US actor Keanu Reeves and Canadian-born actress Carrie-Anne Moss pose for photographers on a terrace of the Palais des festivals during the photocall for "Matrix Reloaded" directed by the Wachowski brothers during the 56th Cannes film festival on 15
So, yes, a week late, it’s time to dig into a rather surprising announcement that The Matrix was getting the “legacy sequel” treatment. Co-director Lana Wachowski will write, produce and direct this new outing, with Lilly Wachowski sitting this one out. And, yes, Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss will be back, presumably as Thomas Anderson/Neo and Trinity respectively. Never mind that both characters died at the end of The Matrix Revolutions, going the “legacy sequel” route with The Matrix was always a safer bet than the rumored/planned reboot with (allegedly) Michael B. Jordan. Hollywood is now a place more likely to reboot/remake/revamp The Matrix than create from scratch “the next Matrix.” That’s as much the fault of moviegoers as the studios, since moviegoers now crave the familiar over the original.
In 1999, The Matrix was huge because it was a breath of fresh air. Today, a theoretical Matrix 4 will (presumably) succeed because it is familiar and because it will play to folks not just generally interested in the world of The Matrix but specifically in additional stories for Neo and Trinity. No, at this juncture, Laurence Fishburne is not signed, but I must assume Morpheus will show up. As for “why,” the answer is two-fold. First, again, legacy sequels for one-fabled properties are the “in” thing right now. Credit Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road and Halloween for showing the industry that sequels, even sequels that loosely remake the first film in the franchise, are more bankable than straight-up reboots or remakes.
Can The Matrix be Warner Bros.' next big franchise.... again?
The second reason is that Warner Bros. would like an extra “big” franchise property. Pokemon: Detective Pikachu was moderately successful ($431 million, but on a $150 million budget) but not the start of a glorious new franchise. Godzilla: King of the Monsters performed badly enough ($385 million worldwide, compared to the $529 million cume of Godzilla, on a $170 million budget) that the fate of the “MonsterVerse” is in question after next year’s Kong Vs. Godzilla. Ditto The LEGO Movie 2, which earned less ($191 million) worldwide than the original WB toon Smallfoot ($214 million). Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was so poorly received and so underperformed in North America ($155 million domestic/ $655 million worldwide) that the third installment (out of five planned movies) will pull a Dark Phoenix and/or Divergent Series: Allegient and bomb.
Now, for the record, Warner Bros. had a banner year in 2018 in terms of releasing big and not necessarily franchise-friendly movies like Ready Player One ($583 million), The Meg ($530 million), A Star Is Born ($424 million), Ocean’s 8 ($298 million) and Crazy Rich Asians ($238 million) among others. We may get a sequel to some of those, but they weren’t necessarily produced with the intent of starting a franchise. With It Chapter Two not necessarily lending itself to an It Chapter Three, I would argue, at this juncture, that Warner Bros.’ last two “franchises” are The Conjuring Universe (which had its lowest entry yet, even if Annabelle Comes Home still earned $227 million worldwide on a $27 million budget) and the DC Films brand.
While Aquaman topped $1.1 billion and I’m expecting Wonder Woman 1984 to be among next year’s biggest movies, the brand is now just as likely to offer smaller films like Joker, Shazam! and Birds of Prey that in-turn may bring in upper-level Conjuring Universe-level money. Fair or not, the DC Comics brand did not become the replacement for years of guaranteed mega-movies charting back to the Harry Potter series in 2001. From 2001 to 2014, Time Warner had a near-continuous streak of then-unprecedented blockbusters in the form of eight Harry Potter films, two Matrix sequels, two Chris Nolan Dark Knight sequels and six Peter Jackson-directed Middle Earth epics. They could also still count on audiences to show up for well-made/exciting originals like The Hangover, Inception and Gravity.
Will the new Matrix movie be R-rated or PG-13?
While the Matrix pictures weren’t necessarily ultra violent gore fests, they were casually R-rated in a way (profanity where appropriate, blood when folks are beaten or shot, adults having consensual sex, etc.) that was par for the course before Hollywood started putting everything in a PG-13 box. The Matrix, which climaxed with Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss essentially going on a shooting spree against hapless cops and security guards while dressed in “cool” leather outfits, was seen as a cultural cause of the Columbine school shooting which occurred weeks after the film opened. The “trench coat mafia” (along with most of the narratives associated with the massacre) was mere myth, but the government still threatened to pass legislation regulating how R-rated movies could be sold to teenagers.
In an industry both concerned about government regulation and seeing the potential for much bigger worldwide grosses via big-budget, four-quadrant, PG-13 action fantasies (The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.), The Matrix trilogy marked an unofficial end to big-budget R-rated action movies as a matter of course. Live Free or Die Hard and the last two Terminator movies (Salvation in 2009 and Genisys in 2015) were PG-13, and even grotesquely violent movies like Taken (a movie about overseas sex trafficking) and Prom Night (a conventional dead teenager slasher flick) were cut down to PG-13 (sometimes informally called “R-13”) levels. Right or wrong, it would be very easy to imagine a Matrix movie heavy on bloodless combat and light on profanity and gore.
There’s no law saying that a movie featuring Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss fighting simulated humans in a virtual reality world needs to be filled with graphic violence. Neo in Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions was a warrior monk who barely touched a gun throughout those two sequels. That said, the R-rating is no longer a scarlet letter, as we’ve seen with everything from Fifty Shades of Grey ($575 million) to Deadpool ($783 million) to It ($700 million). And if Warner Bros. is planning on cashing in on nostalgia, then the folks excited about this one are old enough to buy an R-rated movie ticket. The opposite argument is that a PG-13 allows those adult fans to bring their kids and avoid expenses associated with babysitters.
How will the reception to the prior Matrix sequels effect this one?
The other burning question, aside from the obvious “How will Neo and Trinity come back from the dead?” inquiry, is to what extent this fourth movie will play off the sequels. The Matrix Reloaded received strong pre-release reviews, but audiences weren’t as taken with it. So, while it opened with a whopping $134 million Thurs-Mon debut in 2003, with its $91 million Fri-Sun frame being the second-biggest ever at the time and the biggest R-rated launch until Deadpool 13 years later, and it earned $278 million domestic and $742 million worldwide in the summer of 2003, Matrix Revolutions paid the price. That threequel, released in November of 2003, earned just $138 million domestic and $424 million worldwide. Those sequels are respected about as much as the Star Wars prequels.
As a defender of the sequels, I’ll argue that its finale arguing for brokered peace over one-sided destruction was almost courageous during the height of the Iraq invasion (and two years after 9/11). Both films have stunning production values and all-time classic action sequences, and their philosophical meditations were heightened versions of what everyone claimed to like about the first film. I’ve long theorized that many moviegoers just pretended to like The Matrix for its deep-dive content while merely wanting more kung-fu, shoot-outs, surface level "cool," and “Hero’s Journey” wish-fulfillment. Nonetheless, considering their reputation, I’m curious as to how they fit into this puzzle. Will this new sequel pander specifically to folks who only liked the first Matrix or will it respect those who love the sequels too?
If a fourth Matrix movie means a big studio paycheck for Carrie Anne-Moss, as well as a glorified golden parachute for Lana Wachowski (after Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending didn’t break out), then that’s fine. If it leads to a critical reassessment of the Matrix sequels (and including, but not exclusive to, their value as transgender metaphors), that’s great too. As much as I mourn for the notion that audiences once embraced original fantasies like The Matrix and The Fifth Element because they were new and different, I have liked and appreciated, to varying degrees, every single movie directed by the Wachowski siblings up to this point. I also like Keanu Reeves action movies. Thus, I will like this sure-to-be-visually-astonishing fourth Matrix movie.