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Mortal Kombat writer Greg Russo on Cole Young, sequel ideas, and the set-up from that final shot
Last week, the much-anticipated new Mortal Kombat film finally arrived in theaters and on HBO Max, treating fans to two hours of battles for the fate of the world, champions discovering and unlocking their powers, and of course, lots of brutal fatalities.
It's a lot to take in, whether you're a longtime Mortal Kombat devotee or a new fan just discovering the lore behind the fights, which is why when we talked to screenwriter Greg Russo about the film, we couldn't limit things to questions about how the film started. We also had to talk about how it ends, from Cole Young's identity to potential sequel setups and, of course, that thrilling final shot.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for Mortal Kombat below, including the very end of the film.**
Long before the film actually hit theaters, fans were speculating over Lewis Tan's new fighter character, Cole Young. Cole is introduced in both the trailers and the film itself as a struggling mixed martial artist who's good at being a punching bag, but seemingly not much else until he finally learns what the dragon mark on his body really means. Despite this seemingly straightforward approach to the character, fans wondered from the beginning if Cole might have something bigger to hide, if he might be a pre-existing Mortal Kombat character like fan-favorite hero Johnny Cage or possibly even a more obscure but still pre-existing fighter from the games.
According to Russo, very early drafts of the Mortal Kombat script did explore this possibility, but not with a character like Cage. No, early on the idea was to possibly make Cole the modern incarnation of the character he actually ends up being descended from in the film, Scorpion.
"But I never liked that. It was disingenuous. It wasn't who Scorpion was," Russo said. "And I was like, 'No, we have to do these characters justice.' And so in a way, I kind of put my foot down. I was like, 'He's not becoming Scorpion. He's going to be his own character. Scorpion is Scorpion and Cole is Cole. Let's tell the story. We can make it work.'"
It was that sense of avoiding the disingenuous when it came to both classic and new Mortal Kombat characters that helped guide Russo and the rest of the filmmaking team to the conclusion that Cole Young isn't some hidden character from the games, but an entirely new creation.
"We didn't want to alter any of the pre-existing mythology," Russo explained. "We didn't want to change who characters were. We didn't want to change characters' backstories. We wanted to be authentic there. We wanted to be faithful to it.
"So I was reading all these theories too, and first of all, I loved the fact [Cole] was getting people thinking and talking about it and coming up with wild [theories.] Some of them were just crazy. So the idea of creating an original character and then trying to shoehorn that character into a pre-existing character would make us have to change who that pre-existing character was. And again, that was just part of the mission statement that we didn't want to change what was there. That felt disingenuous."
With that in mind, tying Scorpion to Cole without turning Cole into Scorpion became a natural extension of Russo's wish to "bookend" the film with the centuries-long battle between Scorpion and his nemesis, Sub-Zero.
"So then I had a storyline 400 years ago. I had a modern-day storyline. I had Scorpion and Sub-Zero opening, and I knew I wanted to bookend the movie to Scorpion and Sub-Zero. So then it became a matter of trying to ... As a storyteller, you're always trying to connect the dots," Russo explained. "You're always trying to draw the narrative throughline. And I wanted to figure out, 'How do I tell the Scorpion/Sub-Zero story, but also have a modern day story that connects to it organically?' And then that became Cole. He became that character that I knew I could link his journey with Scorpion and Sub-Zero's story. And that's where he was born to be Scorpion's descendant."
So Cole Young didn't get to secretly be Johnny Cage, but that doesn't mean the legendary Hollywood star turned fighting champion is entirely absent from the film. It's only a brief teaser, but the film's final shot sets up the idea that Cole is headed off to California to recruit Cage for a Mortal Kombat sequel. So, why save Cage for the second film?
"We knew that he was one of the original seven that wasn't going to appear. The reason he's not in the narrative really has to do with Kano's place in the narrative, because those two characters are very similar and they would just be talking over each other the whole way," Russo said. "So we knew that it was better to save Johnny for hopefully a later story.
"And then it became a matter of, Well, we know we want to put him in there somewhere. We want the fans who love Johnny to be like, 'All right, awesome. We know he's in the universe. We know he's there. And we're looking forward to it.' And so then it was like, 'How do we do it in a way that was fun?'"
The Citizen Cage poster, in a nod to the games, is certainly a fun way to tease Johnny Cage's presence in the Mortal Kombat sequel we hopefully get, but what else could a sequel bring? Russo acknowledged he already has a wishlist of what he'd like to see and who he'd like to introduce, and while he didn't tell us everything, he did tease a new realm and at least one other major character.
"In the back of my head, I was always thinking like, 'Where can I go? Where can the world go so that it's not painted into a corner?' And so one of the realms that I felt like it didn't make sense to introduce in this story, because we were so focused on Earthrealm and Outworld, was Edenia, which is another big realm in the Mortal Kombat universe," Russo said. "And that has a ton of great characters that reside there, their storylines intersect there. My favorite character, Kitana, is a princess in Edenia and it just didn't feel right to bring her in. There's other characters too that people love there, like Sindel and Jade and all those characters. So that's a whole realm that I think is worth exploring, and I have some really cool ideas of what I would do with storylines there."
Will we get to see the champions of Earthrealm and Outworld meet Edenia in Mortal Kombat 2? Russo told us he's ready for a sequel if Warner Bros. is, so cross your fingers and hope for a follow-up.