It's telling that the two brands featured in 2008's Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe both were subject to major reboots in the years that immediately followed the game's release: Mortal Kombat with 2011's Mortal Kombat (often referred to unofficially as Mortal Kombat 9), and DC the same year with its "New 52" relaunch, under which the publisher canceled all of its ongoing comic series, jettisoned decades of in-universe continuity, and launched 52 new series all at issue #1.

These were at once narrative and economic gestures, attempts to streamline years worth of storytelling for hoped-for new audiences in a way that fundamentally altered the ways in which stories would be told within those universes -- along with the ways in which those narratives would be disseminated to consumers -- for years to come. For DC, that meant taking the first steps in embracing the comics industry's inevitable digital future. For the developers of Mortal Kombat, that meant publishing increasingly slick games with flashy downloadable bonus characters that screamed "corporate synergy."

Now, I'm not arguing this game is why these franchises deemed it necessary to reboot. Certainly, both had coughed up their share of dubious content since the early 1990s. Rather, MK vs. DC is a symptom of, at minimum, the perception of rot at the core of each of these brands in the late aughts: a rot that made rebranding necessary if these brands were to endure.

The game's script, by Jimmy Palmiotti, comes at the end of a decidedly "corporate" phase in the writer's career: it was immediately preceded by his work, in 2007, on comic book versions of Friday the 13th and The Hills Have Eyes. But whereas his Friday the 13th comic (while fairly by-the-numbers) at least evinced some meta-awareness of the brand, MK vs. DC plays its silliness ineffectually straight. Most encounters in the story begin with some random character slowly approaching another from behind and saying something like "Hi, I'm Catwoman," to which the other replies, "You DARE to enter my domain?!" Then one or both of them shouts, literally, "FIGHT!"

What inevitably follows may well be the aesthetic nadir of dial-a-combo fighting gameplay. It's mostly functional on a technical level, but it's so chunky and predictable that by the player's second fight, it's already the least interesting aspect of the game. This extends to the game's match-ending "fatality" moves (or "heroic brutalities," as they're called for the DC superheroes), which are conspicuously less gruesome than typical Mortal Kombat fare owing to MK vs. DC's "Teen" rating.

The game's lack of commitment to either DC's rich characterization or Mortal Kombat's uncompromising violence is especially striking given that, with their respective reboots just a few years later, each brand would become more like the other. Mortal Kombat 2011 went full superhero sci-fi, with an invasion plot that predated Marvel's The Avengers by a year; DC's "New 52" went full nineties grimdark for many of its new series (with the Joker graphically slicing off his own face by the publishing initiative's second week, for example).

By 2013 the brands had become virtually indistinguishable, at least in the video game world, with alternating releases (and frequent cross-promotional guest appearances) in the fighting-game genre. DC's sixty-issue adaptation of the game Injustice: Gods Among Us, about a violent Superman gone mad, was a critical and financial hit, paving the way for yet darker comics from the publisher and even to R-rated animated adaptations (not to mention 2021's live-action, R-rated The Suicide Squad). Meanwhile, the 2021 film Mortal Kombat wore its influence from superhero team-up films more proudly than ever in franchise history.

The narrative and aesthetic convergence of DC and Mortal Kombat may not have taken place fully in 2008, but their crossover fighting game clearly set the wheels in motion. That being said, I can't help but wonder at alternative histories. What different kinds of narratives might we have experienced from either brand if they had never met? To crib from The Dark Knight's lexicon, perhaps the dark and violent stories produced for us by these franchises aren't the ones we most needed; but, for as long as we continue to indulge in them, they're the ones we most certainly deserve.

Reviewed on Dec 02, 2021