This Thanksgiving weekend I was reminded of all the wonderful flavors life has to offer. I was fortunate enough to blessed with 2 complete multi-course meals with 2 days between to rest and recover. It was 4 days (I said I was fortunate) filled with family and friends and no less than 16 different entrees and 19 different dessert options. It was an immersion in the decadent pleasures of the palette, as though I had died and was laid upon a flaming Viking funerary ship made of roast beef, cranberry-apple stuffing and glazed pork chops listing about a sea of thick, rich mushroom gravy.
Regaining consciousness on Monday morning the one taste that really lingered in my mouth was that of sweet, delicious irony.
My sister-in-law is, like myself, a big, big fan of all things science-fiction (and science non-fiction). Over the summer, I visited her in Virginia where she lives with her two adorable heirs and her husband (my brother). While I was there, she picked up on the fact that I was an avid fan of Soul Calibur 4 for the X-Box 360. Maybe it was the 72 hours spent in their office space, slouching in the leather chair trying to unlock every costume customization item and weapon that clued her in, maybe we’re kindred spirits, who can say for sure?
Eager to experience it for herself and knowing that I did not have an X-Box 360, she brought a copy of Midway Games’ new release Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (and an X-Box 360) to the big family get-together at a secluded, rural Maine homestead.
Glancing at the box art featuring Mortal Kombat standards Scorpion, Raiden and Sub-Zero squaring off against DC icons Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman I found that just the title itself bought a smile to my face. A smile spurned by the absolute appreciation of the significance, the irony, the deliciousness of the existence of this game. That someone suggested this game even be made, suggests a sense of humor darker than Gotham City at midnight and about as subtle as a speeding locomotive leaping a tall building in a single bound.
I was a 16-year-old, middle class, white male in 1992. My friends and I were at the core of the demographic that Midway was attempting to tap with the creation of the original Mortal Kombat coin-op arcade game. In a move to counter the dominance of Capcom’s Street Fighter 2, a 2-D fighting game whose graphics were comprised of pixilated, cartoon-style drawings, Midway utilized a technique of green-screened actors allowing for photorealistic representations of their characters. And while this was a successful contrast to Street Fighter 2 in terms of the visual experience of the game, it came with the side-effect of elevating the graphic representation of the violence to a degree that crossed a line which many adults at the time considered to be indecent, at the very least, but potentially pornographic at the very worst.
As the quarters filtered through the slots of arcade cabinets around the country, home videogame console technology reached a point where the potential of bringing the game’s possibly pornographic violence into the suburban, middle class home loomed inevitably in the distance. Ever-ready to protect our children from exposure to animated violence perpetrated by pixelated, science-fiction ninjas, Congress got to work.
Meetings were called to order, investigations were conducted, fingers were shame-inducingly wagged. There was much taking of stands and prancing about the white-columned, tax-payer owned buildings in Washington and state capitals around the country. Ultimately, it was decided that Mortal Kombat and the other violent videogames being produced were negatively influencing the behavior of our nation’s children and that the videogame industry had forced them, through their unwillingness to self-impose ethical standards, to institute an authority to police the medium guaranteeing that no child would grow up to be a lightning-wielding, Japanese god of thunder or a Hollywood actor who went about punching ninjas in the balls while doing the splits.
In 1994, after a 2 year gestation period, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was born. This was exactly 40 years after the same Congress forced the implementation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) to protect our nation’s children from being negatively influenced by the comic book industries unwillingness to self-impose ethical standards guaranteeing that no child would grow up to be a lightning-wielding, Japanese god of thunder or a Hollywood actor who went about punching ninjas in the balls while doing the splits.
In the decade that followed the creation of the CCA, DC Comics and its library of characters expanded and thrived. The Code forced them to engage new readers in ways that weren’t as base and simple as extreme graphic violence and mild to extreme adult situations. Horror, war and crime comics were no longer the bread and butter of the industry. Publishers turned to costumed, escapist, science-fiction, power-fantasies. The Age of Superheroes had begun.
During this period known as the Silver Age of comics, DC introduced the world to updated versions of its most popular characters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash. They introduced many of the themes, conventions and concepts that are associated with the superhero genre today. These characters established themselves as the pop culture icons that exist today largely due to the restrictions put in place by the CCA. Their representation as ethical, self-sacrificing crusaders for justice gave them their cross-demographic readership appeal and marketing value.
DC’s characters thrived due to the creativity of the writers and artists who worked within the frequently ridiculous limitations imposed on them by the Comics Code Authority (legend has it that former Editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Marv Wolfman, was not allowed to use his name in the credits as it was a violation of the ban on werewolves). Mortal Kombat’s characters helped initiate the congressional hearings that led to the creation of a ratings system designed to limit consumer access to the very games that they were appearing in. DC’s characters evolved into globally recognized icons of American popular culture and ambassadors of freedom, justice and hope for a better tomorrow. Mortal Kombat’s fans frequently complain that the game sucks if the fatalities aren’t gorier than a butcher’s dumpster after a particularly busy Sunday afternoon.
This kind of cross-marketing is nothing new to comics or videogames, fighting games in particular. In 1997 Capcom released a hugely successful cooperative effort in Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter which teamed up several of the popular characters from its Street Fighter franchise with several of Marvel’s most popular. In 2008 Soul Calibur 4 actually featured characters from the Star Wars universe including Darth Vader and Yoda. This particular crossover, however, is indicative of something more than just an attempt to expand your consumer base or answer the age old “who would win in a fight?” question.
Have you ever seen Kano (he’s a character from Mortal Kombat) shaped pasta noodles at the supermarket? Any Sonya Blade (she’s a character from Mortal Kombat) neckties? How about a line of handbags modeled after the various costumes that Jax (he’s a character from Mortal Kombat) has had over the years? Mortal Kombat characters in and of themselves are not marketable. They exist only to perpetuate a gimmick. They were created for and exist because of the violence in the games they are featured in. When the violence they are associated with is taken away, nothing compelling remains.
For Midway and the creators of Mortal Kombat, the possibility of associating their characters with those of DC must have been received as a gift from God (or Gods, or the mailman, or whatever you believe). Finally, after 16 years of being mired in controversy and concerns over the seduction of the innocent they achieved legitimacy and relevance. DC Comics walks in and hands them 60 years of reputation, parental trust and fan loyalty (not to mention global marketing strength). The Flash himself could not have signed that contract faster.
But why would DC do it? Why would DC gamble with a catalog of characters they spent generations cultivating? Why would they risk the association of their products with the violent, one-trick nature of the Mortal Kombat series? What do they have to gain from it?
Surely they could produce their own fighting game that would succeed without crossing into areas of questionable content. Surely with the strength of Time Warner (their owner) behind them they aren’t looking to outsource videogame development or experiment with their characters in this realm of digital entertainment. In the 16 years since the creation of Mortal Kombat, DC has produced hours of films, cartoons, novels, comics and videogames featuring their characters, why take this step now? Is the Jimmy Palmiotti background story really that good? Is it a symbolic battle between characters society considers to be “Good Guy” characters vs. characters that society considers to be “Bad Guy” characters?
Arguments could be made to support all of these scenarios, but the truth is simpler: they just don’t know what to do with their characters.
The other day I was hanging out in the Justice League cafeteria at the Hall of Justice. As Batman rolled by in his new tumbler-style Batmobile given to him Barry Meyer, Chairman and Chief Executive of Warner Brothers Studios, I overheard Wonder Woman say to Green Lantern: “It’s Batman’s world, we’re all just living in it.”
Since the genre-restructuring release of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, DC has been absolutely petrified in their attempts to do anything with the other characters in their library. How do you sell character as hopeful as Superman in a world dominated by a character grim as Batman?
Since 1989, Marvel Comics, DC’s biggest competitor has released 3 “Spider-Man” movies, 3 “X-Men” movies, 3 “Punisher” movies, 2 “Fantastic 4” movies, 3 “Blade” movies, a “Hulk” movie, a remake of the “Hulk” movie, 2 “Daredevil” movies (counting “Elektra”), a “Ghost Rider” movie and an “Iron Man” movie. In the same time, DC has released *7* “Batman” movies (counting “Catwoman”) and 1 “Superman” movie which was inter-galactically panned by critics and audiences alike (I’m assuming they would’ve hated it on Krypton just as much as Earth).
DC has proven that the only thing it can successfully, consistently produce and cash in on outside of their comic books is Batman. They wring their hands and fret about the possibility of their characters not being received like Batman. They don’t have any other characters like Batman. How are they going to continue to survive with just Batman? On the way to the bank to cash all of the big “Batman” checks, a cultural philosophy evolved within the offices of Warner/Brothers and DC Comics which can be boiled down to: “What Would Batman Do?”
Mortal Kombat characters are dark. Their costumes communicate their inherent danger with their bony facemasks, glowing eyeballs and sharp knees. They exist in a world where they have to be prepared to fend for themselves, to fight tooth and nail and uzi just to survive on a daily basis. They would probably feel at home in Gotham city as part of a third-tier gang of thugs out-thought on a monthly basis by Batman. They would be a welcome addition to his rogues gallery and ultimately, Arkham Asylum. As such, when DC received the proposal to cooperate in a videogame with the grimmest, grittiest, most Batman-ish, fighting game characters of the last 16 years, they jumped at the chance. Finally, a way for all of DC’s characters to be on the same level as Batman, surely this is the dawn of the new age of DC’s relevance and legitimacy in the popular culture consciousness!
What it is for DC and for Midway is a failure of character and brand marketing. A last ditch “I don’t know what else to do” response to dwindling interest and sales. Instead of working to create new value with their own characters, they are hoping to be saved by the association with the other brand. By partnering with DC, Midway is forced to remove the one thing that their fans seek most from their product: hyper-violence. By partnering with Midway, DC compromises the integrity of characters they have invested 60 years and billions of dollars into with the “cross-your-fingers” hope that somehow, on the other side, they will be more relevant to an audience that will never even know the game existed.
Never in the history of videogames or comic books has there been a more ironic pairing of two brands by two companies so desperate to find a way to make their characters more relevant in an age where they increasingly find themselves playing catch-up and struggling for new and original ideas than in “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.” I hope to one day find the wormhole that was created when they first put Superman and Scorpion (a Mortal Kombat character) on-screen together.
From a strictly game-play standpoint: whatever, it’s a fighting game. Given 72 hours with regular bathroom breaks to master the nuances of the ¼ forward and ¼ backward circle controls and determining the advantages of standing my ground or stepping 3-dimensionally into the background when range-attacked, I’m sure I would like it as much as any fighting game that I have ever played (except for Soul Calibur. I really like that game. A lot).
When I say the whole family was over for Thanksgiving dinner, I mean the whole family was over for Thanksgiving dinner. We were all sitting down after sampling the desert spread and my sister-in-law decided to take this game for a spin. In the back of my mind a conflict raged. On one hand, I knew, this is Mortal Kombat, this is NOT a good idea right now. On the other hand I knew it was DC Comics, it was Superman and Wonder Woman, how bad could it possibly be?
As Liu Kang (a character from Mortal Kombat), I repeatedly punched Superman in the face, but as Dan Larson I winced at the notion that my 58-year-old mother was watching a character who has been around as long as she has do things that she never thought he was capable of doing. As the blood sprayed and the bones were repeatedly, unquestionably, broken in crisp digital surround sound, I thought about the questions that must have been going through her mind regarding the appropriateness of the game at this family get-together, the amount of blood and violence that were being showcased for my entertainment, what kind of sick pleasure I might be deriving from a game like this. As Superman stood defenseless, broken and bloodied by my relentless assault of bicycle kicks and ninja fireballs, the narrator cried out “FINISH HIM!” and my mother, who had watched every second of the bloody contest, smiled and asked, “did you win?”