‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and When Cliffhangers Fail

     May 16, 2018

matrix-reloaded

Spoilers ahead for The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and Avengers: Infinity War.

When I saw The Matrix Reloaded in May 2003, I was blown away. I was all in on the bigger world the Wachowskis were setting up, and spent the summer and fall endlessly theorizing online about what the conclusion, The Matrix Revolutions, could hold. Then the sequel came out, was the cinematic equivalent of a big, wet fart, and my high opinion of Reloaded faded away.

The Matrix Reloaded turns 15 this week, and so I revisited it along with Revolutions (you can hear a longer discussion of these two films I had with Adam Chitwood on this week’s The Collider.com Podcast). What’s striking about Reloaded is that all of its flaws—flaws that other people noticed at the time—are indisputable now because Reloaded ultimately fails at paying off its elaborate set up.

matrix-reloaded-posterLook no further than the Merovingian. He’s an annoying character already, but we’re treated to an extended scene where he pontificates on and on about cause and effect, and then sends a piece of cake to a young woman that makes her orgasm. It’s a weird scene, and at least thematically, in the broken way the Wachowskis tried to make the film hold together, the scene ties back into the larger idea of choice. The Merovingian, a villain, believes that choice is a false construct and we are all prisoner to causality. But he’s a speech without a character, leaving foolish people like me to spend six months trying to fill in a backstory.

Who was the Merovingian? Was he a previous “One” from an earlier iteration of the Matrix? Is he a rogue program? What exactly is his purpose and why hasn’t be been purged from the Matrix? So many questions, and when Revolutions came around, there were no answers except this time the Merovingian was in Hell. I guess you could say, as Adam suggested, he’s a demon, but does that matter? Does any of it matter? And the resounding answer of Revolutions is “not really.”

Reloaded is a film that will stop dead in its tracks so people can have a philosophical conversation and express ideas that were woven into the narrative of the original The Matrix. It’s the kind of conceit I was willing to accept at the time because I gave the Wachowskis the benefit of the doubt. I assumed that these lofty ideas needed to be expressed directly because they would have some monumental payoff in the following film. But that faith was not rewarded as Revolutions is largely a series of dumb action scenes following characters you don’t know or care about. And the importance of “choice”? Dismissed at the end as all of humanity will have no choice but to leave the Matrix and live in broken-ass Zion.

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Image via Warner Bros.

The Matrix Reloaded invited our faith in part because the film just stops halfway through. It’s not a multi-part story like Lord of the Rings where the overarching narrative (Frodo and Sam need to get The One Ring to Mount Doom) is still clear even though the individual movie has ended. The Matrix Reloaded instead leaves it up to the audience to guess what could happen in the concluding chapter. Sound familiar?

Avengers: Infinity War ends with half of the population of the universe turning into dust. We now have a year to speculate what exactly happened after Thanos snapped his fingers and how those superheroes that remain will fight back. It’s a bold way to end a movie (although slightly less bold when you know that some of the dusted superheroes have their own sequels on the way), but it leaves so much up in the air. Are those superheroes actually dead, or are they in a pocket dimension? How will the remaining superheroes fight back against Thanos? What does the world look like when half the population suddenly disappears?

And it’s fun to consider those questions until that speculation becomes its own cottage industry. I was there 15 years ago with The Matrix Reloaded, and the problem with fan theories is that you can run away with them. You essentially start constructing your own fan fiction, and because you’ve invested the time and energy, you naturally have affection for what you’ve created. I didn’t go that far with Reloaded, but I remember message board threads that went on and on as people debated the true nature of The Architect and The Oracle.

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Image via Warner Bros.

To be fair, Avengers doesn’t have to worry about a convoluted level of mythology. It’s also somewhat safe inside the confines of the MCU as the stories must continue no matter what. We’re still speculating over who will live and who will die, but at least there should be some kind of real resolution in our future as opposed to a dull battle to determine the fate of crummy Zion (yes, I’m still salty over Revolutions).

The important lesson to take from The Matrix Reloaded is not to fall down a rabbit hole of theories. It’s fun to guess what may happen, and a cliffhanger inevitably leads to speculation. But it’s also important to let storytellers reveal their story on their own terms. You may not like what they come up with (and Revolutions fails in just about every way possible), but it helps lessen the disappointment.

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