How Warner Bros. is selling Mortal Kombat.
Outworld. Earthrealm. Netherrealm. Ancient prophecies.
If any of the above ring any sort of bells for you, you’re likely part of the target audience for Mortal Kombat, this week’s adaptation of the popular arcade video game of the same name and a reboot of the film series that ran briefly in the mid-1990s.
Any distillation of the plot will only end in abject confusion and likely more than a few tears, so let me simply share the brief synopsis shared on IMDb: MMA fighter Cole Young seeks out Earth’s greatest champions in order to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe.
So you get the gist. What Warner Bros. is really selling in the campaign below, though, is an uber-violent fantasy story with fan-favorite characters and the promise of at least one spinal column being removed from a fighter. The lukewarm critical reception to date has earned the movie a 68% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so let’s dive into the marketing and see what’s what.
The first teaser image came out in December of last year, showing no characters or anything else, just the recognizable logo and the promise of a release in both theaters and on HBO Max.
Scorpio and Sub-Zero, two of the most popular characters from the games, are featured on the next poster (by marketing agency Concept Arts), released in February. Their two faces are split by a knife in an image that likely became the mobile device lock screen for a great many individuals.
A similar division is made on an IMAX poster that puts the two biggest characters as the most prominent faces on their respective teams. It’s a familiar design, used by many of the biggest recent franchises and is meant to tell audiences that no matter who their preferred fighter is, they’re featured in the film.
A long-running history and cover-up are hinted at in the restricted trailer (3.3 million views on YouTube), released in mid-February and teased ahead of time by a series of short character previews. We learn this because a paramilitary unit has learned of a secret organization – and their tournament – whose members have enhanced abilities and oh who cares what the actual story is. Sub-Zero, Scorpion and other popular characters are all on-screen here, and someone says “Finish him!” so it’s all good albeit very violent.
Shortly thereafter reporting came out it had become the most-viewed red-band trailer in the first 24 hours ever.
A “fan reaction” video showing people enthusiastically freaking out over the first trailer came out about a week after the trailer did.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website has the barest volume of information, with a “Synopsis” and the various trailers along with links to the official social network profiles.
A mobile site allowed people to put an AR-powered version of their favorite character’s mask on their own face.
Advertising, Press and Publicity
A first look at the movie came via EW’s 2021 Movie Preview in January, including comments from the filmmakers and cast along with a handful of photos. Just ahead of the trailer in February an advance look at Sanada as Scorpion was released, with more character photos coming out shortly after that.
Like the rest of WB’s 2021 slate, the movie was among those shifted to a hybrid theatrical/streaming (via HBO Max) release when that announcement was made in November of last year. A January promo showed off a bit of initial footage.
Artwork like this, released in March, shows more of the cast, splitting the characters into teams led by Sub-Zero and Scorpion. That and similar art was used for online ads and likely for outdoor billboards and other units as well.
JoBlo got an exclusive clip at the end of March.
The first TV spot came out about the same time, showing the military unit’s efforts to stop the conflict before it destroys the world. Additional spots hit different aspects of the story and focused on different characters, but all carried the same violent pitch to audiences.
Costar Lewis Tan, who plays Cole Young, an MMA fighter at the center of the story, was interviewed about the evolution of his career from behind-the-scenes to leading man and how he’s working to undo stereotypes of Asian-American actors. The training Tan underwent in preparation for the role was shown in a video from advocacy group GoldHouse.
In early April a “Meet the Kast” featurette was released that had the actors talking about the story, the action and living up to fan expectations with the characters. Another video focused on the combat training the cast underwent to get ready for the film.
The first clip of music from the movie showed off a new techno-remix version of the game’s theme song.
One commercial created for and by Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block featured a “felt-band” trailer mixing movie footage with homemade figures of the characters inflicting one “felt-ality” after another on each other.
Warner Bros. sponsored maker YouTube channel Hacksmith Industries to create a real-life version of Scorpion’s chain attack.
Additional promos included comments from the select critics who were invited to a screening of the movie’s first 13 minutes.
There were additional interviews with costars Ludi Lin (playing Liu Kang) about his career to date and with Joe Taslim (playing Sub-Zero) about his blazingly fast fighting skills.
A premiere event with the stars in attendance was held in Sydney Australia earlier this week.
In the last few days a handful of clips, most of them showing some of the movie’s key fights or action sequences, have been released.
One more featurette from IMAX had the cast and crew sharing how excited they were to see the movie on the biggest possible screen. And Warner Bros. took one more chance to get people excited by releasing the first seven minutes of the film to show more of what people could expect.
Whatever you think about the individual elements of the campaign, we can likely agree this is the overall message Warner Bros. is sending to the audience and sufficiently summarizes the marketing efforts the studio has put forth.