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I think it’d be fair to say the 2010s haven’t been a kind decade to Warner Brothers Studios. To be clear I’m not asking anyone to feel bad for the poor multi-million dollar corporation, it’s just a point of fact that the studio’s been struggling for blockbuster relevance for the last 6 years. Back in the 2000s, they had big hits like The Matrix, The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter- it was their decade. However, ever since the last Potter film in 2011 they slipped from the top and never fully made it back. Dark Knight Rises was a joke when it came out and hasn’t aged well, and their other attempts at superhero cinema have been very much in the same boat.
What’s more, their Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings prequels have done nothing to take back their market share of the fantasy genre. Truly, between the Marvel superhero movies and the Disney fairy tale blockbusters, WB has been completely replaced in the two genres it once dominated. Now, with the decade dwindling and their options limited, WB has elected to return to their first major hit of the 2010s with a prequel to The Matrix.
Let me say from the outset I’m not the biggest fan of this idea. Prequels are a mixed concept under the best circumstance, and The Matrix is definitely not the best circumstances. The original film is an unassailable classic, undoubtedly, but it’s always been dogged by the fact it was clearly only intended for the one installment. That’s part of why the already made sequels fell so flat, they were being forced to continue a story that was meant to definitively close on the first entry.
Even if you like the Matrix sequels, and there actually is a lot to enjoy and, indeed, to respect, there’s no denying that having to re-open the book on a story so definitively closed was a major hurdle for them. What’s more, I’m not sure what exactly a proper prequel could shed light on that a combination of the sequels and the Animatrix didn’t answer.
Stuff like the Machine War, the creation of the Matrix and its initial failure, or the first emergence of the one and the founding of Zion were either visualized in the Animatrix shorts or work better as something told and not shown. The idea reminds me most of the Terminator prequel Salvation, which made an attempt to show us the Future War that had only been alluded to before. The Future War has always been the biggest enemy of the Terminator franchise, always falling flat when we get to see it in its full “glory.” As such, building an entire Matrix prequel around a comparable era in their machine/human war strikes me as a serious misstep.
With all of that being said, I do at least understand why WB is thinking prequels even after The Hobbit and Fantastic Beasts proved monetarily successful but culturally inert. Firstly, making a prequel means they don’t have to bother with bringing back original actors like Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburn, or Hugo Weaving. More importantly, it allows them to drop the film in a continuity point that’s free from all the Architect/Oracle/Merovingian stuff no one cared for in the sequels.
They wouldn’t even need to dwell too much on the origin of Zion that was revealed in Matrix Reloaded, that the city was a colony created by previous iterations of the One after a machine victory, so long as the prequel was set well enough past Zion’s founding that no one remembered its origin anymore. Personally, I really hope they don’t do that kind of franchise management stuff with the prequel as, while it would smooth out the series rough edges we’d be left with nothing to latch onto as an audience. Sure, characters like the Key Maker or the Train Man weren’t compelling the first time around but I mean nobody really liked Iron Man till he got a solo film in 2008 and now he’s a huge success.
Really though, any objection I have to that kind of excision is moot as WB has announced the prequel will revolve around a young Morpheus. This is probably the best conceivable character direction to take a Matrix prequel as Morpheus was one of the coolest parts of the original trilogy and, with the recent success black solo films have had, he makes a lot of financial sense as a place to go. What’s more, doing a story set in the earlier days of the Matrix could give the creators leave to cook up something more reflective of the current virtual reality craze.
Of all the elements of this pitch, that’s probably the one I find most stimulating, the prospect of re-imagining the Matrix itself to be more reflective of an age of smartphones, social media, predator drones, and virtual reality. Really, this is probably also the most important aspect of more Matrix material as you’d need the film to appeal to a generation that has grown up embracing technology as an omnipresent part of their lives and an extension of themselves.
This was always going to be a big hurdle to cover in reviving the Matrix, much the same way it’s plagued its franchise predecessor Terminator. As technology becomes a more and more ingrained part of daily life, it becomes more and more difficult for people to disassociate enough from machines to view them as a threat. Even when it comes to matters of personal privacy or the horrors of drone warfare, we rarely blame the machines but rather the people behind them. We still want commercially available drones and to have a social media presence, we just don’t want other HUMANS to ruin it for the rest of us. We’ve already seen this kind of thing fall flat on itself with 2014’s Transcendence.
The other big, hovering issue here is that by making this about a younger version of Morpheus, the film is forcing itself into telling the story of Morpheus when he was less interesting. The obvious story options here would revolve either around Morpheus first getting pulled from the Matrix or first discovering the myth of the One, but both options leave him playing catch-up to the audience. See, the reason prequels work at all when they work is that they aren’t rolling back a character but filling in a situational blank.
For instance, Rogue One works because of its all new and compelling characters in a past situation, we’re not left waiting for anyone to become a hero we already like. Same with Prometheus, even if you didn’t like it that failure wasn’t because we had to suffer through some boring version of Ripley who didn’t know about Xenomorphs or couldn’t handle herself anymore. Making a prequel about Morpheus becoming Morpheus would be like making an entire movie about the time after Clark Kent left Smallville but ends right before he becomes Superman.
This is all sounding fairly negative but that’s just the nature of trying to do more Matrix films and doubly so when it comes to making prequels. To be clear, I do think there’s potential in the Matrix franchise and the prospect of a new major franchise with a black lead is pretty exciting, but that doesn’t erase the issues this project is already facing at the conception phase. This is basically the same problem staring down The Matrix’ spiritual successor Avatar. To be sure there’s a big difference in quality between the two but they’re both examples of big hits that redefined technology and the visual language of the blockbuster but just couldn’t become a fixed part of the modern geek conversation. Maybe this prequel will be the thing to turn that around, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
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