The Matrix and the Many 2000s Movies That Ripped It Off

Even 25 years later, The Matrix still affects the way we think about action and sci-fi movies.

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

It takes The Matrix about three minutes to become the coolest thing you’ve ever seen. That’s when Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) evades a cop by breaking his arm, punching his throat, and then freezing mid-air so the camera can whip around her before she unleashes a kick that sends him across the room. Three minutes. And everything changed.

But the most impressive part may be the fact that the amazing stuff doesn’t stop there. For the 117 minutes that follow, The Matrix directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski offer an improbable mix of kung fu action, Continental philosophy, and fin de siècle cool. It’s no wonder their movie became a hit in theaters and on video. Nor is it any wonder that so, so many movies and TV shows borrowed from The Matrix, at once cementing the original film’s legacy while also cheapening its effect. In immediate years and decade that followed The Matrix, we saw a glut of devotees, disciples, and shameless imitators. From affectionate parody to superhero knockoff, here are the movies that spent years taking their cues from Neo and Trinity.

Scary Movie (2000)

Looking at the poster, Scary Movie presents itself as a parody of ’90s horror movies, specifically Scream, The Sixth Sense, and The Blair Witch Project. But the overpacked poster also shows that Scary Movie and its six credited writers will include every single gag that pops into its head, without worrying about thematic coherence or, you know, quality.

So when Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris) floats into the air to make like Trinity, no one is too surprised. Nor is it a surprise when the Ghostface-style killer dodges plates like Neo dodging bullets. Of course no one was laughing either.

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X-Men (2000)

On one hand, X-Men followed in the predecessors of the previous Marvel movie released in theaters, 1998’s Blade. Blade beat The Matrix to theaters and had plenty of its own kung fu, black leather, and industrial music. But in The Matrix, the leather felt like a costume, part of the switch from the heroes’ regular dull selves and into superheroic identities.

Viewers revisiting X-Men from the perspective of the superhero boom may wonder why the movie team abandoned yellow spandex, but for viewers of the early 2000s, the black leather costumes felt very much like something a superhero should wear. Over the years, X-Men sequels would further borrow from The Matrix, using bullet time for the Nightcrawler opening in X2: X-Men United (2003) or Quicksilver’s set-piece in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).

Shrek (2001)

While it received more acclaim at the time, Shrek doesn’t have much more creative juice than Scary Movie. There’s more of a coherent narrative, sure, but Shrek‘s writers also pile on every pop culture reference they can fit into a very familiar story.

By the time Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) does her variation on the Trinity mid-air freeze kick, the gag feels obvious instead of surprising. Shrek does get a few extra points for adding the detail of Fiona fixing her hair while suspended in the sky, and the fight scene against the Merry Men is well-choreographed. Still, it’s sad to see a moment so revolutionary in The Matrix become banal so quickly in Shrek.

Kung-Pow! Enter the Fist (2002)

Another spoof movie, another Matrix reference. To its credit, Kung-Pow! Enter the Fist has a low budget goofiness that sets it apart from Scary Movie and Shrek. Furthermore, Kung-Pow! parodies Shaw Brothers kung fu pictures, and given the Wachowskis’ debt to the Hong Kong studio, the Matrix joke feels more earned.

But the real factor that sets Kung-Pow! above its predecessors is the fact it bothers to tell an actual joke. When, against all warnings, the Chosen One (writer, director, and star Steve Oedekerk) wanders into a meadow, he’s immediately challenged by a horrid looking CGI cow. The two have a full-on kung fu battle before they both do a Matrix-style jump kick. But the cow wins out, which is always a funny joke.

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Equilibrium (2002)

The Matrix combined outstanding action with actual intelligence, grounded in a proper understanding of philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard. Equilibrium fails on both accounts, a surface-level take on Fahrenheit 451 made all the more risible for its stone-faced seriousness.

Writer and director Kurt Wimmer steals liberally from The Matrix, from the dusters and wrap-around shades worn by protagonists played by Christian Bale and Taye Diggs to the “Gun Kata” that the good guys practice. However, it all comes to nothing, working best as a reminder of the miracle the Wachowskis pulled off with The Matrix.

Spider-Man (2002)

It’s not fair to compare Kurt Wimmer to Sam Raimi, but we’re going to do it anyway, because nothing highlights the disparity in the legacy of The Matrix like comparing Equilibrium to Spider-Man. From the very beginning of his career, Raimi has been a visual stylist, spinning his camera around to create hyper-kinetic sequences, usually to torture his collaborator and good buddy Bruce Campbell.

So when the Wachowskis popularized bullet time, Raimi did not copy them as much as he gained one more tool to bring his vision to life. Bullet time worked particularly well when putting Peter Parker’s spider-sense into motion. Where artists like Steve Ditko only needed to draw some squiggly lines above Pete’s head to warn of on-coming danger, Raimi used bullet time-like tricks to slow a fly buzzing in the air, a spit-ball about to be launched, and a punch about to be thrown by the world’s oldest high schooler Flash Thompson (Joe Manganiello).

Daredevil (2003)

The first and quite ill-fated attempt to adapt Daredevil in 2003 is one example of filmmakers just copying the Wachowskis’ style without… much actual style. Director Mark Steven Johnson’s main visual addition consisted largely in copying the blocking of comic book pages drawn by Frank Miller and Joe Quesada.

For the fight choreography, Johnson enlisted Yuen Cheung-yan, brother of The Matrix fight coordinator Yuen Woo-ping. The result is a bland nothing of a movie that plays like a sad also-ran.

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Charlie’s Angels (2000) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003)

The first Charlie’s Angels channeled irreverence and excess into a delightful bit of pop trash. When most of the creatives (minus co-screenwriter Ed Solomon, replaced by Cormac and Marianne Wibberley) returned for the sequel, the whole enterprise felt tired. The energy that fueled the first film had sputtered out and everyone seemed too old for this nonsense to continue.

In other words, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle is exactly the type of movie that needed to rip off The Matrix. In the first movie, wire-fu fight sequences abounded to cheesy but enjoyable effect. The borrowing became more overt in the sequel when during a motocross sequence, the Angels fire guns at their enemies while doing sweet jumps to the blasting sounds of the Prodigy. The bullet time does work to make the action legible, but it also underscores the giant shrug that is Full Throttle.

Underworld (2003)

The war between vampires and werewolves in Underworld may stretch back centuries, but that doesn’t mean they need to look archaic. No, the franchise that director Len Wiseman traded in the horror genre’s familiar fluffy shirts and ripped jeans for (what else?) black leather dusters and skintight vinyl.

But that’s not all that Wiseman takes for Underworld. The aggressive blue tints he gives his wasted world feels straight out of the the Wachowskis’ comic book-inspired color palette, as does the deep lore about secret societies.

How Deep the Rabbit Hole Really Goes

This list stops at 2003 not because that’s when bullet time and black leather disappeared from screens. That didn’t stop happening until well into the 2010s, after 2011’s The Raid: Redemption and Keanu Reeves’ other great franchise, John Wick, put an emphasis on brutal hand-to-hand combat.

But in the mid-2000s, filmmakers who used these tropes did so less because the Wachowskis did it and more because that’s just what action and sci-fi movies looked like at the time. So while one can argue that, say, the bullet curving in Wanted (2008) or the speed-ramping in all of Zack Snyder’s movies owe a debt to The Matrix, the filmmakers weren’t so clearly borrowing from the Wachowskis.

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And that’s a good thing. The Matrix earns its revered status because it changed things. The Wachowskis combined a bunch of things they loved, including anime and kung fu movies and rave culture, and came up with something that changed the culture. The filmmakers who really understand the influence of The Matrix do the same, as when Rose Glass combines ’80s bodybuilding with film noir and surreal cinema for Love Lies Bleeding (2024), or when brothers Danny and Michael Philippou take the hyper-active style they developed making social media videos to spice up the cautionary genre tale Talk to Me.

Maybe it’s taken 25 years—a heck of a lot longer than three minutes—but people now understand what really made The Matrix the coolest thing ever; it’s the ability to break through new boundaries, one 360-degree jump kick at a time.