So there’s this film that was made in 1990’s where Keanu Reeves and his best friend end up on a science-fantasy journey, during which he says “Whoa”.
No of course i mean The Matrix starring Laurence Fishburne instead of whoever the fuck Bill is. Granted, unlike Bill in Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) , Morpheus doesn’t share equal billing with his friend Neo and is relegated to a support role instead. Not to say he’s unimportant, however,he is an example of prevalent archetype in world culture ; the wise mentor.
The Matrix makes a not so subtle attempt to parallel the story of Neo with the Campbellian monomyth. A hero ends up in a foreign world in search of enlightenment and adventure. With that in mind, the mentor figure takes on many classical elements. As a mentor, Morpheus resembles what anthropologist Joseph Campbell would have called a “threshold guardian”, who tests the resolve of the hero to continue the quest at hand. In this case, the test is philosophical: would you want to see how far you can stray from the familiar or do you want to go back to it? A similar option comes up often in Lord of The Rings with Bilbo and Frodo who have to choose between staying in the cozy yet isolated shire and the larger, intimidating Middle Earth.
The pill choice serves as Neo’s “call to adventure”, where the hero is given the choice of whether or not he wants to embark upon the journey at hand. Morpheus could’ve told Neo the sinister purpose of the Matrix or the fact that he thinks Neo’s the One, but he intentionally leaves out the best arguments for either option, instead opting for ambiguity. This foreshadows Neo’s later meeting with the Oracle, who tells him he’s not the One even though he is. Telling him would possibly force him in his predestined direction, but allowing him to come to the conclusion himself allows for him to fully realize it (which plays into the end of the series). Neo’s role as the One is as a messiah, not a hero. That means that his primary role is to sacrifice himself for others.
As such, when he’s told he has to choose between saving his own life and Morpheus’, he chooses Morpheus because he thinks him to be more important than himself, which is the level of humility he needs as the One. Ironically, from Neo’s point of view, Morpheus was the true hero of the story whereas he was merely a supporter.
While I would deem Morpheus’ role as fairly “race neutral”,his role as a mentor overlaps with the archetype of the “magical negro” initially. To clarify, this term was first coined by Spike Lee in a lecture on film in 2001 and the unfortunate frequency of morally pure subservient characters who often were mystical as well (The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, specifically).
The formula was goes like this: a white person, often from a wealthy background yet fraught with “first world problems”, meets a sage black person who gives them advice and/or magic from beyond their culture. A great example is Don Cheadle’s character in The Family Man (2000), a seemingly criminal young man who teaches Nicholas Cage’s character the importance of family by warping reality to give him the one he never had. Given the magic realism of the film, he’s never given much characterization other than being jovial and helpful to the protagonist. The issue with characters like this is, as with any caricature, it’s flatness. Real people have goals, ambitions, and desires. Therefore, a dude who is simultaneously as powerful as a “magical negro” yet lacking these attributes seems a little flat. If Bagger Vance is such a philosophical and brilliant golfer,why the fuck would he caddy for some white guy? One could make a good case for Morpheus falling into this stereotype. Neo is introduced as a lost man; a hacker with an empty life. Meeting Morpheus allows for him to gain knowledge about a world beyond his pale (pun intended).
The “mysticism” of the character is due to his closer relationship to the nature of the Matrix than Neo’s. This is visually evident from the first time they meet, just look at how Morpheus’ glasses stay on his face despite not even having those thingies on the side.
Lawrence Fishburne’s entire performance is initially as foreign as possible due to his slow deliberate speech and stoicism. Morpheus is the first person of this obscure world that is both clearly “strange” yet willing to accept Neo in , unlike the agents he meets beforehand. And obviously, like a magical negro, Morpheus’ primary goal in the first film is to boost the esteem of the white protagonist. With all that being said , Morpheus is still quite far from being a flat supporting character. What keeps Morpheus from being a true “magical negro” however is his own unique character arc. In the first film , his belief in Neo isn’t just for his sake, it’s for the sake of Zion. It’s the last piece in his vision for humanity. It’s not as if he doesn’t have a plan and the ability to fight the machines beforehand. Morpheus is as important to the citizens of Zion as Neo is (if not more). He even has a beta romance with Niobe (who is, unsurprisingly, black as well) , which makes him a bit more human.
After the first film , the characters begin to diverge from a protagonist/foil relationship (the foil being a mentor in this case) to more of a protagonist/deuteragonist relationship. To clarify , this means that Morpheus become a secondary protagonist that takes on an almost as important role to the plot. This is generally accomplished by having an immediate and/or practical goal for the deuteragonist to take on while the protagonist takes on a more significant thematic goal. Often the deuteragonist’s goal allows for the protagonist to reach the goal in the first place. Probably the most famous deuteragonist is Aragorn in Lord of The Rings. While Frodo has the “load bearing” task of destroying the true macguffin of the series, Aragorn has to take care of the more immediate task of fighting Sauron’s forces. In addition, he also has the more practical task of creating post-war order as the King of Middle Earth’s menfolk. Morpheus’ almost beat for beat fulfills the same role: we see in Matrix Reloaded (2003) that he is the actual leader of the freed people and has the practical experience to lead an army against the machines. Morpheus acts as a contrast to Neo as the One: Neo stands alone for the most of the film with most of his influence to the rest of Zion being tangential. When a child thanks him for saving his life, he brushes him off rather rudely. This in contrast to Morpheus’ fatherly attitude towards his men; Morpheus’ power comes from his ability to directly influence people. Fittingly, in The Matrix Revolutions (2003), while Neo fights in the Matrix, Morpheus is the one actually responsible for the preservation of Zion. It’s also implied that he ends up being the spiritual leader of humanity after the defeat of Smith, making him the “King of Men” himself.
The relationship between Neo and Morpheus pays off the most in The Matrix Revolutions (2003), specifically the shifting of spirituality between the two. In the first film, Morpheus completely trusts in the prophecy of the Oracle, whereas Neo spends most of the film skeptical of it. While this is at first portrayed as a character flaw of Neo’s, it actually ends up becoming an advantage over Morpheus. Morpheus’ absolutist belief in the Oracle’s teachings makes him rigid. Sure, his beliefs are inspirational, but they also have a glass-like fragility. In The Matrix Reloaded, we learn that “The One” is all part of the Matrix’s plan for humanity; a way of dealing with eventual anomalies. Morpheus completely drops his faith upon this revelation, stating that ” I dreamed a dream, but now that dream is gone from me“. Revolutions shows him to have lost much of the confidence that defined his character to the point where he doesn’t even offer a word of encouragement when the war effort starts going south. When Neo decides to go to the source of the Matrix , Morpheus is unconfindent in his fate , telling Neo that he “can only hope [he] knows what [he’s] doing“.
Neo on the other hand is resolute in his decision. Neo doesn’t know WHY he should be resolute , but he’s willing to trust his instincts. This is something Morpheus can’t do, he needs the clear prophecies that the Oracle gave him to be as confident. This is why, until Neo makes his sacrifice, Morpheus lacks his trademark proud bearing. Neo is the one who inspires humanity at this point. Niobe, who doesn’t even believe in “The One” begins to have faith in Neo, calling his proposed action “providence”. While Morpheus helped create the spiritual path of Zion , Neo was the one who kept the spirit going once the path became murky. Neo’s skepticism allows for him to fully realize what the Oracle wants him to do; to reject the fatalism inherent in the Matrix. In the series final battle, Smith questions his resolution in continuing to fight when all seemed lost. His response is simple…
This is ultimately what makes him Zion’s true Messiah and not Morpheus: he doesn’t need a grand narrative to move forward, he only needs choice. Several figures in the series make absolute claims about the nature of the Matrix, including the Oracle. Neo chooses against them in favor of his own whims. Just as Jesus rejected the rule of the ruling religious authorities, Neo rejects the reality the machines have set before him. This allows him to not only defeat Smith, but also rejuvenate the independent spirit of humanity, beginning with his mentor.
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