Ten years ago today, The Matrix: Revolutions was released in theaters.
This is, of course, no monumental cinematic anniversary. It’s quite likely that nobody will ask you today, or any day for that matter, where you were the first time you saw the third Matrix film. At most, this revelation will be a reminder that you, like me, are getting older, and the space between decades ain’t what it used to be.
But much has changed in studio tentpole filmmaking in the past ten years – in practice, if not, well, “quality.” On this rather unceremonious anniversary, the third Matrix film has a surprising lot to tell us about how studio franchises have developed since the early Bush era, and where they likely will and won’t go moving forward. The Matrix, a film series initiated by a late-90s cyberpunk sleeper hit that arguably overshadowed the return of f*cking Star Wars, by its final chapter came to be treated by Hollywood as a failed prototype never to be repeated again.
On November 5, 2003, The Matrix: Revolutions opened shy of estimates, pocketing a $48 million weekend, ultimately making $139 mil domestically and $427 mil worldwide. That worldwide gross isn’t bad for a $150 mil investment in an R-rated franchise featuring Cornel West in a supporting role. But in the bloated, absolutist terms for success that Hollywood has practiced in an ever-accelerating fashion since the early 1980s, Revolutions represented a supreme disappointment, with nearly all of its numbers (opening weekend, opening per theater average, domestic total, worldwide total) culminating into about half of its predecessor’s, released only six months earlier. This has indeed long been a Hollywood in which breaking records is so routine that sometimes even big nine and ten-digit numbers constitute a fiscal disappointment.
It’s not at all insignificant that Elf – Will Ferrell’s first post-SNL starring role, which opened opposite Revolutions – began to out-gross the years-hyped final entry in a major franchise film five weeks in. Fans were frustrated by Reloaded, and critics weren’t won over by Neo’s last stand, creating a framework for a quick decline opposite a modest holiday release that surprisingly held some serious staying power. Revolutions’s theatrical life seemed to exist for completists only.
I can’t think of a more starkly realized picture of a franchise losing steam as abruptly as this one. And for better or worse, it seems that Hollywood learned a very quiet, rather unacknowledged lesson that it hasn’t deterred from since.
We typically think of The Matrix as a game-changer. The first film, which all but inaugurated that hallowed anomaly known as 1999, supposedly revolutionized special effects, made the aesthetics of cyberpunk more than a gimmick, perfected the mystery box-style teaser (above), and proved that fans are willing to discuss a film’s entanglements in metaphysical discourse if your protagonist owns a hollowed-out copy of a Baudrillard book.
The series’s subsequent expansion as a franchise supposedly carried even grander implications, challenging the medium-specific limitations that we previously imposed on Hollywood narratives. In his 2006 book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins devotes an entire chapter to the (ahem) expansive matrix of media formats that the world of The Matrix extended into; from videogames to anime to online forums, The Matrix provides a rich example of Hollywood’s practices of “transmedia storytelling.” All of this, of course, was built on a devoted fan community that developed on and off-line between 1999 and 2003, before the era of “social media” properly began (unlike that other 1999 film The Blair Witch Project, participants in Matrix forums stuck around after the movie). And by producing two sequels at once, the series helped accelerate the now-common serialization of franchise cinema.
Yet for all that The Matrix seems to cull up regarding consequential shifts Hollywood’s business practices (if never ultimately leaving its audience with a complete sense of narrative satisfaction), the trajectory of this franchise hardly resembles the dominant tentpole practices that Hollywood has engaged in throughout the decade since. In fact, most Hollywood blockbusters and would-be-blockbusters of the past ten years represent the inverse of what The Matrix did.
“What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge reboots?”
“No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.”
Franchises since The Matrix have largely used transmedia storytelling as a starting point, not means of expansion. The revamped superhero film craze as well as adaptations of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings all began between the first two Matrix films, and the method of taking an existing property with a guaranteed audience as a launching pad for innumerable films has been the modus operandi for an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood. In terms of Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, The Matrix is relatively old school by comparison, drawing more apt comparisons to prior sci-fi franchises like the original Star Wars trilogy or Alien or The Terminator or Jurassic Park; in contrast to current Hollywood, these are more cinema-centric works, with a hit movie used as a means of extending a narrative universe outward rather than capitalizing on an existing array of texts. Sure, Star Wars may have “began” as a novel and The Matrix as a comic book, but initial films (rather than existing properties put to film) inaugurated the phenomena that developed these narratives into franchises.
And this speaks directly to my second point: just as the series began centrally as a film, The Matrix actually ended despite extending its universe outward. It ended rather abruptly and definitively, with much fanfare accompanying the pronouncement of said end. By contrast, the dominant practices of the 21st century blockbuster mentality see no finale to their properties.
The world of Harry Potter isn’t over. Peter Jackson reluctantly returned to the world of Middle Earth to stretch one relatively compact novel into three mammoth films. Star Wars has again reared its head as an enduring subject of discussion, with an expansive legacy in tow that better resembles its more transmedia-oriented contemporaries than a series specific to film. New embodiments of superheroes are crowned immediately after their prior iterations have been retired. Even the paper-thin and relatively cinema-specific Avatar is promising an ambitious extended “storyline,” the likes of which its director has never committed himself to before. This goes beyond business practices – in the world of the infinite reboot, not even commercial “failure” marks an end.
Ten years on, the end of The Matrix seems to reach backward instead of forward – the last iteration of a modern Hollywood franchise that helped build a bridge towards subsequent postmodern tendencies which it never fully crossed. Looking back, it’s almost laudable that there has been no talk of rebooting The Matrix, and that producer Joel Silver has fought any attempts to complete a 3D post-conversion of the series. Despite the sequels’ still-persistent flaws, in 2013 it’s strange to watch a major studio franchise end for primarily narrative rather than business reasons. It’s even stranger to watch a film that, despite some truly spectacular (and some truly dated) action set pieces, carries such an emphasis on dialogue and exhaustive world-building, even to a fault. After all, we could always use more Hollywood movies with Baudrillard references and Cornel West cameos.
There’s a moment in 2007’s I Am Legend that speaks volumes greater than its easter-egg presentation suggests. Part of the window dressing of the cluttered, post-apocalyptic Times Square is a teaser poster for what appears to be a Batman vs Superman film, the likes of which we’ll be getting in 2015, a year that looks to be the obsessive zenith of the studio system’s franchise-addicted culture industry. This moment in the film is not only an instance of Warner Bros. (the same studio that bankrolled The Matrix) promoting property within property, but serves as a strange (if unintended) commentary on where the seemingly unsustainable blockbuster mentality may lead.
On the one hand, it’s easy to read this moment as the commitment Warner Bros. (and, by association, other studios) has made to franchise fever: with an ever-globalizing and increasingly competitive market made more uncertain by the transmedia storytelling outlets that emboldened this blockbuster mentality in the first place, the 21st century studio system has devoted itself to the idea that franchises are the way to go until the end of the movies as we know it. According to Spielberg’s studio apocalypse theory, only from the ashes of this mentality can something new arise.
On the other hand, this is an ad for a film that, in the narrative context of I Am Legend, ostensibly has not been and never will be released, which I see as a more fitting statement on the logic dominating contemporary Hollywood blockbusters: even as each film is presented, the promise of another is carried in tow into the unforeseeable, infinite future (i.e., Marvel’s post-credit sequences). What structures Hollywood’s blockbuster franchise mentality is the circular, self-reinforcing notion that there is always another film based on familiar properties yet to be released.
Seeing as there are no major sequels yet slated for 2017, The Dissolve’s Keith Phipps has optimistically stamped that year “The Year of New Ideas.” After the potential clusterfuck of 2015, some necessary retooling and reinvention in 2017 ain’t a bad proposition. Perhaps that year will present something that feels exciting, unprecedented and new – not unlike the first Matrix before it spun out into something much bigger.