Kung Lao is not Earthrealm's champion in Mortal Kombat 1, but he should be.
Recent Mortal Kombat 1 trailers and certain intro dialogues confirm that Raiden is Earthrealm's champion in Mortal Kombat 1
That also confirms that the Kung Lao Liu Kang named champion at the end of Mortal Kombat 11 was the Great Kung Lao, not present-day Kung Lao (Also, the fact that the Kung Lao at the end of Mortal Kombat 11 was already White Lotus. Mortal Kombat 1's Kung Lao is not).
The revelation that Raiden and Liu Kang have more or less just swapped roles in the Mortal Kombat universe has garnered mixed reception. Some Kung Lao fans view this as an insult to Kung Lao, a character who hasn't received the best treatment in modern-day Mortal Kombat entertainment.
I've been a fan of Kung Lao since his introduction in Mortal Kombat 2. So, some might see this as nothing more than fanboyism. Let me explain.
Kung Lao's Forgotten History: From Respected Monk to Mocked Side Character
One of the biggest misconceptions about fighting games is that the stories/writing are never good. And since they're never good, why bother learning about them?
As such, many fans of the various fighting game franchises out there have no clue about the lore of their favorite fighting games. Mortal Kombat is no exception.
Most new-generation Mortal Kombat fans know next to nothing about the Midway era of Mortal Kombat. That is to say, most new-generation Mortal Kombat fans don't know that in Mortal Kombat 1, the White Lotus Society initially chose Kung Lao to represent them in the Mortal Kombat tournament, not Liu Kang. You don't get the honor of becoming Earthrealm's champion if you're a nobody.
But Midway's Kung Lao was not a glory seeker like his NRS counterpart. Knowing the responsibility that comes with being Earthrealm's champion, Kung Lao declined the offer.
For most of the Midway era, Kung Lao was a simple man. He preferred peace and training the next generation of White Lotus. He stood alongside his Earthrealm allies when needed, and Kung Lao didn't shy away from avenging his fallen friends and brothers (Such as in Deadly Alliance after Shang Tsung and Quan Chi murdered Liu Kang).
The only exception is Shaolin Monks, which started Kung Lao's (Mostly one-sided) rivalry with Liu Kang and his desire to bring honor to his ancestors through kombat. Midway basically ignored Kung Lao's personality change in Shaolin Monks in their final Mortal Kombat game, Armageddon, and it wasn't until the NetherRealm era that his personality change became permanent.
Some argue that Midway's Kung Lao is too much like Liu Kang and wouldn't work in the cinematic-heavy NRS-era games. And honestly? That's a fair argument to make.
But that doesn't excuse the decline in Kung Lao's characterization. Nor does it justify the fate he often meets in modern Mortal Kombat.
Too Cocky or Too Dead: Modern Kung Lao
Mortal Kombat 9's Kung Lao was pretty balanced. He wanted to prove himself and bring honor to his ancestors, but he never came off as overly cocky. During the Mortal Kombat 2 portion of the story, when Liu Kang became frustrated with Raiden's decisions, Kung Lao was actually the more tempered one of the two Shaolin.
Kung Lao proved his strength in defeating Goro (Oddly enough, he never mentions avenging Great Kung Lao when he does), Kintaro, and the Deadly Alliance. Sure, he ended up with a cheap death at Shao Khan's hands, but hardly the worst-handled death in Mortal Kombat 9.
But unfortunately, it went downhill from there for Kung Lao.
In Mortal Kombat X, various intros imply or outright state that Kung Lao has a bit of an ego, with many suggesting it is unwarranted. MKX is also the game where the second-rate Liu Kang jokes started pouring in.
NRS decided to dial up Kung Lao's ego to 11 in Mortal Kombat 11 (To the point of it being obnoxious) and also characterize him as having potential but a bit of a slacker. And the mockery of Kung Lao not only continued but worsened.
But it's better to be alive and everyone's punchline than dead, right?
Mortal Kombat 9.
Live-action Mortal Kombat movie.
Mortal Kombat Legends: Battle of the Realms.
Kung Lao dies a lot. He attracts death more than Sean Bean roles.
NRS has more or less turned Kung Lao into Mortal Kombat's Krillin to Liu Kang's Goku. He seemingly only dies to motivate Liu Kang. A legacy character like Kung Lao deserves much better than that.
Here's how we can make the best of both worlds: Midway era's respected Kung Lao and NRS's more confident and humorous one.
Making Kung Lao a True Champion
— Mortal Kombat 1 (@MortalKombat) September 4, 2023
The first 17 minutes of Mortal Kombat 1's story mode reveal that Kung Lao and Raiden are fellow students of Madame Bo and that Raiden has yet to beat Kung Lao once.
Certain intro dialogues and Raiden's official bio suggest he has confidence issues and is less enthused about fighting than Kung Lao. But as one of Earthrealm's chosen warriors, he must fight when his realm needs him.
But it needs him at his best. How do we achieve this? Well, when forced into extraordinary circumstances, people tend to rise to the occasion.
Have Liu Kang host his tournament to determine Earthrealm's champion like usual, but have Kung Lao defeat the unconfident Raiden.
Kung Lao notices how unsure of himself Raiden is and grows concerned Raiden's lack of confidence will prevent his friend from realizing his full potential. Having won the tournament and earning the right to be Earthrealm's champion, Kung Lao instead nominates Raiden for the role.
While Raiden is not yet Earthrealm's best fighter, Kung Lao asserts that Raiden is Earthrealm's best mortal, and that's more important. With a smile on his face (Knowing his Kung Lao probably wouldn't have done that and being proud of Kung Lao's growth), Liu Kang agrees with Kung Lao and names Raiden champion.
Helping his friend realize his full potential is more important to Kung Lao than becoming Earthrealm's champion. This scenario establishes he has both the fighting abilities and character to be Earthrealm's champion.
After Raiden becomes champion, he asks Kung Lao why he would've done this. Kung Lao tells him that Raiden represents Earthrealm now and has to do his best for all of them.
Kung Lao also tells him he did it because he wants a stronger rival. He then teasingly reminds Raiden that he can just beat him again and become champion whenever he wants (Thus maintaining his confident and joking personality). Such a pathway to becoming Earthrealm's champion also fits Kung Lao's desire for glory. What better way to become Earthrealm's champion than by defeating the last one?
Raiden's time as champion and regaining his lightning abilities have dramatically increased his powers as a fighter. Wanting to see how he stacks up against his empowered friend, Kung Lao challenges Raiden and loses.
Determined not to fall behind Raiden, Kung Lao stops slacking on training. It doesn't make sense to me that Liu Kang wouldn't do anything about Kung Lao's laziness, as this was a problem his Kung Lao had. With this scenario, NRS can fix this flaw in New Era Kung Lao without Liu Kang getting involved (Since he seems to be taking as much of a hands-off approach as possible).
Mortal Kombat 1's story can continue like usual but ends with a quiet scene between Raiden and Kung Lao. Raiden, preferring not to fight, brings Kung Lao to a secluded location, revealing that he's stepping down as Earthrealm's champion. He will still fight for Earthrealm when needed but no longer wishes to be champion, preferring to spend his time in peace in Fengjian (Ironically echoing the behavior of Midway-era Kung Lao).
Raiden has already informed Lord Liu Kang of this and named Kung Lao his replacement. Knowing his best friend would never accept the role so easily, Raiden brought Kung Lao here so Kung Lao could earn his new status through Mortal Kombat. Kung Lao smiles and accepts the challenge.
The two friends circle each other before facing off. The camera pans out to Lord Liu Kang, smiling at the two. Just as they charge at each other and are about to clash, the screen fades to black before the Mortal Kombat 1 logo appears, and the outro music plays.
And that, my friends, is how you make Kung Lao Earthrealm's champion in Mortal Kombat 1.
We have less than a week before Mortal Kombat 1 comes out, so expect plenty more Mortal Kombat 1 content here at ESTNN!