Reading James Whitbrook's piece on the tendency of franchises to repeat the same core stories made me wonder: When do radical departures from established styles and storylines work, and to what extent?
Two of the biggest disappointments in recent genre history, perhaps second only to the Star Wars prequels, are the 2003 sequels to the Matrix, Reloaded and Revolutions. Many of the complaints are, on the surface, justified: The dialogue is flat and often goofy (especially when it's trying to be profound), there are too many new characters and concepts, the action sequences are excessive and frequently cartoonish, and worst of all, the final movie all but abandons the virtual world setting that made the original seem so fresh and exciting back in 1999.
But it's worth pointing out that, like Lucas, the Wachowskis had full creative control. These are their ideas, their stories. Nothing was imposed on them from above by an overzealous studio exec looking to recreate the original movie in a more expensive form, nor were they concerned about fans who wanted to relive Neo's adventures in more or less the same fashion. Consequently, they didn't try to recreate the first story, but rather interrogate its assumptions and narrative archetypes.
Part of the appeal of the original Matrix is that it is almost a perfect rendition of Joseph Campbell's monomyth, or "The Hero's Journey" so beloved by Hollywood screenwriters, even more so than Star Wars. Neo hears the call to adventure, accepts it after an initial refusal, gains supernatural companions, encounters a goddess figure, and then following many challenges and setbacks, achieves a spiritual transformation and faces down the threshold guardians, returning to the world of the Matrix as its prophecied liberator, "The One." For Campbell followers who insist that the monomyth is the only story worth telling, the movie must have felt like total vindication.
Reloaded, however, reveals this to be total bullshit. In the movie's key scene, the Architect of the Matrix, sounding not unlike a screenwriting guru at an expensive private seminar, reveals that Neo's journey was planned all along — indeed, it was programmed into the Matrix's code from the beginning, and is the means by which the system has propagated itself for hundreds of years. It's not hard to read that as a not-too-subtle criticism of movie franchises, which repeat core elements to the point of obsession to ensure further box office returns. The dilemma the Architect presents to him is not unlike the choice faced by a successful filmmaker on the verge of following up a beloved movie: Neo can take a few select humans and establish a reiteration of the last "free" colony, or risk total extinction. It's hard not to see the parallels with creators who want to do something different with a sequel — or not make a sequel at all — but are forced to fall back on an established formula because the market demands it and their careers are at stake.
To its credit, Revolutions doesn't fall back on formula. In fact, it doesn't feel like a sequel at all. Neo's role is greatly reduced, and the focus shifts mainly to the other soldiers and techs whose job is to protect Zion from the machines in the real world. The Matrix only appears briefly at the beginning and during the "boss battle" against Smith at the end. Morpheus, no longer an Obi-Wan-style mentor figure, is relegated to his ex-girlfriend's second-in-command; minor, previously unseen characters are provided with opportunities for incredible bravery and heroism. In essence, the third movie's plot and structure mirrors Neo's decision not to perform the Campbellesque "Return." It suggests that other types of stories, other types of heroes, are possible.
And fans hated it. (Critics weren't kind either.)
Not that they're necessarily great movies. Reloaded is pretty silly, filled with characters and incidents that don't really add up satisfactorily. And the gundam battles in Revolutions felt overdone, and seemed thuddingly familiar from other SF franchises, like Aliens and Terminator, after the graceful, gravity-defying combat of the original film. But the Wachowskis weren't trying to recreate the first Matrix, as terrific as it was. It already existed, it didn't need to be copied, and it provided a variety of ideas that sequels could develop and explore. And were developed, though probably not in the fashion that the viewers were hoping for. But then again, the Matrix is a prison. Why would the heroes want to return to that place again and again?
Then again, returning again and again is the primary function of franchises and sequels, and now universes. Repetition and conservatism have always been the central defining elements of the movie industry, even before the era of blockbuster franchises. The modern sequel has evolved beyond its cruder, "bigger, better, louder" Jaws 2/Die Harder iteration to include wider worlds and crossovers, but not by that much. (If the title has a number in it, it's acknowledging its producthood front and center, and isn't even trying to be ambitious — in fact, it might be acknowledging its inherent lameness.) Most moviegoers want something familiar, if not necessarily the same. The Matrix trilogy broke with those expectations, which might explain why they're so utterly reviled, even though by the standards of action movies they're not that bad, and they work pretty well as SF too (though "people batteries" are still stupid).
It does make me wonder what this bodes for the future of franchise filmmaking. Star Wars is bringing back Luke, Han, and Leia, but they probably won't be around for Episodes X-XII, assuming they survive the current trilogy. Likewise, most of the first-wave Marvel principals' contracts will be up by the end of Phase III, some time around 2018 or so. Will the studios — and the fans — be willing to move on beyond those characters? Or will they eventually reboot the core stories in order to make them "fresh" again? (Because that worked so well for Spider-Man.) Will they be able to move on from the initial success, or will they seek to repeat it endlessly? Maybe Neo was right — sometimes a return to the Source is not the most desirable — or the only — option.