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Galaxy Brains: Mortal Kombat aspires to be pro wrestling

All Elite Wrestling announcer Excalibur helps us grapple with fantasy fight movies

Man wearing a suit and wrestling mask stands in front of an image from the Mortal Kombat movie. Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

Besides adding an average joe hero named Cole Young and not having an actual tournament at all, the new film Mortal Kombat is a shockingly faithful adaptation of the beloved video game franchise. The reboot had a lot to live up to — from the games to the beloved original 1995 movie — but it delivers both the gruesome, gratuitous violence and the cheeky catchphrases we, as fans, demand from the series. The Mortal Kombat universe is big, colorful, and brash; filled with eccentric, maniacal characters with impenetrable backstories.

If that is starting to sound familiar, you might be a pro-wrestling fan, too. Sure, no one gets their head cut off or their heart ripped out in pro wrestling (at least not yet), but the rest of the formula is pretty similar. The audience for a fighting game and a pro-wrestling show aren’t terribly dissimilar. And it can’t be a coincidence that as the Mortal Kombat games were dominating the sales charts in the 1990s, pro wrestling was exploding in popularity thanks to The Rock, Steve Austin, and the New World Order.

In fact, the connection between wrestling and Mortal Kombat is so deep that there was a pro wrestler whose entire character was a cheap ripoff of Sub-Zero. Mortal Kombat is wrestling, and wrestling is Mortal Kombat, and a Mortal Kombat movie ultimately competes with the visceral thrills of actual people actually falling through real tables or getting hit with chairs.

In a new episode of Polygon’s Galaxy Brains, Jonah Ray and I ask Excalibur, the lead announcer of All Elite Wrestling Dynamite on TNT, about why pro wrestling and Mortal Kombat are so deeply connected. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation (which has been edited for clarity):

Excalibur: If you think of what pro wrestling is, it’s real life taken to an extreme. If somebody gets power bombed in real life, chances are they’re not getting back up from that. We’re in a pro-wrestling ring. It can happen five nights a week, ad nauseam. And so then fighting games became taking pro-wrestling moves out of the ring and putting it back into a real world setting. The pro-wrestling fighting game and a Mortal Kombat movie are like cousins on the same side of the family tree.

Dave: Before you came on, we were talking about the amazing brawl between Sonya Blade and Kano toward the end of the movie that includes toilet seats and garden gnomes as the fatality. What was the most creative prop you’ve ever seen in a professional wrestling match?

Excalibur: Kenny Omega and John Moxley, at AEW Full Gear in 2019, had a match. It was a hardcore match. And John Moxley had the barbed wire wrapped baseball bat. And that’s par for the course in pro wrestling, but Kenny Omega brought out a broom wrapped in barbed wire because he’s “The Cleaner.” And then he swept the broom back and forth over Jon Moxley’s back, or on Jon Moxley back, which was one of the most viscerally horrifying images I’ve seen in a long time.

Dave: I think I watched that match with my hands over my face, through my fingers. I was watching this because it was so brutal, but there was fantastic storytelling in that match. Superb. But storytelling is incredibly important. It’s paramount in pro wrestling, just like in martial arts films like Mortal Kombat. There’s physicality and gestures and looks and knowing where the camera is. All those important things that go into making a great, memorable wrestling match are things that are also important in movies. And to me, despite having all this money and special effects in movies, movies can never really compete with the visceral feeling of watching pro wrestling. I mean, do you think Mortal Kombat, this particular Mortal Kombat, gets close to that? Or is there a different martial arts or fighting movie that captures that feeling of pro wrestling storytelling?

Excalibur: It’s really tough because live pro wrestling is, I think, one of the great fan experiences that you can have. It’s still something where it’s like live theater, where even if you’re up in the cheap seats, you can still hear the smack of flesh and you could see the redness developing. And so when you’re watching that on TV or if you’re watching it in a theater, you know in your head what’s what’s being conveyed. But unless you’re there physically in the same room or same arena where it’s happening, it’s kind of hard to impart that same vibe. That’s why The Wrestler may be the best pro-wrestling movie. It’s a story about a man, not necessarily a story about pro wrestling. Pro wrestling will always exist in its own place.

For a bigger deep dive into Mortal Kombat, or to hear our episodes on Justice League, the Mighty Ducks reboot, and Godzilla vs. Kong, check out the Galaxy Brains feed, wherever you get your podcasts.

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