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'Mortal Kombat': Why Cole Young replaces Johnny Cage in the 2021 movie

“Finish him.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

The R-rated reboot of Mortal Kombat will soon stream on HBO Max with all your favorite characters from the iconic video game series. Behold the deadliest warriors from all the realms: Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, Raiden, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Cole Young...

...wait, Cole who?

From director Simon McQuoid and producers Todd Garner and James Wan, Mortal Kombat introduces a brand new main character never before seen in the historic franchise: Cole Young, played by Into the Badlands alum Lewis Tan. A faded mixed martial arts star, Cole sports a dragon-shaped birthmark granting him entry into an ancient tournament, and therefore, onto HBO Max.

Inverse has seen the first 13 minutes of Mortal Kombat, and through that experience as well as a conversation with the filmmakers, we learned much more about this newest “kombatant.” Read on for a closer look at Cole, and why the Mortal Kombat team opted to create a new character over including someone as iconic as, say, Johnny Cage. (By the way, where is Johnny Cage?)

While there are rampant fan theories about Cole Young (such as one theorizing Cole is Chameleon), Mortal Kombat producer Todd Garner says that there’s a very practical purpose for debuting a new character. Speaking with Inverse as well as other outlets, Garner says the addition of Cole Young allowed the filmmakers to do exactly what they needed to do: Get everyone on the same page.

“If you walked into the theater and you didn’t know anything [about Mortal Kombat], would you enjoy it?” Garner says. “We have to, by the end of the movie, get everyone caught up. So if they let us make another one, then we can start really digging into the [video game] characters.”

Lewis Tan, as newcomer “Cole Young,” is an MMA fighter in the 2021 movie Mortal Kombat. But who is he, really?Warner Bros. Pictures

Mortal Kombat, opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on April 16, is a reboot of the classic video game series first released in 1992. The games tell of Earth’s participation in an ancient martial arts tournament where the victor’s home dimension is protected from otherworldly invasion.

The first 13 minutes of Mortal Kombat is a match-up between franchise icons Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), set in the 1600s. In this opening sequence, Sub-Zero and his fellow assassins unleash untold violence on Scorpion and his loved ones, setting the two iconic characters on their vengeful path toward one another. Clearly, the relationship between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, arguably the most recognizable figures in Mortal Kombat lore, is central to the film.

But Cole Young isn’t far behind.

For the filmmakers, Cole solves several narrative problems at once. First, as a fresh face, he is the one character on the screen asking the same questions audiences of all stripes will have about Mortal Kombat.

“You have to go into [making] it knowing there are hardcore fans who know every single thing. But you have to be realistic,” Garner says. “If you’ve ever taken your mom to a movie and she’s like ‘What’s happening?’ and you’re like, ‘Mom, shut the fuck up.’ That’s the problem with Mortal Kombat. It’s so goddamn complicated. Cole asks the questions, ‘Who? What’s happening?’ and he gets the answers.”

In the opening of Mortal Kombat, which Inverse previewed, Scorpion throws down with arch-rival Sub-Zero.Warner Bros. Pictures

Another problem is that the filmmakers had “a very specific story we wanted to tell.” Garner wouldn’t specify what that story is exactly (“You’ll see when you see the movie,” he says), but it was a story “we felt it important be told.” And a blank slate like Cole Young was the ideal vehicle for that story. As the filmmakers wanted to please fans of the 30-year-old franchise, they simply couldn’t rewrite the mythology of a character fans already know.

“There are a lot of characters in the Mortal Kombat universe,” says Garner. “And there’s no character I could take and dust off and give a new backstory. We needed somebody to completely manipulate, so there’s not 30 years of people going ‘You can’t do that.’”

Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) has long been the de facto protagonist in the Mortal Kombat franchise. In 2021, that role in the story goes to Cole Young, who serves a “specific story” the filmmakers wanted to tell.Warner Bros. Pictures

Lastly, one more problem Garner and his team had was the unsavory idea of a white character (like Johnny Cage) being the hero who saves everyone. (Tan is mixed-race Chinese-British.) In Mortal Kombat lore, Johnny Cage is a Hollywood star who enters the tournament to prove he isn’t a pampered, spoiled A-lister. While Cage is rarely the capital-H hero in any given Mortal Kombat game, he is always somewhere near the center bringing levity to the serious stakes.

Garner didn’t confirm the precise whereabouts of Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat (his name came up a few times during the interview) but his absence thus far suggests the filmmakers are trying something different.

“I feel like if I was getting to make a movie with a diverse cast, it felt weird to have a white actor, literally Johnny Cage, be the hero of the story,” Garner says, adding that these discussions took place at the start of the movie’s pre-production nearly seven years ago “way before Black Lives Matter” and other pushes for diversity across industries including Hollywood.

But just because people’s favorite characters aren’t in Mortal Kombat doesn’t mean they won’t ever appear onscreen. “We don’t want to disappoint the fans,” Garner says. “That being said, there’s no possible way to make a movie where everybody gets what they want.”

But perhaps that’s something that can change in the future, should the film land with authority, paving the way for a Mortal Kombat Universe. And before you start joking about “SonyaVision,” just know, Garner is one step ahead.

“I would make WandaVision for Liu Kang and Kung Lao,” he says. “I would do a Stryker movie. I would do a Sonya and Jax movie and make it like Black Hawk Down. I’m not trying to fight fans. There’s legitimate reasons we did everything.”

Mortal Kombat will open in theaters and stream on HBO Max on April 16.