The Matrix Reloaded, released 10 years ago this week, is remembered now as a disappointment, but let's be fair. It was the top moneymaker of the trilogy ($742 million worldwide), and the reviews were mostly positive, if not exactly glowing. The reason it lingers in our collective memory as a dud and pops up on more than one "worst sequels ever made" list is that it caught some of the stink from The Matrix Revolutions, the trilogy closer that came out six months later and actually was widely considered to be an inferior product (just 36% positive at Rotten Tomatoes).
Neither movie was a flop financially, though. Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions were the fourth and ninth highest grossing films of 2003, and together made $1.17 billion worldwide. In the U.S., it was Reloaded that did most of that work, earning twice as much as Revolutions did. Part Three is another discussion, but can we acknowledge, on the occasion of its 10th birthday, that Part Two wasn't a disappointment?
Granted, there was some disenchantment among fans at the time. Reloaded's box office dropped 60% in its second weekend, indicating the big Matrix fans had seen it and word of mouth from them hadn't been enough to convince a lot of fence sitters. (The first Matrix lost only 19% of its business in its second weekend.) A few months later, when it was announced that Revolutions would be released all over the world at the same moment (six a.m. in Los Angeles, two p.m. in London, etc.), the joke on SNL's "Weekend Update" was that this was "so everyone can be disappointed at the same time."*
But The Matrix Reloaded was doomed to be a letdown anyway. Four years earlier, The Matrix had been a miracle in so many ways: it was an original sci-fi story rather than a TV show or sequel; it was a big budget brain-bender from a little-known pair of writer-director brothers; its biggest star was Keanu Reeves, who was not being taken very seriously at the moment; and it was coming out right before the first of the Star Wars prequels, which were presumed to be better. No one would have predicted The Matrix would become the highest grossing R-rated movie of 1999 (fifth highest of all movies), much less that it would have had such a tremendous influence on the rest of Hollywood (that "bullet time" slow-mo stuff was EVERYWHERE). How do you make a sequel to that?
The answer, if you're smart, is that you do it with reasonable expectations. Part of what people loved about The Matrix was discovering its trippy, cyber-dystopia concepts, learning about the world it took place in. Turns out it was this -- the process of building the movie's universe -- that we liked more than the thing being built. Who cared about the battle between the humans and the machines, really? We were in it for the dorm-room philosophy questions about destiny vs. free will, the symbolism (real or imagined) we found in the Wachowskis' creation, and the impossibly cool action sequences. Reloaded delivered all of those to varying degrees, but it was never going to be as new and revelatory as The Matrix.
When The Matrix Reloaded was released on May 15, 2003:
- It came out on a Thursday, and it set a record for biggest four-day opening gross. Its competition for the weekend -- counter-programming at its shrewdest -- was Down with Love, the frothy Ewan McGregor/Renee Zellweger Rock Hudson/Doris Day-style kitsch comedy that had opened on one New York screen a week earlier and was now going wide. Down with Love landed in fourth place, behind Daddy Day Care and X2: X-Men United. The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Identity and Anger Management were in the top 10 as well.
- June Carter Cash never got a chance to see the Matrix sequels, because she died today.
- Da Ali G Show had recently made its American debut on HBO. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was five days from airing its final episode, and soon Disney's Even Stevens would end, too, releasing Shia LaBeouf into the wild. CSI, Friends and Joe Millionaire were the most watched shows on TV.
- Sean Paul's "Get Busy" was the most popular song in all the land, having just bumped 50 Cent's tender birthday ballad "In Da Club" off the top of the Billboard charts. They don't write 'em like that anymore! (I am kidding, they do.)
*I'm paraphrasing the joke. I searched far and wide, including a site of SNL transcripts, for the exact wording, but couldn't find it. I spent far more time looking than I should have, and I'll be mad if it turns out to be archived somewhere obvious.