The Matrix sequels at 20: How the Wachowskis subverted expectations to make an inventive trilogy
Even if you’ve never seen The Matrix, you’ve felt its reverberations. Released in 1999, Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s classic sci-fi epic about hackers battling their post-apocalyptic machine overlords has had an indelible influence on Hollywood, spawning countless films inspired by everything from its cutting-edge “bullet time” special effects to its ability to transpose ambitious philosophical questions onto a sleek, anime-inspired action blockbuster.
Four years later, fan excitement hit a fever pitch when it was announced that the Wachowskis were expanding upon The Matrix with not one, but two sequels: The Matrix Reloaded in May 2003, followed by The Matrix Revolutions that October. Although the subsequent Matrix films fared well at the box office, they were received far more harshly by audiences and critics alike.
Read more: 10 terrifying sci-fi horror films where no one can hear you scream
“The original Matrix was full of dizzying surprises,” Newsweek critic David Ansen wrote in his review of Revolutions. “But it’s turned out that the Wachowskis didn’t have many more tricks up their sleeves.”
And so the Matrix sequels became largely maligned, deemed too strange, too convoluted, and too silly to stack up alongside the original’s genius.
In fact, many younger fans grew up hearing the subsequent films weren’t worth engaging with at all. Clay Williams, one of the hosts of the film podcast Exiting Through the 2010s, fell in love with the first Matrix film as a budding cinephile. But when it came to the sequels, he was discouraged from watching Reloaded and Revolutions by popular YouTube critics of the time, such as the Schmoes and Jeremy Jahns.
“I heard all these same guys [being] like, ‘Yeah, the sequels suck, man. They weren’t good. They were confusing. They were too heady,’” he says. “So when I watched the sequels in 2021, my two instant reaction were, ‘This might be my favorite trilogy ever,’ and, ‘I can’t fully comprehend why people were so mad about this.’”
[Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]
In recent years, an increasingly vocal contingent of Matrix sequel supporters have shared their love for the films online, prompting a reevaluation of the once flaming-hot take that “Reloaded and Revolutions are pretty good, actually.” For many, that reappraisal involves delving into the ways in which the Wachowskis used the sequels to deploy their uncompromising vision and subvert fan expectations — and why that’s a good thing.
In arguably their boldest move, the Wachowskis used the sequels to dismember and question the traditional “hero’s journey” that Keanu Reeves’ Neo goes on alongside Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and his fellow fighter-turned-lover Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) in the first Matrix movie. At the end of the 1999 original, Neo discovers that he is in fact the prophetic figure known as “The One” (your name is literally an anagram, dude!) prophesied to free humanity from the simulation in which totalitarian machines have enslaved them. He can fly! He’s surrounded by Christ imagery! Surely the sequels will show him kicking ass and leading humanity to freedom, right?
Kind of. The first sequel, Reloaded, leads up to a bombshell revelation: Neo isn’t quite that special after all. It turns out that he’s actually the fifth “One,” and the entire prophecy is yet another means of keeping humans subservient and unable to take action. So, yes, he’s important to the cause, but it’s the many human connections fleshed out across the sequels that are integral to winning the all-out war waged in Revolutions.
“It’s interesting how the sequels subvert [audience expectations] by being about [how] the hero’s journey isn’t necessarily all that interesting, and what matters more is community and interpersonal relationships, as opposed to just yourself,” says Katie, a filmmaker. “I’ve always found those themes of, ‘Oh, this is not just about one person. This is about humanity as a whole,’ really moving.”
In Reloaded, the Wachowskis explore that central fight for human autonomy and connection not through action sequences, but through unabashed carnality. After Morpheus gives a rousing battle cry, the people of Zion, the last human city, respond with, well, a cave orgy, as people of all ages and ethnicities gyrate together in pure ecstasy. Later, an outcast Matrix program known as the Merovingian argues that free will is an illusion pilfered by those in power by sending a nearby woman a programmed “orgasm cake.”
[Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]
At the time, these horny moments were widely regarded as something to gawk at. (Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers regarded the Zion scene as a “tacky bust, generating embarrassment, not heat.”) But now, in an era where blockbusters are widely derided for their sexlessness, tying human resilience and optimism to sensual sentimentality feels all the more radical.
“After being hooked up to machines for so long, these characters desire physical and human connection, they desire emotion,” says Reyna Cervantes, a cultural critic. “It’s a damn near perfect parallel to what they’re fighting against. It’s wild to me that a movie from 2003 is sexier than 99% of blockbusters that come out today.”
In an age where franchise films are riddled with studio notes and reshoots engineered to appeal to as many viewers as possible, there’s also something refreshing about revisiting challenging, ambitious movies fully attuned to a pair of filmmakers’ original visions.
“The Wachowskis are absolutely brilliant minds when it comes to fantasy writing, and sci-fi writing,” Williams says. “When it comes to what modern blockbusters have become, [Reloaded and Revolutions] feel so filmmaker-driven, and so purely in those two’s perspectives. That makes it such a breath of fresh air.”
Ironically, the sequels do embody elements of our modern film culture that might have left contemporary audiences more open to the sequels than they were in 2003. Reloaded and Revolutions threaded characters and storylines from comics, video games, and the anthology film The Animatrix into the main series. The expectation that fans consume extra materials to understand new installments is now commonplace in franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in 2003, it left some viewers alienated.
After two decades, many viewers have also reevaluated Reeves’ movie star persona for the better. “Keanu is one of the most gifted physical actors to ever grace blockbusters,” Williams says. “He carries himself like a dancer, and almost a statue in a way, too. If you paused a scene, you could understand the emotional context he is in in that moment [from] the way he carries himself.”
That’s on full display in the Matrix series — and what fans have come to appreciate more so, especially since the release of the John Wick movies.
[Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]
Understanding the Matrix series as an inherently queer and trans franchise adds even more nuance. In the 2010s, its iconic imagery was co-opted by right-wing trolls, most memorably through the MRA subreddit r/TheRedPill (and a whole legion of misogynistic, conspiratorial assholes who Lilly told to fuck off on Twitter). The Matrix might be open to a whole host of interpretations, but there’s no denying that this right-wing appropriation cuts against the intent of the Wachowskis, two leftist filmmakers who came out as trans in the years following the original trilogy’s release. Using the internet to find your true identity and transcending the limitations of your physical form? Queer and trans themes have always been there.
Alongside widely disseminated readings of the Matrix movies as allegories for faith, philosophy, and anti-capitalism, recognizing the queer and trans storytelling has given them even more resonance among trans viewers — particularly the sequels.
“I really appreciated how they complicate the trans allegory at the center of the original Matrix, rather than making something that would’ve been more palatable to a commercial mainstream audience,” Katie says. “Just because you transitioned, you still have to live a life.”
The sequels take pains to blur the binary between good humans and evil non-humans presented in The Matrix, introducing programs who have formed families and grown to value the traces of humanity within themselves. Meanwhile, original baddie Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) goes from a suit to a literal embodiment of fascist authority. Neo and his allies triumphing against a villain who seeks to eradicate communities formed around solidarity and autonomy is a timeless story, but one that feels all the more resonant — especially when acknowledging the film’s trans allegory — today.
Cervantes adds, “In a political climate that aims to suppress the rights of trans people like myself on a daily basis, Reloaded and Revolutions are a solid reminder that as long as there’s love worth fighting for, there will always be resistance towards people who aim to suppress the marginalized.”
Following the sequels, the Wachowskis have continued to make big, ambitious sci-fi films with a similar blend of campiness, inventiveness, and aching sincerity. Although the sisters haven’t worked on a project together since Netflix’s Sense8, Lana Wachowski gifted Matrix sequel fans with another bold, uncompromising entry in 2021. The Matrix Resurrections takes meta aim at studio demands to resurrect IP and rely on cynical nostalgia bait, while simultaneously telling a swooning love story and highlighting Trinity as the integral co-lead she’s always been.
As Reyna puts it: “It’s amazing that [Lana] delivered an unconventional sequel again. It’s probably the most fascinating blockbuster since Reloaded.”
Sure, the Wachowskis may not have replicated the industry-shaking success of the first Matrix movie. But in an era where going to the movies feels increasingly like plugging into Hollywood’s Matrix of predictable fanfare sequels, the sisters’ subversive, unexpected follow-ups feel like nothing less than a miracle.