Liu Kang would be the first real glimmer of hope, proof the good guys can win, and he's such a nice guy. And Liu likes her because...Kitana's life sucks, and he's such a nice guy.
Now, as bland as this relationship is, it was initially harmless. Because here's a sad truth about romance sub-plots in genre fiction like fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero comics: playing the damsel-in-distress card happens WAY too often. Now it's one thing to have a character who is created specifically to be a supporting player in a protagonist's story and occasionally have them thrown into peril and in need of the hero to rescue them.
But it's something else to do that to another protagonist. It's the agency thing. When you do that, you rob this character of their agency and self-reliance. This holds true for both male and female protagonists, but sadly, it happens to women more than men. Often—too often in superhero comics—when a male protagonist and a female protagonist are paired together, sooner or later, someone gets thrown under the bus. And nine times out of ten...it's ladies first.
You'd think the solution would be to just NOT do those types of stories, but that is not a world in which we live. Hack storytellers will fall back on the ol' damsel-in-distress plot if it suits them.
Taking it back to Kitana—her relationship with Liu Kang wasn't a problem at first. She came close to getting hit with the damsel-in-distress bullet in MK4, but the key thing there is Liu's attempt to rescue her failed and she wound up escaping herself. Later, in Deadly Alliance, it was Liu who died and Kitana who carried on to try to avenge him.
But like Kitana's downfall in general, this slowly and subtly grew into something malignant.
You have the heroes' deaths and brainwashing in Deception, which required Liu Kang's ghost to save them. We saw in Shaolin Monks Kitana get downgraded to damsel-in-distress in order to give Liu something to do. And would you be surprised if I said, by this point, adaptations of Mortal Kombat had already played this card more than once. This is going to get worse, and it accumulates.
Liu Kang, as stated, is "The Hero." The Chosen One. They all but establish he, and he alone, is capable of defeating villains like Shao Kahn. If he's not saving the world and being the knight-in-shining-armor, what the hell else is he good for? Now you give this character a love interest...honestly, as cynical as this sounds, this ship ultimately damaging Kitana might have been inevitable.
The odds were not in her favor.
It was decided this game would mark the end of the current era, wrap up all loose ends in the storyline, and the next game would be a whole new beginning with only a handful of characters surviving and returning. This occasion was marked by bringing back every playable character in the franchise—a final roster of about 64 characters.
The majority of these returning characters would just be copy-and-paste jobs from Deadly Alliance and Deception. And the story ultimately turned out to be: the fire elemental Blaze goes nuclear on top of an ancient pyramid that rises in the middle of an Edenian desert. Whoever can defeat him will be granted god-like power, so every character that's appeared in Mortal Kombat comes to fight a glorified game of "king of the mountain" in order to challenge Blaze.
There is more to the story than that—involving Edenia's god and his two sons, Taven & Daegon—and Konquest mode details various sub-plots involving Sektor's cyborg clan, Shinnok's return, and the villains forming an alliance...but the main thrust of the story is the "king of the mountain" thing. The endings are all obvious non-canon "what-if" things and so ridiculous across the board there's no sense in discussing them.
After the game came out, they started releasing individual bios for the cast, but that fizzled out after a handful.
Kitana doesn't appear in Konquest mode, and she never got a bio. Her gameplay model was just a copy/paste from Deadly Alliance. She's mentioned in Nightwolf's bio, which is where we learned it was her bond with Liu Kang that kept his spirit in the mortal world. She passes it to Nightwolf—somehow—in the hope he can find a way to reunite Liu's spirit with his body.
So yeah...kind of a weak, anti-climactic way to end this era of the story. For Kitana in particular, I couldn't call this entry good or bad for her. No developments, no individual story, and no changes to her gameplay. But maybe no news is good news?
Now despite the promise the next Mortal Kombat after Armageddon would be a whole new era—one promised to be much darker and more serious—the next entry in the series turned out to be...a non-canon crossover with DC Comics.
Fan response was...mixed.
The story of MK/DC revolves around Shao Kahn and Darkseid getting fused together into a being called Dark Kahn. He sets about combining the MK universe with the DC universe to conquer them both. He also starts corrupting certain characters with something called "The Rage," which causes them to go into irrational berserker rages...which conveniently kicks in whenever two character are close to answering a question that could resolve the plot.
Kitana appears early in the story mode where she meets with Liu Kang, worried something bad is coming. This was a cringe-inducing scene which began with her sneaking up on him and throwing a kick to "test" him. He easily swats her aside, and she's sent crumbling to the floor.
Again, the visual shorthand is blatant: Liu is the big, strong hero, and Kitana is nothing compared to him.
The next time we see her, Dark Kahn has invaded Outworld, and Kitana, upon seeing him, goes into a kind of Rage-induced shell-shock, which causes her to blindly attack Wonder Woman. She loses, of course.
As the game progresses, the MK fighters—believing the DC characters are enemy invaders—put aside their difference and unite. Part of this involves Quan Chi having Scorpion find and capture Kitana. She's put under a spell (yes, more mind-control) to keep her under control until she can be cured of the Rage. This, by the way, comes after she spends a portion of the story being led around by Quan Chi like a dog on a leash.
What needs to be said, honestly? It's one thing for her not to have a significant part in the plot. But having her spend the story spaced out, used as a prop, and more magic spells...this was abysmal.
Adding insult to injury, the story-mode was divided up with a DC section and an MK section. The sections are split into chapters where you play as a pre-determined character for each one. The DC section had seven chapters. The MK section had six. Guess which character was supposed to get a chapter, but they decided at the last minute it wasn't worth it?
Story dregs aside, it's also worth noting Kitana'd been sinking in the gameplay department as well. While other characters have had special moves added to their arsenal over the years, the only new special moves Kitana got was a teleport copied from Jade and, in MK/DC, one of Mileena's trademark moves. Not to mention she's had essentially the same Fatalities in every game.
Canon or not, for me at least, MK/DC was a big red flag.
The "Princess" StigmaSo Kitana was presented as a shallow supporting character in the movies and TV shows. But they're non-canon, inaccurate adaptations—they don't count.
So Deception wasn't a good showing for her. It wasn't a good showing for Kung Lao or the other heroes either. Why single her out? And besides, that's just one game. She'll rebound.
So Shaolin Monks attempted to retcon her story and turn her into a damsel-in-distress. That game's story was a mess across the board, and it's considered non-canon anyway.
So Kitana's portrayal in Mortal Kombat vs. DC was embarrassing....
Taken by themselves, these can be seen as isolated incidents that can be ignored or forgiven. But canon or not, pile them up one after the other, and a pattern and consistency starts to emerge. Something was going wrong—if not already had gone wrong—with the way Kitana was being portrayed.
Canon or not, since Deception, we've seen Kitana beaten, killed, enslaved, brainwashed, taken prisoner, and in need of rescue. In some cases, more than once. Her agency had been robbed from her, her conflicts and development downplayed or ignored, and ultimately she just became "one of the good guys," distinguished only by being the "Princess" and "Hero's Girlfriend."
And that's a pretty steep drop from the protagonist and hero she had been.
Suddenly, everything about her character— the way she's acts, expected to dress, function in the story—starts with "princess." When she's portrayed as a bad guy, she's an "evil princess" stereotype—haughty, snobby, and looking down on the peasants. When she's a good guy, she's a "good princess" stereotype—soft-spoken, demure, helpful, and dependent on her knight-in-shining armor, Liu Kang, or her hyper-competent best friend, Jade.
Kitana being a princess hadn't been a bad thing. As I said, it signified her growth as a character into being a leader. But that's where it ended. It was her rank and title—nothing more. It was not her identity. It was not a personality. It was not the foundation with which to base everything about her. Especially when the definition of "princess" we're using is shallow, cliche, and insulting.
Remember that teleport she took from Jade? You want to know what they named this move? "Pixie Dust Teleport." We are associating Kitana with pixie dust. Look at some of these pictures I'm posting. Waterfalls, rainbows, fields of flowers and gardens.
You could say this imagery is simply because she's from Edenia, which is established as a paradise of a realm. But again, combined with her portrayal in the games and naming her special moves after pixie dust, there is a pattern emerging and a stigma that comes as a result.
And that result is Kitana had—in the eyes of many fans and apparently even the creators—gone from this...to this.
Last HopeYeah, things had turned pretty grim for our girl. But even then, there was hope. After all, as terrible as her portrayals in Shaolin Monks and MK/DC were, they were non-canon games. It was the real storyline that mattered.
And yeah, Kitana's story seemed to have run out of steam and was becoming redundant. But Armageddon was going to set up a whole new era for Mortal Kombat and its story. Most, if not all, the old plot-lines would wrap up and, assuming she returned, there was hope the next game would see a new chapter for Kitana that would restore her to former, bad-ass glory.
Things certainly couldn't get worse...