What you have to understand about Kung Lao is that there are essentially three Kung Laos… though not in a literal sense, as with Sub-Zero. Though there is a second Kung Lao, The Great Kung Lao, the Kung Lao that defeated Shang Tsung centuries ago, but was then murdered by Goro. That Kung Lao has nothing to do with these Kung Laos, and… oh my, this is getting to be a bit much…
Kung Lao is our first (introduced initially in) Mortal Kombat 2 kharacter in this rundown. What you have to remember about Mortal Kombat 2 is that, apparently, all creative juices had been spent in creating such luminaries as pants guy and ice dude in Mortal Kombat 1, so the new additions of MK2 wound up starting out as weapons delivery systems. You’ve got sword-arms, metal fans, missile sais, and even Jax was originally supposed to have his signature metal arms in his first appearance, but technology wasn’t quite there yet (even though Capcom’s Mega Man proved you could design a character with metal arms in 1987). Kung Lao appeared with this crop wearing his signature weapon: a metal, apparently lethal hat. According to interviews, Kung Lao’s headwear was inspired by the James Bond villain and Goldeneye walking cheat code Oddjob. And, yes, a regenerating, deadly hat does work well in a 2-D fighter.
Except it has nothing to do with Kung Lao.
As far as I know, Kung Lao’s hat has never been particularly explained in the Mortal Kombat kanon. There’s no it was the weapon of the ancestor. There is no secret sect of warriors dedicated to hat-fu. There is no ending where you find out Kung Lao was lost in a plane crash as a baby, and that hat is the only thing that is going to alert his mom to the fact that he’s still alive in Brazil. Nothing. Kung Lao just has a lethal Frisbee for a hat, and we all have to live with that.
Completely separate from Kung Lao: Hat Guy is Kung Lao: Peaceful Monk.
As you may be aware from these essays, Mortal Kombat 1 went poorly for Shang Tsung and his master, Shao Kahn. Shao Kahn was not pleased for obvious reasons, but Shang Tsung had a plan (to escape immediate, homicidal punishment). Liu Kang was the Champion of Mortal Kombat, but he could be challenged. So why not have a new Mortal Kombat tournament! In Shao Kahn’s Outworld! With blackjack! And hookers! Shao Kahn was into this plan, but there was only one hitch: why would Liu Kang enter a whole new tournament? Mortal Kombat is supposed to occur once a generation. And the victor is ageless until the next tournament. Why would Liu Kang blow that? An all-expenses paid trip to Outworld didn’t look very inviting, as that realm is almost 90% sewer mutant by volume, so what options did Shao Kahn have?
And that’s when Shao Kahn decided to send a pack of Barakas to kill every last Shaolin Monk they could find. That’ll do it!
So Liu Kang was good and pissed off for the duration of Mortal Kombat 2. Joining him on his quest for vengeance was Kung Lao, one of the few Shaolin Monks that survived the slaughter to tell the tale (“There were dudes with knives for hands! It was weird!”). Liu Kang was ready to slay Shao Kahn, but Kung Lao got the lesser personal vengeance duty of avenging himself against Baraka. Other than that, Kung Lao maintained that he was a monk of peace, and only fighting in Outworld out of a debt to his friend and fallen people.
And you see how that doesn’t exactly jibe with the whole “murder hat” thing, right?
Anywho, Mortal Kombat 2 went swimmingly for the good guys, and Kung Lao returned home to attempt to rebuild The White Lotus Society, his local chapter of Shaolin Monks. That was cut short by MK3, so Kung Lao went back to the battlegrounds. Then we had Mortal Kombat 4 (Gold, technically), and Kung Lao returned again, this time “coming out of retirement” so he could score a hit on Goro, the Trogdor that killed his ancestor and namesake. Kung Lao seriously landed one hat-hit on the dragon-dude, said he was satisfied, and then noped-out of a fight with a four-armed monster that would almost certainly have killed him immediately. Smart guy, that Kung Lao.
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance saw Shang Tsung kill Liu Kang. What’s more, Shang Tsung was able to kill Liu by stealing Kung Lao’s form, thus guaranteeing Kang would have his guard down for that fatal back crack. This pissed Kung Lao off but good, so Kung Lao decided he was going to become the shaolin hero the Mortal Kombat universe now so desperately needed. Kung Lao traveled to Outworld, found Liu Kang’s former master, and diligently trained so he could defeat Shang Tsung and Quan Chi. Kung Lao mastered the bicycle kick, formed his own “deadly alliance” with Kitana, and, while Kitana battled Quan Chi, Kung Lao challenged Shang Tsung to a private duel. Kung Lao lost. He lost bad. Kung Lao died, and spent Mortal Kombat: Deception in the time-out crypt.
And then we met Kung Lao #3.
Through the Mortal Kombat franchise’s weird desire to not be a fighting game, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks was created. This was a sort of beat ‘em up/adventure game that, more or less, retold the events of the finale of Mortal Kombat 1, and then proceeded to the whole of Mortal Kombat 2. It was a two-player title, and featured Liu Kang and Kung Lao as a permanent duo. Unfortunately, this simple concept immediately created a pair of challenges:
1. Kung Lao wasn’t actually in Mortal Kombat 1, how is he going to be playable during that time?
2. Kung Lao and Liu Kang are generally two peaceful, agreeable Shaolin monks. Their interplay is going to be boring as hell.
So a solution was found: Kung Lao was kind of a dick! Retcons (retkons?) now included the concept that Kung Lao was always in the background of Mortal Kombat 1, he was just disguised as a generic guard until his presence was necessary. And why was he doing that? Well, because Liu Kang was chosen to participate in Mortal Kombat, and Kung Lao was jealous, so he stowed away like he was living in an episode of Ducktales. And now Kung Lao has an excuse for having a new personality! He was always jealous of Liu Kang’s skill, and he has an obvious chip on his shoulder and desire to demonstrate himself as the better fighter. Liu Kang is a stoic, dedicated monk, and Kung Lao is the hot-headed rookie anxious to prove himself. Together, they fight crime!
…. Still no explanation for the hat though….
Anyway, MK: Shaolin Monks was technically not kanon (as the game kinda accidentally killed a healthy portion of the cast way too early for MK3 to happen), and it was ignored when a recently revived Kung Lao spent Mortal Kombat: Armageddon palling around with wind god Fujin as a sort of counter-balance to Dark Raiden and Undead Liu Kang running around. Nothing came of that, and then the universe rebooted.
Now, Mortal Kombat 9 theoretically takes place in a timeline where Mortal Kombat 1 started exactly the same as the first time. However, presumably because somebody really liked Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, Kung Lao’s personality was switched into jerkass mode, and it was “revealed” again that Kung Lao snuck into Mortal Kombat 1 (reboot) in order to prove he was better than Liu Kang. And, yes, he maintains this generally… cantankerous personality straight through to the redux of Mortal Kombat 2. During the finale of that tournament, Raiden is still trying to figure out a cryptic message from his future self, and decides to choose not Liu Kang, but Kung Lao to fight the final battles. Kung Lao defeats Shang Tsung, Quan Chi, and Kintaro. Awesome! Then Shao Kahn shows up, and snaps Kung Lao’s neck like a twig. Whoopsie! At least you beat Shang Tsung this time!
Kung Lao spends Mortal Kombat X as a member of Quan Chi’s undead army, and generally seems to be a surly zombie that (like most of his buddies) blames Raiden for his own death. Like some of the other heavies of Mortal Kombat X, Kung Lao receives a “son” type character in Kung Jin, his little cousin that joins the new generation of Mortal Kombat heroes. Buuuuut they barely interact at all, so I’m not sure why I even brought it up.
Mortal Kombat 11 grants us Undead Angry Kung Lao and Time-Displaced Younger, but Still Kinda Pissed off Kung Lao. Undead Kung Lao is basically just there to stand around and look menacing next to Undead Liu Kang, but Younger Kung Lao is at least a little friendlier than many of his recent incarnations. He acknowledges his rivalry with Liu Kang, but, likely because he was plucked out of the timeline literally minutes before his inevitable death (and every third person reminds him of this fact) he’s a little more mellow. In the end, Kung Lao the Younger is ejected from the final battle on a time technicality, and Kung Lao the Elder is obliterated by Ascended Liu Kang.
Okay, maybe Kung Lao has a reason to be so churlish…
Next time: The universe’s chew toy