As I write this, it's been about a week since news broke that Warner Bros. is planning to revisit The Matrix franchise. At the time the news broke, the word "reboot" was thrown about a lot as a kind of catch-all, because no one really knew what the actual plans for the return of the series would be. Writer Zak Penn has since dismissed the notion of a reboot, suggesting instead that the approach will be new stories set in the Matrix universe, but the fact remains: We are headed for a return to The Matrix in some form.
And hey, that's fine. I still like the central concepts at work in The Matrix, the first film is still a classic, and dated CGI aside, there are still moments from the second and third films that I really enjoy. I'm excited to see whatever Penn and Warners might come up with as they steer the ship in the direction of a Star Wars-style expanded universe, but I can't deny that when this news broke, the first word in my head was the same one that probably entered a lot of yours:
Sure, the idea of tinkering with a classic doesn't exactly sit well, but sometimes that actually works. What really gives me pause is that The Matrix is a film very much of its time, a cyberpunk adventure molded to fit the "What will these computer really do to us if we keep pushing them deeper into our lives?" fears of a pre-Millennium world still grappling with the emerging insta-power of the Internet. It's a lot of sci-fi concepts that rose in the decades before it merging into a big super kung-fu spectacle, which is a lot of fun, and while that all still holds up, it's also inspired countless imitations. We've seen loads of sci-fi media in the nearly 20 years since the first film that's either reacting to, reacting against, or just flat out ripping off the cultural ripple of The Matrix, and that makes me wonder what a new film in a Post post-Matrix culture will really accomplish.
I'll be there in the theater along with the rest of you to find out, of course, but thinking about the point of new Matrix stories also got me thinking that there's something else out there that traffics in many of the same sci-fi high concepts that I'd actually rather see at this point. It pre-dates The Matrix, and it follows some of the same thematic and visual cues to the point that the Wachowskis have actually been accused of ripping it off, but it goes deeper. It's a sci-fi conspiracy thriller with a white-hot core of screaming magic, and it's both a huge action spectacle and an attempt to burrow down into your very marrow and wake you up to see all the secrets of the universe.
It's Grant Morrison's The Invisibles.
For 59 issues between 1994 and 2000, Morrison and a host of artists -- including Steve Yeowell, Jill Thompson and Phil Jimenez -- attempted to rewire the future through a comic that's part cross-genre revolutionary adventure and part magical hypersigil. Through the story of the Invisibles -- told across various times and dimensions with a host of freaks, spirits and extra-dimensional monsters -- Morrison hoped to create a fictional simulation of certain enlightening experiences he had, including an encounter with five-dimensional beings in Kathmandu who took him to a place existing outside of time. The very act of reading it is supposed to create a sense of spiritual disorientation, followed by awakening. Through The Invisibles, Morrison hoped, readers could achieve a new state of being, and become invisible agents of revolution themselves.
And if you don't buy that, you still get to read a fun comic full of sex, violence and all manner of sci-fi coolness.
Like The Matrix, The Invisibles is the story of a small band of freedom fighters locked in battle against a massive conspiracy to keep the human race docile, obedient and ultimately enslaved. In the world of The Invisibles, humans are fed subliminal advertising to develop "a generation of sick, obese, passive consumers." Rich white men hunt the homeless for sport and engineer a special strain of crack cocaine that enables them to possess the bodies of inner city black men and commit crimes free of consequence. Humans at the highest levels of this conspiracy worship at the feet of powerful beings from a dark dimension who will one day take over our Earth and control all of humanity.
The only thing standing between us and this terrible fate are The Invisibles, a loosely connected group of renegade cells who use their own special abilities to sow chaos, awaken the world and prevent the total submission of the human race. Throughout the series, Morrison presents a fundamental choice to his readers: "Timeless Freedom or Eternal Control."
Also like The Matrix, The Invisibles just looks really cool. The leader of the Invisibles cell we follow for most of the series, King Mob, is a bald, pierced action hero strutting around with a leather jacket and a cool car. Ragged Robin, his psychic sorceress girlfriend, rocks a wardrobe ranging from hippie queen to movie star to dominatrix. Lord Fanny, the group's transgender shaman, walks the world like a goddess in fishnets, addressing everyone as "Darling." Together with Boy, the martial arts expert, and Jack Frost, the punk from Liverpool who might just be humanity's savior, they traverse the globe fighting the servants of the evil Outer Church, who quite often appear as sunglasses-and-suit-wearing agents of evil.
So, you get all the conspiracy-driven action and all of the cool look that comes with The Matrix package, but then The Invisibles takes things much, much further.
The Matrix is about a world in which the human race is enslaved by machines and used for battery power, and the central metaphor is one of conformity and a lack of inquisitive spirit as an oppressive tool to keep us from seeing the truth. The gives the story its scope and its stakes, and then the Wachowskis lay in the central messiah narrative of Neo, and the idea that rogue programs who appear to have superpowers exist to give the whole thing a more imaginative bent beyond the cyberpunk cool of its initial premise.
That's all great, but it kind of stops there.
The Invisibles also uses the conformity as oppression metaphor as its drive, but waiting beyond for the enlightened to encounter are not just machines dedicated to dominating humanity. Waiting beyond are beings of unimaginable power, working their magic (often literally) on our world to secretly orchestrate our future, and they're doing it in every way imaginable. This is a world where that authority figure you were counting on could slip into armor from another dimension and eat you alive, where your best friend could peel off their contacts to reveal alien eyes behind them, and where a terrifying eight-foot-tall superbeing wants to be crowned king of everything and feast upon the human race.
So, how do you fight such things? Sometimes it's as simple as kung fu and a gun, but it's usually much more complicated. Sometimes it takes a little spell triggered by a masturbation or a ritual performed across time. Sometimes it's a simple psychic event, or a trans-dimensional leap. Sometimes it's secret alien tongues or implants from the future or false memories embedded inside an invading consciousness. Sometime it's all of that, giving it the potential not just for surprise, but for adaptability. Here, the ideas are big enough to contain countless stories.
The Invisibles is all of that rolled into a massive story, but it's also full of mysteries even the comic itself doesn't disclose, inscrutable wonders you have to keep returning to again and again. It's designed to be a book of shadows that both teaches you how to work your own magic on the world and works magic on you as you're reading it. It's designed to derange your senses and then inspire you to derange others with what you've learned. Various versions of the story are authored by at least two different characters within the story itself, creating a meta narrative that extends the central idea of revolution Morrison's getting at. He's even praised The Matrix for its use of the same ideas in a blockbuster film, because he sees it as evidence that the spell he was trying to cast worked. By extension, adapting The Invisibles to film or TV would not just continue the expression of the spell's effects, but expand it into a new medium, hopefully transferring some of that magic through your eyeballs.
Now, can everything this dense, often confounding narrative achieves in comics be done in a single film? No, and I doubt it could even be done in a trilogy of films. If it's going to be done, TV's probably the place for it, and it would have to be uncensored TV at that.
Do I really think that's gonna happen? As comic book properties like Legion and Preacher continue to flourish on television, it just might, even if some of it isn't necessarily as commercial as other shows have the potential to be. The Invisibles might also just remain a comic too weird for the screen, but if you're talking but resurrecting the central ideas of The Matrix on the screen, you should be talking abut this, too. The themes and powers at work in The Invisibles are just as at home in our minds now as they were 20 years ago, and the wide universe that contains them is deeper, and richer, than the one that contains Neo and his pals.