Despite his status as a henchman of Outworld sorcerer Shang Tsung, Sub-Zero is, for all intents and purposes, the central antagonistic force of Mortal Kombat.
It’s by the Lin Kuei leader’s hands, after all, that Hanzo Hasashi is defeated and cast down into the hellish NetherRealm, but why is this depiction of the character, who traditionally is no stronger than the likes of Scorpion or other Earthrealmers with extraordinary abilities, so head and shoulders above the rest? Well, we can’t say for sure, but ScreenRant has put forward a number of ideas that might explain it.
As self-professed followers of the franchise, both director Simon McQuoid and co-writer Greg Russo would undoubtedly have been aware of Bi-Han’s strengths and weaknesses, his power relative to that of his fellow combatants and the overall pecking order, which typically names Raiden, Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn as some of the universe’s most formidable entities.
Han is certainly capable of going toe-to-toe with the likes of Liu Kang and Kung Lao, but not when he’s outnumbered and certainly not in a manner befitting that of a 400-year-old ninja. The latter of these has become something of a particular head-scratcher for fans of the source material, as the cryomancer has never been referred to as immortal or ageless, with the film itself doing a poor job of accounting for Han’s appearance in 2021 being identical to that seen in the 17th century.
An obvious oversight? Perhaps, but theorists have attempted to account for the snafu in-universe with the suggestion that Sub-Zero has managed to maintain his youth by tapping into the dark magics of Outworld. It’s worth noting, after all, that the warrior canonically becomes the undead specter Noob Saibot upon his first death, suggesting that a latent force is responsible for his exceptionally long life and superhuman qualities.
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As ScreenRant explains further:
Bi-Han [has] killed countless foes, gaining skill and honing his ice magic as he did. In the games, this long career of brutal killing eventually turned Bi-Han’s soul evil, which only magnified his dark powers. His training and inherent magical abilities, combined with this turn toward pure darkness, made Sub-Zero one of the most fearsome fighters in any of the realms.
In the games, Bi-Han eventually sells his soul in exchange for even greater dark power after his death. It’s possible that Sub-Zero’s exceptional strength in the film is due in part to a similar deal with Shang Tsung. That seems particularly likely given the sorcerer’s predilection for souls, and it would fit with the character’s story from the games. After hundreds of years spent harnessing his own magic and exchanging his humanity for even greater power, Sub-Zero would naturally be stronger than any of Earthrealm’s individual challengers.
Of course, at the end of the day, the circumstances matter little if they’re not conveyed to the audience succinctly. And should Mortal Kombat ever get the sequel that it arguably deserves, one can only hope Russo and McQuoid elaborate on this aspect of the character.