Who is your favorite fighter in all of Mortal Kombat? Is it Scorpion? Is it Sub-Zero? What about Liu Kang? Kitana? Sonya Blade? How about... Cole Young?
If you’re asking, “Cole who?” you aren’t alone. In the R-rated reboot of Mortal Kombat, now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max, a completely new character enters the deadliest tournament in the multiverse. His name is Cole Young, and no, he’s not a replacement for Johnny Cage.
Here’s everything you need to know about the newest fighter in Mortal Kombat, including insight from Mortal Kombat star Lewis Tan and co-screenwriter Greg Russo, as well as major spoilers about the character as seen in the movie.
Warning: Spoilers for Mortal Kombat ahead.
Who is Cole Young in Mortal Kombat?
Cole Young is the new protagonist of the movie Mortal Kombat, the R-rated movie reboot of the popular video game series directed by Simon McQuoid. Played by Lewis Tan (Into the Badlands), Cole Young is a washed-up mixed martial arts fighter with a mysterious dragon-shaped birthmark. Cole soon learns his birthmark is an invitation to Mortal Kombat, an ancient tournament that decides the fate of Earth against the invasion of the alien planet Outworld.
Unlike the other characters in the movie, like Liu Kang, Jax, and Sub-Zero, Cole is an original character not from the video games and invented for the movie.
Later in the movie, Cole is revealed to be a descendant of Scorpion, with his dragon-shaped birthmark inherited through Hanzo Hasashi’s bloodline. This, again, is a new twist on existing Mortal Kombat lore, as Scorpion has never had another distant descendant in any of the games.
As an entry-point into the Mortal Kombat universe, Cole says much of what’s on the viewer’s mind, including mocking the title at one point — specifically, the spelling of “Kombat.” But few people are laughing when he showcases his inner power, sporting powerful armor that also creates blades, which he uses alongside his resurrected relative Scorpion in a two-on-one battle against Sub-Zero.
By the end of the movie, Cole isn’t just a part of the Mortal Kombat universe, but an active part of the effort to fight back against Shang Tsung and his minions. In a final scene that perfectly sets up the sequel, Cole goes off in search of the iconic Mortal Kombat character Johnny Cage, laying the groundwork for whatever the franchise has in mind next.
Why did Mortal Kombat create Cole Young?
As we’ve previously reported, Cole Young was invented for several helpful reasons. Primarily, Cole helps the confusing mythology of Mortal Kombat be accessible to a wider audience.
“That’s the problem with Mortal Kombat,” producer Todd Garner told Inverse in March. “It’s so goddamn complicated. Cole asks the questions, ‘Who? What’s happening?’ and he gets the answers.”
With a new character, the filmmakers had the freedom to do whatever they wanted with Cole Young, instead of changing beloved characters like Liu Kang. “There’s no character I could take and dust off and give a new backstory,” Garner said. “We needed somebody to completely manipulate, so there’s not 30 years of people going, ‘You can’t do that.’”
Co-screenwriter Greg Russo, who is credited with Dave Callaham, wrote the latest draft of Mortal Kombat and injected his lifelong love for the games into the movie. Russo did not invent Cole Young, nor was it his idea for the movie to have him as an audience vehicle.
“It was something the studio wanted,” Russo tells Inverse. “The new protagonist was an idea loaded in prior to my involvement.”
Still, Russo took advantage of his time on the script to evolve Cole into someone with much deeper ties to the Mortal Kombat universe than anyone else.
“I inherited a script in 2016, and that had the new protagonist in it,” Russo says. “But it had no tie to the mythology of Mortal Kombat. I thought, if we’re going to do it, I want to make sure we do it right and that this character fits into the mythology in an organic way.”
While Cole Young is functionally a fish out of blood-soaked water and the audience vehicle, Russo believes Cole is more than that:
“We have a ton of mythology. When you write a film, it’s different than writing a game. You write a film for all audiences. Most of the people that go see these movies actually don’t know what Mortal Kombat is.”
“We have a responsibility to get a ton of mythology and a ton of characters in a short time,” Russo adds. “It helps us narratively to have a character who doesn’t know [anything] so the pre-existing characters can let the audience in.”
Russo, a diehard fan of Mortal Kombat who still remembers Kitana’s combos in Mortal Kombat II by memory, tells Inverse he’s seen dozens of new characters introduced in every Mortal Kombat game. He says it’s not so different with the movie. Just as important, it was critical that Cole not hog the spotlight away from iconic characters like Scorpion and Sub-Zero.
“I’ve seen movie franchises where they bring in a new character and that character is the poster child of the movie, and I felt that was wrong,” he says. “Even though we are bringing in a new character, which Mortal Kombat does with every game, all the characters you love are all going to have their moments. They’re going to do their cool shit and no one is going to feel they’re in a corner doing nothing. That was important for me.”
Becoming Cole Young in Mortal Kombat
Lewis Tan, the half-British, half-Chinese star of Mortal Kombat, fills in the MMA gloves of Cole Young. A martial artist of 20 years — Tan’s father was the fight coordinator of Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman — Tan knew he was suited for Cole Young, but still felt the pressure in playing a new face to an established, nearly 30-year-old franchise.
“It’s a lot of pressure to play a new character for a franchise this big,” Tan tells Inverse. “But I think with Mortal Kombat, it’s not uncommon for there to be new characters. It started with seven, now there’s almost 80. I entered the film with the mindset that I was going to deliver a performance emotionally and physically that was on par with these really iconic characters.”
It helped that the credited fight trainer of Mortal Kombat, Nino Pilla, descends from martial arts royalty.
“Nino Pilla is a student of Dan Inosanto, and Dan Inosanto is the legendary guru who Bruce Lee trained,” Tan explains. “What we learned from Nino is incredible. We’re on set with legitimate martial artists. We want to make this movie great, and I learned from everyone in different ways.”
Is Cole Young the “hero” of Mortal Kombat?
Although Cole Young is the audience vehicle of Mortal Kombat, Greg Russo doesn’t think Mortal Kombat has ever been about one lone hero. “I think of it as an ensemble,” he says.
“The way the rhythm of the story works, you come in with Cole and, like a video game, you slowly unlock the rest of the crew as you go through the movie,” Russo says.
“We did that intentionally. At the end of the day, we’re building towards The Avengers. We’re building towards an ensemble. Our protagonist is only one part. It was never, ‘Let’s not make Liu Kang the protagonist.’ It was, let’s introduce them one by one. That was the goal. Liu Kang is still the chosen one, it’s just a matter of slowly getting those pieces unlocked.”
Mortal Kombat is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
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