Major spoilers for The Matrix Resurrections ahead.
After 20 years, we’ve landed back in the simulation. The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth film in the franchise from Lana Wachowski, finds Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) donning their maxi leather coats to battle the Sentinels once again. But after all this time, the sentient machine-run world that Neo and Trinity once knew isn’t as they left it. A lot has changed — namely, their former comrade in the fight against the Matrix, Morpheus.
Early looks at The Matrix Resurrections revealed that several of the franchise’s original cast would be returning for the new film, but one name was surprisingly omitted from the list: Laurence Fishburne. The actor famously starred in the trilogy as Morpheus, a leader within humanity’s rebellion against the Sentinels and Neo’s number one fan. Morpheus’ role in the plot of all three previous Matrix films was crucial, fueling Neo and the resistance’s hope for a new future within Zion, so the reveal that Fishburne had been replaced by Emmy-winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in the film was surprising, even to him.
"I am not in the next Matrix movie,” Fishburne shared in a June 2021 interview with Collider. “You'd have to ask Lana Wachowski why, 'cause I don't have an answer for that.”
Given the importance of his character, many within the fandom thought that Fishburne was faking us out à la Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield in the new Spider-Man film. However, the odd casting switch-up is real, and The Matrix Resurrections does its best to give us a reason for it…sort of.
In the third installment, The Matrix Revolutions, the vicious war against the sentinels came to a climactic end. Protagonist Neo committed the ultimate sacrifice, plugging himself into the Matrix in order to stop the attack of rogue agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and his clones. His decision to join up with the very system that had been holding him and the rest of humankind hostage led to an important brokerage of peace between the warring factions; in addition to withdrawing from the paradise of Zion, the Sentinels agreed to a peace that will last “as long as it can.”
Unfortunately, that promise only really amounts to about 60 years of harmony. Decades later, The Matrix Resurrections opens up in a distant future in which the Sentinels are still running the Matrix unbeknownst to many humans, including our hero himself. Neo, looking only a few years older, is still participating in this world, this time as game developer Thomas Anderson, the man responsible for dreaming up a culture-shaping video game called The Matrix out of his subconscious. He’s not happy, and though Thomas suspects there might be a reason for that, he doesn’t know what it is. But he’s about to find out.
Enter Morpheus, or rather some version of him. The character doesn’t look anything like we remember him to, and that’s because he isn’t actually the same Morpheus we grew up with. This Morpheus (played by Abdul Mateen II) is actually a program that Thomas/Neo created out of his subconscious for his popular video game, both new and old; new in that he isn’t a human being but a manmade code, and old in that he’s a curious amalgamation of the real Morpheus (Fishburne) and Smith (Weaving). Though we initially meet him as a program working within the Matrix to maintain the status quo, at his core, he’s still Morpheus, meaning that his true purpose is to help The One realize his destiny and defeat the artificial intelligence still keeping humans in bondage. The only difference? He doesn’t have a physical body and has limited function outside of the computer world. (Plus, his updated wardrobe is somehow even more fabulous than it was before.)
The real Morpheus is long gone in Resurrections. A chat with Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), Morpheus’ former love and current head of the new human-machine paradise of Io, reveals the unfortunate fact that Neo’s mentor actually died years ago in a bloody skirmish with the machines. After Neo merged with the Matrix to save Zion, Morpheus became the leader of the human refuge, but his reign wouldn’t last long; the rise of a dangerous new presence in Machine City led to a full-force attack on Zion that cost him and many others their lives.
Wachoqski’s newest work goes to great lengths to justify the reasons why Fishburne couldn’t be part of the new film, and I have no complaints about Abdul-Mateen’s inspired take on the iconic character of Morpheus — for a sentient computer program, he has a lot of flavor, and he did fulfill his goal of helping Neo reach his full potential as The One. Nonetheless, a Fishburne-less Matrix doesn’t feel quite right, especially since the actor is actively working in Hollywood and is clearly still very invested in being part of the sci-fi epic. The decision to leave him out of the reboot ultimately hinders the storyline, resulting in yet another thing to for us try to make sense of in a narrative that is already so riddled with difficult-to-understand, meta concepts.
Call me greedy, but in a fictional world where Neo can fly and dodge bullets in real time, I think we could have had both Fishburne and Abdul-Mateen II as Morpheus. After all, anything is possible in the Matrix.
The Matrix Resurrections is now available in theaters and for streaming on HBO Max.