Most of the big 2000’s and 2010’s franchises have either already been revisited or never went away, while the last twenty years of American life hasn’t exactly inspired much in the way of potential for nostalgia.
The Matrix train stops for no man. For better or worse, Hugo Weaving will not be returning to the fourth Matrix movie due to a scheduling conflict with a stage engagement of Tony Kushner’s The Visit. Without having any clue what Lana Wachowski has in mind for the fourth film, it’s probably for the best that the core villain of the initial trilogy isn’t going to play a role in the new film. The presence of two dead heroes (Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss) already raises questions about what’s coming to theaters on May 21, 2021. However, as someone who likes all three Matrix movies, I’m happy to see Lambert Wilson’s Merovingian is apparently returning. This means that the fourth film won’t take the coward’s way out and pretend that Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions didn’t happen.
Between now and May 21, 2021, we can expect a title, a cast list, a loose plot synopsis and a new release date for John Wick: Chapter 4. Presuming this all comes together, there’s a chance that Matrix 4 could be one of the bigger movies of 2021, give or take Avatar 2, Fast & Furious 10, Jurassic World 3, The Batman and Thor: Love and Thunder. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Terminator: Dark Fate and Ghostbusters: Afterlife, it will presumably usher in a new cast of younger (and comparatively inclusive) would-be heroes (and villains) with the original cast playing mentors or living witnesses to the past. What’s also interesting about this film is that it is just the latest formally huge franchise to get the legacy sequel/soft reboot treatment. It may also be the last.
I am not saying Matrix 4 will be the last time that a previously successful franchise revamped and refurbished for present-tense glory. I wouldn’t be shocked to see an eventual fourth Austin Powers movie or a fifth Shrek flick. The Matrix was the final mega-franchise of the 1990’s, released in early 1999, whose success and pop culture impact arguably merited a return visit, especially with Keanu Reeves’ continued popularity and at least some critical reevaluation of the sequels. First, most of the biggest franchises of the 2000’s either never really died or have been rebooted or revamped already. Second, if these franchise revivals are about capturing the nostalgia of the time in which they were released, well, how much nostalgia is there going to be for American history of the last twenty years?
If you look at the franchises of the 2000’s, you see (among others) X-Men, Fast & Furious, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Transformers, Saw, xXx and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Shrek could be the exception. The first Shrek opened four months before the 9/11 attacks while the series ended with Shrek: The Final Chapter in 2010. A Shrek 5 would be at least partially targeted at nostalgic fans of the first quadrilogy. Otherwise, these franchises have already been rebooted (Amazing Spider-Man), prequel-ed (Fantastic Beasts and The Hobbit) or just continued (X-Men, Fast & Furious, Saw). When X-Men becomes part of the MCU, the last thing Disney will care about is your warm-n-fuzzy feelings for the prior incarnation. Ditto whatever Disney does with Pirates of the Caribbean or Paramount’s future Transformers movies.
Is it possible that Lionsgate will find a way to make a legacy sequel to Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II or that Susanne Collins’ planned “Here’s how Snow went from hero to zero” Hunger Games prequel will be more than a single movie? Sure, absolutely. And while it’s in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” category, Disney is allegedly planning a third National Treasure movie. That makes sense since Pirates and National Treasure are Disney’s last two successful live-action franchises outside of acquired properties (Marvel and Lucasfilm) and their live-action fairy tale sub-genre. But when you get to the 2010’s, many of the biggest hits were superhero movies from ongoing franchises (the MCU, DC Films, etc.), animated films, and recycled franchises (Mad Max, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Halloween, etc.) from generations past.
The other issue, one that comes into play whether or not we get National Treasure 3 or Shrek 5 after Matrix 4, is whether there’s going to be any nostalgic feelings for the last twenty years, or even the 2000’s. The Matrix opened at the end of the century and the millennium, with a relatively healthy economy, comparative (at least as far as most Americans knew) peace and the illusion that progress, fueled by technology and an emerging online world, would merely march ever upward. Alas, what followed was a contested presidential election, the 9/11 attacks, outright war in the Middle East which continues to this day and an global economic meltdown, from which many folks still haven’t recovered. And you don’t need me to explain the relative unpleasantness of the last five years.
The exception may be the brief period, in 2009, after Barack Obama’s inauguration to, offhand, the 2010 midterm wipe out when the so-called Tea Party Republicans took power in the House of Representatives just in time to take advantage of state-by-state redistricting. If there is any nostalgia for that year of hope, well, James Cameron’s Avatar 2, which isn’t a nostalgia-bait sequel so much as a second installment that took 12 years to make, is finally opening in December of 2021. Otherwise, the time in which The Matrix debuted in April of 1999 represented one of the last times that folks had reason to be optimistic for the future. If franchise nostalgia is related to the time in which they debuted, The Matrix 4 and Avatar 2 may be one of the last of their kind.
The last twenty years of American life has been defined by fears about terrorism, unending overseas military engagement, economic misery and a concurrent rise in overt racism, homophobia and outright white nationalism which lead us to this grim present tense as climate change begins to reshape our world in a negative fashion. Moreover, the various film franchises of the last twenty years have either already been revisited or never really went away, and that’s not including the modern-day variations of older Hollywood film franchises. As such, The Matrix wasn’t just a popular sci-fi fantasy action series from 20 years ago. It, especially the first film (the sequels were very much made in the shadow of 9/11 and the Iraq occupation), represents one of the last periods for which general audiences might be inclined to be nostalgic.
I am curious to see if Lana Wachowski taps into this odd conundrum in this return to the world she and her sister created from scratch 21 years ago. Whatever my misgivings about a fourth Matrix movie might be, I can’t imagine Wachowski would settle for a warmed-over rehash of the first movie and/or straight-up nostalgia bait. For me, The Matrix brings about nostalgia not just of that late-1990’s moment when world history seemed to be moving, however slowly, in the right direction before everything went to hell. It reminds me of when a movie like The Matrix would be exciting and enticing because it was new and different. Today, and moviegoers are to blame as well, Hollywood has gone from an industry that would create The Matrix to one that would reboot The Matrix.