I was just reading this writeup, and it got me thinking about the recurrence of phone booths in American fiction.
The protagonists in The Matrix use phone booths as exits via which to leave the Matrix (and, perhaps, also to enter it) - an equivalent to mediaeval fantasy's magical portals. In Keanu Reeves' earlier film, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a time-travelling phone booth is a Matrix-like means to make a quick escape. Unlike The Matrix, however, the phone booth is his only real "super power" (air guitar notwithstanding).
This, in turn, reminded me of Superman - the old Christopher Reeve Superman from the films I watched as a kid, who would often use a nearby phone booth to change into his trademark red-and-blue outfit. Unlike Bill and Ted he doesn't need the phone booth per se, but the outfit change that represents his transition to an alter ego of sorts - the phone booth a catalyst to giving him free reign to use his superpowers without discovery of his secret identity.
You have to wonder, therefore, if Bill and Ted or The Matrix weren't inspired by Superman's use of the phone booth. Like Superman, the phone booth is where Bill and Ted go when they need to step out of their normal lives to go save the world - or, in an ironic twist, to indulge their wanderlust and baser desires as young men are want to do. Going from Bill and Ted to The Matrix, we see characters like Neo and Trinity using the phone booth as a means to escape, just as Bill and Ted would - in both movies, both to physically escape a dangerous situation beyond their control, but also to escape from everyday life.
Perhaps the reason behind this is that the phone booth, a quiet room sized only large enough to fit one or two people (or a superhero team if they squeezed), were at first a new feature to many towns, something that inspired fiction writers to imagine that strange things could happen with them - not unlike the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a similarly shaped construct housing a portal to another world. It was purely a functional thing for Superman, a convenient stop-off like a videogame's save point, that allowed for a clear transition between one personality and the next.
As time passed and phone booths became more mundane, the phone booth became a place where a person could leave the outside world for just a moment and speak to someone a great distance away - an ability greater than the average human could perform unaided, and yet one invokable at will given how common phone booths had become. Bill and Ted would enter the phone booth to leave the outside world - and in a literal sense, by travelling to other times and places just as the public telephone allows all people the possibility of communication with foreign countries and in different time zones, currency allowing.
In the eighties and nineties, more and more people began using the phone system for computer-based telecommunications, and already among them the real-life groups of hackers that the protagonists of The Matrix were clearly based on. To these geeks and phreaks, the phone booth was their interface to the world's communications system, something they taught themselves to manipulate and bend the rules with. By the end of the twentieth century, the phone booth was a piece of technology that existed in just about every American city, a refuge for society's outsiders, available to Neo and Trinity as an "exit" just as it was available to Clark Kent all those years ago whenever he needed to don his red cloak and zoom off to save the world.
Interesting, then, that these marvels of technology are being quickly superceded by the mobile phone (cellular phone), a device more closely resembling Captain Kirk's communicator via which he could command all the power of the starship in orbit. He didn't need to take a shuttle to and from the planet, he used a convenient hand-held device to request himself beamed up and down or whatever he wanted. Nowadays you can even play games on the latest phones, and I dare hazard an estimate that most modern phones are more powerful than the computers onboard the earliest spaceships. I suppose this goes to show that with technology progressing as it does, yesterday's fantasy will very often become tomorrow's technology.