In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll talk about the third of three of the best “superhero” film franchises that only appeared in comics after the films were released.
If you were like me, you were pretty excited at the end of The Matrix.
As a refresher for those of you that saw it (and if you haven’t, well, consider this your spoiler warning), the film ends with our main protagonist, Neo (Keanu Reeves) speaking on the telephone. Neo has just gone through a journey of discovery and growth. See, the world in which Neo lives isn’t really real. It’s a mass hallucination implanted in humanity’s head by machines, which use human beings as their power source. Neo was supposed to be the savior of the human race, one who could train his mind both consciously and subconsciously to see the manufactured reality, which is called the Matrix, for what it was, to shape it for his own purposes, and to beat the machines at their own game. During the climactic scene of the film, Neo lives up to his potential, overcoming even death in the computer created world. Neo had become essentially invulnerable and incredibly powerful.
Let’s get back to the phone call. Neo ends the film by speaking into the telephone that he will show the rest of humanity that is trapped in the Matrix that anything is possible. He then hangs up, steps out of the phone booth, and flies into the air and off into the sunset.
As a comic book fan, I was pretty psyched about this ending. If Darkman, which we covered last time, could be seen as an off-brand Batman, The Matrix franchise was setting itself up as an off-brand Superman, with Neo in the role of the Man of Steel, fighting a cyberpunk reimagining of Brainiac in the machines. There’s even the similar Christ metaphor between the two.
This theorem might seem to be a stretch, but is it really? During the struggle to get Superman back on the big screen, constant effort was made to make that franchise more like The Matrix, right down to replacing Supes’ trademark costume with something black and Neo-like.
But this was all misplaced expectations. The Matrix sequels didn’t really go in the way I, or anybody expected.
You can write a whole series of blog posts on the many things that went in to influence The Matrix. People have seen everything from the major world religions to the writings of Jean Baudrillard to an episode of Doctor Who in the franchise. But one undeniable influence has to be the world of comic books, especially the worlds of manga and anime. Akira was the inspiration for the “bullet time” effects the films made famous. Ghost in the Shell was used to pitch the movie and provided the template to its overall style. The Wachowski siblings, the creative force behind the franchise, are comic book fans and wrote comics for Marvel’s Epic imprint before their writing ever appeared on movie screens. And comic book artists Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce worked as concept and storyboard artists on the film.
These are the comic book inspirations that are admitted to. However, in a 2005 interview that ran on the Suicide Girl’s website, Grant Morrison claimed that The Matrix was “plot by plot, detail by detail, image by image” copied from his Invisibles miniseries, the first issue of which was released five years before the movie opened.
Regardless if whether the comic book influence was admitted to or denied, The Matrix was a comic book film without being based on a comic book. It captured the complexities and layers found in the comic books of the day and put them on screen in such a way that audiences could easily digest them. And, to further cement the comic book/film bond, the Wachowskis published tie-in graphic novels after the first film became a success.
I’d argue that the Wachowskis never expected there to be a demand for a second or third Matrix film. My evidence comes from one of the big battles featuring Neo in The Matrix Reloaded, I believe it was the one where he fought the Merovingian’s lackeys.
During the course of the battle, Neo bleeds. This upset me to no end. Not because it would not become the Superman allegory that I wished for, but because it showed some shoddy writing. After the end of the last movie where Neo actually overcame death, nothing, but nothing should make him bleed. But bleed he did. I understand the logic—you want your audience to worry about the protagonists, having the life and death situations they face in the film truly be life and death. But in this case, it was backsliding. It was as if the Wachowskis couldn’t figure out how to keep the audience interested in a superhuman hero, so they back stepped and made him more human.
After that, I was pretty much done with the film. Forget the fact that the human survivors’ first reaction when faced with impending robot doom was to throw a sexually charged rave or that the climax essentially boiled down to Neo talking to an old guy in a room. Nothing the creators could have done would have been worse than weakening Neo in my eyes. The Matrix Revolutions wasn’t a grand finale to me but rather a putting the franchise out of its misery coda.
The fact that The Matrix was so perfect made the entire franchise such a disappointment. What was crisp and new became turgid and hackneyed. That is truly a shame.
Next up, we’ll cover a trio of original superhero movies that play with film genres to get their points across.