Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Kitana Retrospective - Part IV: Rock Bottom

And so we come to the penultimate part of our look back on Mortal Kombat's resident assassin-turned-princess, Kitana. In Parts one and two, I've chronicled her rise, growing into a well-developed and strong protagonist, and in Part three, her fall, sliding down a slippery slope that would reduce her to a two-bit damsel-in-distress.

Is there any hope for our heroic assassin princess?
The aftermath of Armageddon promised a whole new era in the story, and with the purchase of Mortal Kombat by Warner Bros. there was a great deal of anticipation for what Mortal Kombat 9 would end up being. Would we see Kitana reclaim her rightful place as one of the franchise's best and most compelling characters or—at the very least—end on a good note?

As the old saying goes: it's always darkest before the dawn.

Hitting the Reboot Switch
After Armageddon and the purchase of the franchise by Warner Bros. there was expectation Mortal Kombat 9 would be a reboot of some sort. When it was later revealed MK9 would be titled just Mortal Kombat, followed by the game's trailer, it then became a question of what extent of a reboot the game would be.

A "soft" reboot that picks up after Armageddon, but with the same core characters? Would they just start over from scratch, leaving the old storyline hanging? Was this a remake that would tell the original story with fully rendered cinema scenes consistently and no retcons? Would they use the opportunity to re-imagine previously established characters and story events?

Turned out to be a little of everything.
MK9 opens with the aftermath of Armageddon (the battle). Everyone's dead—or at least that's what appears to be the suggestion. We don't see every character's body, and I suppose if you want to believe some of the unseen fighters survived or escaped, you can. But there's little doubt to the fate of characters such as Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, Baraka, Jax, Li Mei, and some others.
We see Kitana's hand—as in the rest of her is off-screen, not disembodied. Remember this for later.

But yeah, it would appear most everyone killed each other playing "king of the mountain." Shao Kahn, however, seems to be the victor. Presumably killing Blaze and taking his power, we find Kahn beating the piss out of Raiden. As Kahn gloats about his victory, Raiden telepathically sends a vision of what's happened back in time to himself at the beginning of MK1...because shut-up, he can do that.

As the plots of MK1, 2, and 3 go on, Raiden periodically has visions of Armageddon, which prompts him to change things in the hope he might prevent Kahn's future victory. We were told by the developers the only changes to the story's canon would be the result of Raiden's meddling.
I will repeat that: the only changes would be the result of Raiden tampering with events.

Personally, I was not looking forward to MK9. I was about done with the old characters and plotlines. I had actually been enthused by Armageddon's promise the next game would be a whole new era with only a handful of returning characters. I had no interest in seeing the past re-hashed.
I had even less interest in seeing the past re-hashed and mangled with time travel shenanigans. Especially given MK's previous attempt at retelling the past, Shaolin Monks, didn't go so well in the story department.

Speaking of which, Shaolin Monks and MK/DC had left me with very little faith this would mean good things for Kitana in particular. As explained in the previous post, things had turned pretty grim for our girl. An increasing stigma of being the "damsel-in-distress princess" had latched onto her, and I feared what would come as a result of Raiden's "changing things."
My fear was vindicated when the very first picture of Kitana in MK9 surfaced on the internet:

A blurry little image taken from some gameplay footage...but there she is. Chained up in Shao Kahn's arena, wearing an outfit more than a little reminiscent of Princess Leia's slave bikini from Return of the Jedi.

Fans tried to rationalize it, justify it, find any kind of bright side. I and others were accused of being pessimistic and overly negative. But I knew...from the moment that picture got out...I knew what was coming.

Kitana was fucked.

First Impressions
The design for Kitana—and most of the female characters in general—for Mortal Kombat 9 was met with some controversy. It was felt by some the designs skewed too heavily on cheesecake, and in some cases—particularly, Kitana and Sonya—didn't suit the characters.

As I mentioned in my post about Wonder Woman's costume, the discussion about the design of female characters in comics, video games, and other related media is a big and complex issue with numerous points of view. I don't want to get sidetracked into that discussion, and like I said in that post, I prefer to judge this sort of thing by character, the context they exist in, and the tone that context is going for anyway. 

So I don't necessarily care how revealing or not revealing a female character's outfit is so long as it suits the character and fits the context and tone of the story.
Now within Mortal Kombat, every character—male and female—wears impractical, stylized, and outlandish outfits. That's the world and tone this particular context has established for itself—no problem. Kitana herself has always worn a relatively revealing outfit, and for what it's worth, I've never advocated her being some beacon of chastity.

So I don't have an issue with out much skin she's showing with her MK9 design. What I do have an issue with is I don't think it suits her at all. How revealing it is is just a part of the issue.

First of all, the design in itself is weak. It's just a halter-top and loin-cloth. The only thing about it that says "This is Kitana" is the fact that it's blue. Yes, she was overdue for a new design—she'd been rocking the blue/black bathing suit since day one—but this is just bland and uninspired. And if you think this outfit's lousy, check out her alternate.

But does it suit her, as a character? Now that, admittedly, is a tricky question to answer. Up until this point in the series, everything we know about any given character is what we're told via their bios and endings and what we see in the actual gameplay. As such, when it comes to personality, specific quirks, and things like that, it's harder to pin down what is "in character" and what is not.

So it's difficult to say, without doubt, Kitana's MK9 outfits (and her victory pose) don't suit her. But I think a case can be made this is, if nothing else, a departure from what had been established. Which might not have been so much a problem, if this game wasn't supposed to be taking place in the past or was an actual reboot from scratch.

Within the fictional fantasy land of Mortal Kombat, I can suspend disbelief and accept this is something a female ninja would wear into battle. Not practical, realistic, or historically accurate, but I understand the wheelhouse we're playing in, and she's never strayed far from that essential design. Somewhat revealing, but no more so than any other female character in the franchise. In fact, in some cases, Kitana's actually dressed more conservatively than others. And the closest we've see to sexuality from her has been her 'Kiss of Death' Fatality.

Kitana exists in a similar mold as other fictional ninja women like Psylocke or Elektra. Based on what we'd been presented about the character, there's little to indicate she's an overtly sexual being who uses her body or seduction in battle or has a coy, playful attitude about her.
In fact, what little insight into Kitana's personality we have gotten would suggest she's a relatively all-business, if not cold or melancholy, person. To further that point, even MK9's story-mode doesn't portray her as seductive or someone who would playfully wink during her victory pose, which just comes across as completely bizarre and random.

And that's where her MK9 outfit falters, because it suggests a different character than we've been presented. I see no fighter. I see no warrior. Hell, despite the mask, I see no ninja. As said, I see Princess Leia's slave bikini. I see a belly-dancer.

And what makes that especially problematic is the fact the last few games had portrayed Kitana as a damsel-in-distress, defined more by being the pretty "princess" than anything else. So when your character is being perceived as a helpless damsel, putting her in an outfit that conjures images of slave dancers in a villain's brothel does not inspire confidence.

This comes across even in the shade of blue they used. In the past, Kitana wore a relatively dark shade of blue—darker than Sub-Zero. But now she's wearing these bright hues of baby-blue, as if to emphasize how soft and feminine she is.
And to cap it all off, she's wearing a tiara. I suppose in case we forgot she's a "princess."

Again, this might not be an issue if this was an actual reboot. But, as pointed out, the only changes are supposed to come as a result of Raiden's tampering with the timeline. If this was a real reboot, we could just accept this as the "new" Kitana—similar, but unlike the old one.
But you can't say this is the same Kitana from the old games because we've seen what she looked like in the old games. And she wasn't dressed like this.

But, to be fair, I will admit there's one good thing I can say about Kitana's MK9 outfit.


So Much Wrong
We first see Kitana at the beginning of the Mortal Kombat tournament from MK1. Yes, now she was present for the tournament. I don't recall if she's officially entered, but she acts mainly as a henchwoman for Shang Tsung alongside Jade. In fact, her function for much of the early part of MK9's story-mode is a henchwoman for the villains—making repeated (and failed) efforts at fighting good guys like Sonya Blade, Liu Kang, and Smoke.

It is worth noting that, unlike the original storyline—in which Kitana had already learned the truth about Edenia and decided to turn against Shao Kahn—in this, she is completely unaware and doesn't even begin questioning her loyalty until the MKII section of the story. So right out of the gate, the claim the story would be unchanged except for Raiden's meddling is a complete lie.

Anyway, her first significant scene is when she offers to assassinate Liu Kang before he can win the tournament—rules be damned, I suppose. And this scene...this fucking scene. You might recall the MK/DC bit between Kitana and Liu Kang, which I described as "cringe-inducing." What happens here blows it out of the water.

Liu Kang is meditating when Kitana makes her attempt to kill him. And how does the supposed elite assassin with thousands of years experience go about trying to assassinate the Shaolin monk who's been agreed to be a major threat?
She walks right up to him in broad daylight and starts throwing punches.

Repeat: NOT gameplay footage; actual scene
He easily dodges her attacks and makes a complete fool of her. See this picture I've posted? That's not gameplay footage. That's an actual image from this cinema cut-scene.

This does eventually lead to an actual fight, which he wins. Kitana, feeling disgraced for failing her father, expects him to kill her, but Liu shows her mercy and reassures her she hasn't disgraced anyone. She is left in awe of what a nice guy Liu Kang is.
And, believe it or not, this will be the catalyst that leads to her becoming one of the good guys.

This scene. This fucking scene. This goes beyond making Kitana a damsel-in-distress and veers into some foul, uncomfortable, regressive territory. She is made to look like a complete and utter fool before Liu Kang. He treats her like a child. He condescends her by saying, "You're good. Show me more!" as he's humiliating her.

It's chauvinistic. There's no other way to say it. And the fact this, not only is supposed to be the spark of Kitana & Liu's romance, but what will begin her change to one of the's disgusting. Made even more so by the fact this has been done to what had once been one of Mortal Kombat's best female protagonists.

I gave flak to the adaptations for how they portrayed Kitana, but the first movie contained a scene where she and Liu Kang fight that actually did it right. Although it's clear Liu is holding back and doesn't want to fight her—he also already knows she's a potential ally, unlike this game where he has no reason to regard her as anything other than an enemy—it's also clear Kitana is holding back as well. She "loses" the fight without being made to look weak or foolish.

Moving on, the next major scene involving Kitana takes place during MKII's Outworld tournament. She defeats some nameless mook and finds herself unwilling to kill him because of her encounter with Liu Kang. So she spares his life, which—combined with her failure to defeat other Earth fighters—angers Shao Kahn.
Unlike the previous timeline, where he favored Kitana and it was implied he wanted her to stay on his side, in MK9 Kahn barely tolerates her presence and, after Mileena appears, ponders why he ever bothered keeping her around at all.

So if you thought Shao Kahn's seeming affection for Kitana—despite his otherwise being a straight-forward, evil overlord—was an interesting facet of his character...gone.

The tension between Kitana & Kahn inspires Raiden to try convincing her to turn against him. He doesn't tell her anything specific—merely hinting she should look for answers. He then tells her to investigate one of Shang Tsung's Flesh Pits where she discovers a lab full of unfinished and malformed clones.

It's here Mileena is introduced into MK9's story. Where, in the original story, she had been around for at least a couple hundred years and was believed to be Kitana's twin sister, in this timeline Mileena is only just born circa MKII.
Kitana quickly defeats Mileena and Shang Tsung. She then brings him to Kahn, believing this was something done without her father's knowledge. Unfortunately for her, Kahn congratulates Tsung on his success in creating Mileena, declaring her the daughter he always wanted.

So if you liked the Kitana/Mileena rivalry—which was based entirely on Mileena's longstanding jealousy and desire for Kahn's acceptance even though he favored Kitana—and liked that Mileena herself was a somewhat sympathetic character with a clear, specific motivation based on her backstory...gone.

Kahn then reveals he is not really Kitana's father, that her real father was the ruler of Edenia who was killed when the realm was conquered, and orders her to be thrown in a dungeon for execution. Jade, after making a failed attempt at setting her free, goes to the Earth heroes and explains what's happened. And Liu Kang, upon hearing she's in danger, insists on going to her rescue.

Yep...they went here again.

Although I believe the repeated casting of Kitana as a damsel-in-distress is, in large part, an effort to give Liu Kang a more personal stake in the story, it is also likely a side-effect of the "princess" stigma I talked about. And again, when I say "princess," I mean that in the most shallow, hackneyed, stock, cliched way possible. So when you have a stock, stereotypical "princess" in your story, what is the stock, obvious, cliche thing to do with her?

I made a point in the last post that a big part of what derailed Kitana is everything about her character had come to begin and end with the word "princess."
Kitana's portrayal in Mortal Kombat 9 is the apotheosis of that. Everything about her character in this game revolves around her being a "princess." I already pointed out the ways her design reflects this, but there's also how she's actually portrayed in story-mode. Virtually every line of dialogue spoken by her and to her makes some reference to she being a "princess."

"I am Kitana, Princess of Outworld!"
"You are a princess. He expects more from you..."
"Sleep well, princess."
"...when my daughter, the Princess of Outworld, was sent..."
"Now then, your highness, let's see..."

It's conveyed in the rest of Kitana's dialogue. Hokey, stilted lines designed to reinforce her as a "snobby royal." She never speaks with contractions. Every line is spoken with this overly haughty tone, as if berating peasants.

"You dare approach me?!"
"...I deal harshly with sharp-tongued intruders!"
"Silence! I will drag you before Shao Kahn..."
"You will learn respect!"

Get it..? Because she's a princess...and therefore a stereotypical snob.

Until she switches sides and joins the heroes, anyway. At which point she instantly becomes much nicer and soft-spoken. That is, when she does speak. After being rescued, she goes to Earth with the other heroes, and doesn't do much of anything from then on aside from stand near Liu Kang and look concerned (until the climax).

This is compounded by the removal of her relationship to Shao Kahn and rivalry with Mileena. As explained in my previous posts, there was complexity there. Nuance and development. Kitana's becoming a princess was, first, something she had to grow into, and more importantly, was only something that informed her character—not define it.

By taking away her issues with Kahn and Mileena, she becomes distilled into a simple, shallow, cardboard stereotype: "the princess." Her entire character arc becomes a simple black & white switch from "evil princess" to "good princess." A stuck-up snob that needed a nice dude to lighten her up.
A far cry from the engaging character that captured fans' attention years ago.

Anyway, Kitana becomes a non-entity until the rather infamous climax of the story.
Because of Raiden's visions and meddling with events, Shao Kahn decides to take Shang Tsung's soul/power and give it to Sindel. While Raiden and Liu Kang are trying to convince the Elder Gods to help, she ambushes the heroes and slaughters them single-handed.

Sub-Zero, Jax, Jade, Smoke, Stryker, and Kabal all die. Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade are knocked unconscious, Nightwolf sacrifices himself to kill Sindel, and Kitana—who suffers a severe beating at her mother's hands—lives only long enough to die in Liu Kang's arms, wishing they could've met under "different circumstances."

Things get worse as we later learn her soul, along with the souls of the other fallen heroes, are damned to the Netherealm where they become revenant slaves to Quan Chi and Shinnok.

Final Insult
Like I said, whether or not Kitana's MK9 outfits suit her is debatable. The thematic meaning of her story is just me connecting dots and embellishing. My belief guilt and redemption are significant factors in her motivation and arc is reading between the lines. The overemphasis on Kitana being a "princess" is just bad writing. I won't deny any of that.

But whether you want to read between the lines or just accept the story as it's presented at face value, one thing Kitana had—which helped make her a stand-out character, strong hero, and effective protagonist—was agency. As explained, SHE learned the truth about her past under HER own initiative. SHE chose to turn against Shao Kahn, despite the risk. SHE overcame her clone, escaped Outworld, eluded assassins, gained allies, saved Sindel, and freed Edenia HERSELF. Her choices, her actions, her initiative, her agency.

And Mortal Kombat 9 burned that all to the ground...along with everything else about her.

Now, with this new storyline, she never learned the truth about her past. We're introduced to her still being used and manipulated by Shao Kahn—with no sense she's even questioning her place. That is until she meets Liu Kang. For it is Liu Kang—because he's such a nice guy—that kick-starts her change. It's Raiden who encourages her to question her loyalty to Kahn and find answers—flat-out pointing her in what direction to go.

And she doesn't discover the truth about her past. Shao Kahn outright tells her himself. And there is no conflict or development from this revelation. Immediately after telling her the truth about Edenia, he has her thrown in a dungeon to be executed. The choice to join the good guys is made for her.
And why does she ultimately side with the good guys? Because Liu Kang is so nice to her. 

Unlike the old story, she fails to free Sindel and is killed. And the implication is very clear: if Liu Kang hadn't been away with Raiden, it wouldn't have happened. Kitana only died because Liu Kang wasn't there to protect her.
And the story ends with her as an undead slave for Quan Chi. She doesn't even have the luxury of remaining a villain by choice.

It's baffling to me. How do you take one of your best characters, one that has grown organically through the story, and systematically trash everything about her? Everything interesting—or potentially interesting—about her is retconned out of the story. Her agency is robbed from her. Her accomplishments are taken away. And in the end, she's reduced to a victim.

And that's probably the one take-away from Kitana's role in Mortal Kombat 9. The ultimate pay-off to her role in the story is to die so that Liu Kang can get really mad at Raiden about it. Taking an independent female protagonist, stripping away her agency or self-reliance, and victimizing her for the sole purpose of furthering a male protagonist's own story...they have a name for that:
Women in Refrigerators.

And, in the end, that is the final insult. That is what became of Kitana in Mortal Kombat 9. Everything that made her a compelling and strong protagonist was taken away, piece by piece, and she was stuffed in the fridge.

 Walking Away
I'd stuck with Mortal Kombat through a lot highs and lows, but MK9 would be the one that broke me. Not just because of Kitana—I don't want to give the impression my enjoyment of the series was based solely on one character. There were a lot of things about MK9 that pissed me off.

Like I had said in my first post, a lot of what kept me coming back to the series was the storyline and MK9 just took a hot, steaming piss all over it. I could've accepted a reboot—I still wouldn't like it, but I could've accepted it—if the old storyline hadn't been trashed in the process with this idiotic time travel nonsense.

In regard to Kitana in particular, they didn't just take her in a direction I didn't like. They didn't invent a new version that was inferior to the old one. They invalidated she ever existed. I realize that might seem odd—because it's not like the old games have gone anywhere—but there's just something about a character being retconned out of existence that stings worse.

I suppose it's the lack of closure—the old Kitana never got a proper ending. Maybe it was their insistence this was the old Kitana and this is how she'd always been. I don't know. But I was left with a deep, seething bitterness every time I found myself reminded that, for a generation of Mortal Kombat fans, THIS is Kitana. This two-bit, bastardization mockery saying dumb shit like, "You will learn respect!" This winking loser who's defined by being the "princess" and "hero's girlfriend," nothing more.

I had to move on. There was nothing for me.
The old story and characters had been wrecked, and I had nothing to look forward to. Did I really need to see Kitana as an undead slave of Quan Chi? Do I care if she gets resurrected or not? Do I want to see Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade—two characters I despise—carry on as the main heroes of the series? Do I need to see more recent characters I liked get ruined and destroyed? I mean, look how badly they botched Kitana, Mileena, Sub-Zero, Raiden, Sektor, and many others...what chance does Sareena have?

Mortal Kombat 9 was the end of the line for me. I walked...and incidentally, only a few months later, DC Comics hit me with the Nu52.
Maybe Warner Bros. just doesn't like me?

...or is it?
So I was done with Mortal Kombat. Kitana was FUBAR. But, believe it or not, there might actually be a light at the end of this tunnel.

Come back for the final part of this retrospective, where I'll discuss Mortal Kombat X, fictional time travel, parallel timelines, and the real Kitana just might get her proper ending.

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