Mortal Kombat web series: From leak to Legacy

In June of last year, a video short appeared online under the name "Mortal Kombat: Rebirth." It was a polished, inventive take on the now classic fighting game franchise. Initially, its origins were unknown and fans could only speculate: Was it a clip from a new movie? An elaborate teaser for a new game?

Quickly, however, director and choreographer Kevin Tancharoen's name was attached to the project, and then the actress playing Sonya Blade, Jeri Ryan, confirmed on Twitter that it wasn't a trailer at all, but a pitch aimed at Warner Bros. One that wasn't supposed to have been made public.

"I wasn't exactly thrilled that it was leaked," Ryan says now, almost a year later. She had done the short as a favor for Tancharoen, whom she knew through a friend. Ryan first heard about the leak from fans while on a movie set in Montreal. "I came to the set, and later that day, there were 3000 tweets saying, 'What is this, what is this, what is this, what is this?' It was just crazy."

"It wasn't supposed to go on the internet," reiterates Tancharoen, who had created the short film with his own money to send "out to different producers and things like that." He had uploaded it to YouTube on what he thought was a private page -- and the rest is history. Lucky for Tancharoen, Rebirth did reach Warner Bros. and impressed the studio enough to land the director a gig creating a live-action web series, Mortal Kombat: Legacy, to promote the new game. The first episode premiered today.

Tancharoen is obviously a Mortal Kombat fan, and he says he was nervous when he first found out the clip had been leaked. "Fanboys can tear your head off if they really don't like something. And there's always going to be a mixed audience -- some people hate it; some people love it. But I was very happy with the fact that a majority of it was positive."

One of the Rebirth viewers had a particularly strong connection to the characters portrayed in the leaked video: Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon. "I was sent the link like everybody else was, and had the same kind of reaction: blown away and wondering who made this," Boon says. "To me, it was great because it was a contemporary take on it. It wasn't dated in the '90s and all that. It had this kind of very distinct dark style to it that hadn't been presented before. Everybody would always say, in the previous Mortal Kombat movies, 'I want to see one that's darker like the games,' and I think he delivered that and it resonated with a lot of people."

Enough people, it turns out, to warrant a nine-episode web series that's being distributed by the Warner Bros. Premiere division through Machinima.com's YouTube channel. Each episode highlights a few different characters from the franchise. Ryan and Michael Jai White, who played Sonya Blade and Jackson "Jax" Briggs in the original Rebirth short, have reprised their roles in the Legacy series, which also features Mortal Kombat favorites like Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Johnny Cage, Kitana and Mileena.

"I wasn't too surprised," White says of the response to the original video, which he thinks separated itself from the typical action fare available today. "I think the action world has suffered tremendously because of this formulaic approach," he says. "They have to spend so much money to trick people into the theaters, and so much CG and what have you, when just the truth will work for itself."

Ryan agrees. "Especially after the short was leaked, a lot of people had a lot of fun sending me all of the pictures of Sonya and her various outfits over the years," she laughs. The movies of the '90s have a dated feel to them, but according to Ryan, the Legacy series "is very different."

"It's a complete re-envisioning of this franchise," she adds. "And so you're true to the game to an extent and you're true to the history of these characters, but there is no campiness; there is no comic book-y kind of cartoon-y details. This is very gritty -- it's very dark. It's not a kids' show. It's very grownup, and it's just very badass."

Tancharoen says he intentionally steered Legacy away from the well-worn Liu Kang and Raiden characters, in order to go a little deeper into the lore than did past efforts. "I really wanted to make the main character someone who you may have not thought it was going to be, and that's why I picked up Jax and Sonya and Scorpion."

The Rebirth short did take a few liberties with the source material that fans on message boards quickly picked up on -- like Jax having natural arms instead of metal replacements. "A lot of people forget because they love the metal arms so much," Tancharoen reminds such critics, "but originally he didn't have them. In the first version of him in Mortal Kombat 2: no metal arms. It wasn't until the third one."

"We didn't ignore it, we just want to make a good reason why he gets them," he teases. This is what the Legacy series is all about. The plan is to show "the stakes and the emotional motivation that all of the main characters have in order to join the tournament," Tancharoen explains. "Because up until now you've never understood why they're all there and why certain relationships are in place; why Scorpion and Sub-Zero hate

"It's not a kids' show. It's very grownup, and it's just very badass." - Jeri Ryan

each other. It's all spoken about, but you've never seen it in its entirety in live-action form."

Boon says that the series also serves as a reminder to older Mortal Kombat fans of what they liked about these characters in the first place. "To me it's almost like an emotional introduction back into Mortal Kombat," he observes. "It taps into a lot of people's seeing the first movies, playing the first games, and that whole part of their life that seems very defined by Mortal Kombat."

"I'd love it if this was the first of a number of things that we can do with Kevin and Warner Brothers in terms of bringing Mortal Kombat to other media; whether it's live-action shorts like this, another feature film would be great, and of course future video games as well," Boon adds. If the Legacy series continues to grow the interest generated by the original Rebirth clip, Warner Bros. could be convinced to take it further still.

For that purpose, a completely free, grassroots web series might be the perfect way to reboot Mortal Kombat into a big box office property again. Even Tancharoen puts up his hands when asked if Legacy would ever have happened had the Rebirth video not leaked out last June. "That is a very good question, because I think the honest answer is I don't know," he admits. "If I had sent it over and they liked it, then maybe. But I think the attention it got virally, certainly you can't say that didn't help -- the fact that people were watching it and people liked it, and it had fans. I think that definitely pushed it."

White, perhaps channeling Jax's confidence in the face of a tough fight, seems the most excited about the potential for this project. "I really would love a crack at taking this into theaters," he says.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.