He’s Not The Messiah, He’s A Vicious Prick In Power Armour
On The Second ‘Matrix’ Film’s One Really Interesting Idea.
Everyone hates ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ except me.
And yeah, sure, I get why. I mean, it’s too long, and the fight scenes are nothing we didn’t see in the first film, and the Wachowski sisters wrote themselves into a corner by making Neo so grotesquely overpowered, and the final scene with The Architect is just a bunch of completely confusing nonsense.
Thing is… I kinda love the Architect scene, because it’s discussing something you don’t often see in film. What is it? Well…
So after a war between humans and AIs, the planet Earth resembles my earliest attempts at cookery: a hateful carbon surface covering a stinking molten core. The war’s ended and both sides have lost. In an effort to save themselves, the AIs turn to the only resource left – people – and develop a way for both species to exist in a state of symbiosis, the titular Matrix. The AIs get to use the humans for their bioelectricity, and the humans get to live somewhere that’s not a waking nightmare.
(And yes, I know the idea of using humans as batteries is bollocks. The original idea was to have the Matrix be a giant computer system using the enslaved humans as biological components, which actually works a lot better in showing that the Machines won the war. Apparently, that was just too complicated for American audiences, so they changed it. Go figure.)
Anyhoo, the Matrix works perfectly apart from a single problem: subconsciously, some people will always choose to reject it. The Machines can’t stop this, and there’s an even worse problem. Eventually, someone will come along with a super-anomalous mind; one which can actually hack the programming of the Matrix like a goddamned cheat code and give them superpowers. The appearance of such a mind is so rare as to only happen every few generations or so… but it’s completely inevitable, because goddamn these organics and their goddamned randomly determined DNA.
So, the Machines have a problem. Not everyone’s going to accept the Matrix, and eventually someone’s going to come along with enough power that they can tear the whole thing down.
Which means if they want to prevent this, the Machines need a back-up plan. A way to retain control of the humans, whilst still allowing them the freedom to reject the control the Matrix represents.
The answer the Machines come up with is the same one that humanity’s always used: they give these humans religion. Very carefully, they couch scientific fact in mystical terms… terms which serve the Machines’ agenda. So instead of talking about a randomly occurring genetic mutation, they tell prophecies about ‘The One’. Instead of telling the ‘escaped’ humans ‘Well, everywhere’s being used for flying cars now, but here you go: have this magma pit to call home’, they give the place a Biblical name and allow the humans’ need for spiritual meaning do the rest. The advanced probability programme capable of determining human behaviour based on heuristic analysis is renamed The Oracle, and her programmed abilities are camouflaged as magic. Finally, they tell the humans that all this is ancient wisdom, because as every religion knows, the older and more obscure something’s origins is, the less society allows people to question it.
And the humans lap that shit up.
They form a group of terrorists who are, ultimately, religiously motivated. One day, say their leaders, The One will come, and he will have powers that our enemies cannot stand against, and he will set us free.
And these humans kill other humans without the slightest compunction. As we are told in the first film: ‘You have to understand. Most people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured and so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.’ Of course, it doesn’t bother the Machines how many people die; they can always grow more.
In the first film, we see Agent programs jumping into innocent people, who the heroes then kill because they ‘have to’. We see the heroes kill cops and guards and others, all in their noble fight against the Machines, all done in the name of The One.
But as The Architect’s speech reveals, The One is just another layer of control. The religion the Machines have created ensures that, just like teenagers putting on too much black eyeshadow, they always rebel in the same way. They always collect in the same space, and are therefore always ready to be dealt with when the next The One rolls along, as he or she inevitably must. The resistance isn’t a resistance at all. It’s just another part of the Machines’ plan. The Messiah isn’t a Messiah at all. He’s another tool of control, because people waiting to be saved are people who aren’t saving themselves.
The second Matrix film isn’t great, but it does have that one brilliant idea: that unquestioningly believing in a coming Messiah might not be a good thing.
Messiahs, Messiahs Everywhere…
And the thing about Neo laying down his life for us all in the Matrix, is that he’s not alone. Messiahs are everywhere. They’re Superman, come down from the sky to save us. They’re Captain America, the one truly moral man who can stare the government in the eye and say ‘No’. They’re the Doctor, a lonely god spinning through space in a magic box. They’re Batman, the hero we need, not the one we deserve. They’re Robocop, crucified by shotgun and brought back to life to deal out justice and walk on water.
And yes, the imagery is absolutely deliberate.
They’re everywhere, these Messiahs, and the pattern is adhered to almost religiously (pun truly intended):
- They are The Chosen One.
- They have True Companions who follow them.
- There is a betrayal by one of those followers.
- They suffer persecution by nonbelievers.
- There are parallels made to the Passion Play (Christ’s death).
- There is either a figurative or literal resurrection.
- There is a prophesied or implied Second Coming
People love a Messiah, and despite ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ demonstrating that such love can be an effective method of getting people to do things without thinking about them, it’s not hard to see why this metamyth still has so much appeal. Aside from the obvious joy in seeing a story about a character who we know to be absolutely morally just, the Messiah holds that sacred weight for, really, two key reasons.
’I was Crying Because There Was No-One Coming With Enough Power To Save Us.’
The first of these reasons is the most obvious: the idea of a Messiah is comforting. When we’re children – assuming we’ve got parents who love us, and dreaming of them if not – we never have to be scared. Not ever. Because our parents will always make the badness in the world go away. They’ll love us, and care for us, and protect us and make everything alright.
I see the verb ‘adulting’ on the internet a lot these days – and yes, that means it is a word now. It’s used mostly in ironic jest, but as with all the best satire, there’s truth behind the smirk. ‘Adulting is hard’ goes the joke, ‘I wanna be a kid again’.
Well, enter the Messiah. He’s your Sky Daddy, full of power, authority and genuine goodness, and he’s here to make everything okay. Adulting is hard, he says, and that’s why I’m here. War? Don’t worry, I got this. No need for difficult negotiations and awkward reconciliations. I’ll just wave my hand and make it go away. Hatred? I got that too. Cruelty? No problem. You don’t need to worry about anything any more: I’ll save you, solve all the problems, wipe your bottom, deliver unlimited rice pudding et cetera et cetera et cetera.
I mean, there’s never any concrete explanation of how the Messiah’s going to achieve all this stuff. He just is, because he’s the Messiah, and that’s what he does. In fact, that total lack of explanation is kinda part of the appeal, because that becomes just another thing we don’t have to think about any more.
The Messiah is the ultimate abdication of responsibility, and that thought, of not having to worry about anything, of always being safe, of never being to blame?
Of course, there’s another, equally powerful reason why the idea of a Sky Daddy is so completely enthralling. It’s a reason that occurs to literally every teenaged boy at some stage in his life, and to quite a lot of women too.
If you’ve not read Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persepolis’, you really should.
What if I’m the Messiah?
Because oh my actual Glob I could be. I really could, you guys! And if I’m the Sky Daddy, think how awesome that would be! I get to be awesome and have magic powers and be right all the time and if I die I get to come back and no matter what no matter what I am beloved.
I finally, truly matter.
The Messiah myth is therefore, simultaneously, the perfect return to childish innocence, and every possible fantasy of total empowerment all at once. So of course people love hearing it told, over and over again. Of course they do.
And as we all know, 40K has a Messiah or two all of its own.
They See Me Rollin’; They Hatin’
The Emperor is so clearly a messianic figure it’s not even funny. Seriously, look at how closely he hits the tropes.
To start off with, he was created as, and I quote ‘the collective reincarnation of all the shamans of Neolithic humanity’s various peoples, the first human psykers.’ Seriously, does it get more Chosen-y One than that? And that’s before we mention that he’s been around forever. Like, literally forever. According to 40K’s fluff, he’s alive right now, just hanging out and watching the world unfold.
Then we come to those True Companions who follow him.
Forge World currently sells the Emperor’s Disciples for £60 a pop.
Eighteen of them plus two spares, and, honestly, they’re almost as messianic as their father.
As for a betrayal by one of those followers, well, obviously the was a big one. I believe the Horus Heresy has been Forge World’s biggest seller of all time. Seriously, we’re up to six books and counting, all dedicated to detailing The Emperor’s betrayal, so in all those respects, the man’s got his messiahship locked down.
Then we come to his persecution by nonbelievers. Well, I think you’ll find some of those Primarchs aren’t too keen on the Emperor. They and their followers persecute the absolute shit out of him, with orbital bombardments, viral bombs and, oh yeah, summoning literal fucking daemons to kill him.
Seriously, how much do you have to disagree with someone when summoning something like this seems like a wholly rational way to deal with them?
When it comes to the Passion Play part of the myth, well, as we know, Jesus got tortured horrifically and nailed to a cross. By comparison, the Emperor got popped like a zit, his remains hardwired into a mechanical throne, and for the last ten thousand years has had the death-energies of a thousand dying psykers a day fired into his undead brain… all to turn him into the universe’s biggest lighthouse, which I’m sure can only be a pleasant experience.
I mean, I’m not saying it’s definitely worse than the Crucifixion, just that it’s definitely pretty bad.
Finally, of course, we all know the big rumours about his upcoming literal resurrection… Along with all the Primarchs too, because if 40K’s good at anything, it’s hammering a point home with all the subtlety of a chainaxe to the forebrain. It’s inarguable that the Emperor fits the Messiah archetype perfectly.
Of course, if we flip things around, almost all of these criteria apply just as neatly to Horus.
He was Chosen by his father, named as first amongst equals. He has the Traitor Primarchs backing him up. He is betrayed by the Emperor and Ruinous Powers equally, persecuted by the Loyalist Primarchs (who don’t have the good sense to realise that Horus is only doing this to help save the Imperium from a tyrannical Emperor gone too far).
Of course, whilst he’s not tortured, he is Ruined. Seriously, when Forge World eventually come around to doing the battle for Terra, I think we can all assume that there’s going to be a second model of Horus, and it’s definitely not going to be as noble-looking as the first one.
As for resurrections, whilst the man’s soul was evaporated, there have been more than enough attempts at a clone already. One was even best friends with the man himself.
And just as grumpy.
Combined with all the Black Crusades, it’s arguable that Horus has never really gone away.
The thing that’s really interesting comes when you take a step away from everything and put morality aside. Assume for the moment that this isn’t a battle between good and evil… Because it isn’t. 40K isn’t ‘Star Wars’: both these pricks are evil to the core.
Instead, look at the reasons for their evil. The Emperor represents order; Horus represents freedom. The Emperor understands that Chaos is too dangerous to be controlled and represents a horror that will destroy the Imperium. Horus knows that the Emperor has gone beyond the pale, and that his Imperium will lead to a stifled, stunted humanity.
One subscribes to security over freedom; the other subscribes to freedom over security, and they’re both monsters. And this is where Warhammer 40K does something with the concept of a Messiah that very few stories do.
It shows us just how dangerous a completely unfettered Messiah could be.
Complete and Total Failure
The Horus Heresy is different to the main 40K narrative, because the Horus Heresy is a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. And we know how it ends: in total defeat for everyone.
What this means is that, more than anything else, the most important theme of the Horus Heresy is failure. Everyone has these great plans to elevate humanity, be that through science, through military might, through religion, through magic.
And they all miscarry. Not only does everyone come out of the Heresy having screwed up. Honestly, the storyline makes it very clear: not one of them had the faintest idea what they were doing… and of all the fuck-ups involved in the planning and prosecution of this galaxy-wide clusterfuck of a war, The Emperor and Horus come out looking worst of all.
Look at the Emperor’s catalogue of failures. He begins, hidden from humanity, doing good where he can, but that doesn’t work. So he steps forwards and assumes direct control. He creates genetically engineered supersoldiers and undoes all the Chaos plaguing first Terra, then the remains of the galactic pre-Unification human civilisation. And while he manages all of this, his successes lead him to make terrible misstep after terrible misstep.
He creates the Primarchs, but doesn’t take into account how Chaos might move against that. In his fear of Chaos, he tries to do away with the very concept of Sky Daddies altogether, aiming to keep humanity safe by banning religion. But he’s not understood his enemy’s nature. He thinks the Ruinous Powers exist because of faith, not emotion, and his fiat achieves nothing.
Well, apart from turning Lorgar to Chaos.
Of course, even that disaster wouldn’t be so bad. Once single Chaos Primarch and his Legion, alone, against 19 more? Well, it’s dangerous, but not unstoppably so, even fuelled by the Ruinous Powers. The problem, of course, if that the Emperor is a spectacularly poor father. Horus might have been the one to unify them, but if there wasn’t horrible dissatisfaction at the Emperor’s leadership to begin with, what would Horus have had to work with?
It’s the Emperor who single-handedly creates almost all the Chaos Primarchs. Angron wants to die in a slave revolt, so the Emperor does the exact opposite of that and beams him aboard his spaceship in time for Angron to see his family die. The Emperor treats the Iron Warriors as nothing but meat for the grinder and doesn’t notice that maybe this is a bad idea until it’s all too late and the Legion’s turned against him out of sheer exhaustion. Magnus the Red comes to him, terrified with visions of violence and atrocity, and what happens? The Emperor tears him a new one, screaming at how Magnus defied the ban on psychic power usage…
On and on and on this happens, to the point where the question isn’t so much ‘Why did the Traitors rebel?’ to ‘Why was any one of them Loyal in the first place?’
Of course, it’s not like Horus is much better. His whole goal is to be the new Emperor, but really, how’s he going to achieve that? Sure, he’s got nearly half the Legions on his side, but these aren’t like the Imperial Legions, led by loyal commanders. No, the Chaos Primarchs are all either psychotic, psychopathic, or literally daemonically possessed. And that’s before we get to the fact that Horus has to keep that deadly balancing act of placating all four Ruinous Powers to prevent them having him as a Terminator-armoured snackette.
Seriously, the only thing he’s really got going for him is the element of surprise. But after the early success of the Dropsite Massacre, as the Heresy grinds on, it’s clear he’s not going to have the quick victory he absolutely needs. As the attrition grows and grows, and as victory is delayed, he’s forced to turn to Chaos more and more… until there’s nothing left of the man he was.
He can’t fight the war alone, because he is, ultimately, his father’s son. The end of the Heresy sees Horus’ every grand plan defeated, the Traitor Primarchs lost to infighting and squabbles, the Legions broken into warbands, and the Imperium reduced to a blasted-out shell of itself. The damage Horus does is so severe that even 10,000 years later, the place is still a wreck.
Both fail, because they are human, which is, of course, the point.
40K has always been a place where the absolute worst thing possible is what always happens. It doesn’t matter what the situation is. The only option if for things to go catastrophically wrong, and they always do. What this means is that, at its core, 40K is anti-everything. Civilisation collapses; culture leads to oppression; everything humans ever do leads to disaster.
A core component of this has always been a strong anti-religious theme. While ‘modern-era’ 40K pushes this with the nightmare Catholicism of The Inquisition, honestly, the theme reaches its apotheosis in the Horus Heresy. What’s particularly brutal is how the setting pulls no punches in showing that both Horus and the Emperor literally have every advantage going for them they possibly could. They’re both charismatic, worshipped by their followers. They can both work miracles, either through unbelievable science, psychic powers, or the combination of both. They even have the backing of either honest-to-God ancient wizards or actual gods. In any other setting, you’d call them both Mary-Sue… but this is 40K, and what that means is that the more power you have, the bigger the explosion.
’Sir, only 98% of the planet is on fire. That means we’re winning!
And I love that, because it’s a narrative you hardly ever see. The one thing you can rely on, absolutely and always is that Neo will save the humans, that Superman will finally punch all the baddies, that the Messiah will always triumph even – or perhaps especially – when it makes no sense for them to do so.
But the Emperor and Horus? They just fuck up and wreck the entire galaxy. The Emperor leaves behind the literal antithesis of everything he wanted to create: a terrified, oppressive, superstitious and small-minded civilisation; humanity at its worst. Horus leaves behind a society of utterly selfish scavenger-bastards fighting over scraps in the Warp, every single member of which convinced that ultimate power is in their grasp if only they can fend off every other prick and seize it for themselves.
Which is, ultimately, the key question the Heresy leaves us to ask: would things perhaps have been better had neither man ever existed at all? Sure, each of them promised greatness… but the only great thing they actually achieved was suffering and misery on an impossible scale. Whether he claimed to represent the path to order or freedom, each man only lead humanity to absolute ruin.
So when it comes to a Messiah figure, says 40K, maybe it’s better if we don’t have one. Maybe, instead of waiting for a Sky Daddy to fly down and save us, it would be better if we concentrated on learning how to build wings and save ourselves.