The Tragedy of John Wick & The Repressed Grief of Millennials
In a lifetime of continuous tragedy and downturns, why do we keep watching Keanu Reeves’ attempts to grieve get riskier and deadlier?
Neon noir has made great strides in the last decade. The dreamy and existential neon of films like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive have shown us that suffering can have an aesthetic without stepping on tension or gravity. Within more popcorn munch-y action films from Atomic Blonde to even much of Nolan’s Batman, over Netflix’s only vaguely neon-noir Polar and Gunpowder Milkshake many have leaned into the lovingly named “bisexual lighting” to add the illusion of world building and limitless coolness.
But no film of this modern genre has grown into the cultural phenomenon of the John Wick series. With two more movies in the Keanu Reeves led franchise, at least two spin off stories, and continued development in video games the high mythos and sleek and glowing underworld of assassins shows no sign of a true end.
Actions franchises aren’t new nor are they outliers in this day and age. But this isn’t Fast & Furious or even The Expendables. Moments of this series that have you saying, “unbelievable,” aren’t tossing cars off of skyscrapers or fighting with a baby carrier. There is no clear thesis of family or its accompanying chaser machismo. John Wick is less Die Hard and more Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros with gun fu.
Some of its appeal is down to the neon noir of it. You could be doing almost anything and Keanu’s intense gaze under deep purples, sinister reds, or sharp greens will look breathtakingly cool.
The simple premise- you kill my puppy, I kill you- was a universal invitation to anyone to enjoy a rampage. If you like guns, there’s guns. If you need a really good reason to think a seemingly never ending killing spree is cool, well, hey… look at this little puppy. Paired with a lack of the male gaze and thus many of the more isolating perils of masculinity that exclude a more varied demographic it’s no wonder that John Wick has a wide and ever growing audience
Without ever spoon feeding exposition or a moral quandary, John Wick goes far beyond the cyberpunk and vaguely futuristic action of the 80s and 90s. While most of the characters are men, there’s very little aggressively heterosexual messaging and when characters appear who aren’t cis men they lack the pigeon holing of exploititve films and the sexual conquests and gender based moral consequences of series like James Bond. Even Helen, fridge’d as she may be, does not directly die because of John Wick’s violent actions or because of his dark and twisty past. He’s not Byronic. He’s a wife guy who happened to have a very weird childhood and then a very real job consequently. Helen’s death is a natural, hurtful thing. And the actions of Iosef and every member of this underworld after is robbing John of his grief and the world of Helen’s avatar, Daisy.
It is not stoicism, manliness, or unchecked revenge that lead these films. It is John’s desperation to catch his breath and mourn in peace that drags him through hell.
It is no wonder then that John Wick grows in the age of millennials. We’re a generation who watched 9/11 happen live on television, very likely on the ancient tube TV rolled into the corner of the classroom. And in those classrooms statistics on school shootings were born and continue to rise with the exception of a brief pause during a pandemic that quarantined us all in our homes.
We too are conditioned to crisis after crisis. Is this our second or third economic depression? Will we ever see responsibility taken for the mass casualties of gun violence or environmental racism? For poverty? For an insurrection that we, like 9/11, watched unfold before us on television before journalists had any artistic or inspiring words for what we were experiencing?
Sure, in our day to day, none of us are held down by the laws of an inherently murderous underbelly in the John Wick way. But if we make it out of the circumstances we were born into, there’s always a High Table. There are little Santino D’Antonios everywhere we turn. Our markers are student loans and a gig economy. Something has always come due, something is always breaking, there is always something to mourn.
And now in a global pandemic that is both over and never ending, John Wick has even more to offer us.
The collective grief of economic and climate collapse, domestic terrorism, and a global health crisis is too big to comprehend, much less really feel. Our amygdalae are in charge now but they don’t know where to go. For John Wick, the pain of his entire life is condensed for us into Helen, into the puppy. Where we have our grief stepped on as we work from home or even in public and go on with school, paying our bills, building our brand, John Wick refuses to let it be so. His grief will not be trampled down and suppressed. There will be no business as usual.
As the John Wick universe expands so does the concept of the antagonist. In the first film it is revealed that Iosef’s behavior may ultimately come down to the sins of the father. Viggo being an unapologetic leader who gave John Wick an impossible task, not because he wanted John to really go out there and earn it, but because he thought it would trap John in his service forever. Like every good bad guy, once Viggo has John he takes the time monologue and it’s illuminating. Viggo is still unwilling to accept that Iosef is his responsibility. Oh no. Iosef’s failings and John Wick’s pursuit of him must be some kind of poetic justice.
In John Wick 2, Santino D’Antonio strips away any cool and powerful facade or illusion of hard work we’re given with Viggo. The D’Antonios have an inheritance, a seat at the table, and he will have any tantrum imaginable to make sure it is himself over his sister. He arrives at John’s house- a spiritually more hallowed ground than the Continental- fully willing to threaten John into service. When he doesn’t get his way he lacks the subtlety and grace of Viggo. His entitlement is hereditary and so he blows up John’s home. He destroys the altar at which John might’ve prayed to and mourned Helen, their home together, the only thing he had that wasn’t “under the table.” With Santino we see how easy it is for a member of the High Table to force reprehensible labor that is only technically sound, an act of killing that threatens the moral compass of even a world of hitmen, when he demands John Wick kill his sister. And when the terrible act is complete he then goes on to set a bounty on John Wick, erasing evidence of an act he confidently called for but knows would be detrimental to his image. Santino is our first glimpse of entitlement’s connection to a system, our first understanding that while everything is “under the table,” all those under the table do not have equal footing.
Despite all of this, John goes to what he believes is his death with grace, riding with Charon the Concierge to Winston where he is instead given the hour. Not an ending. Only more. The road goes ever on.
And so now John, who wished only to grieve and to rest, is being hunted. Because when a man child was told no, he had a tantrum and killed his wife’s avatar. And then later when a man child was told no, he had a tantrum and blew up his home and John gave up and gave in and then that baby of a man kept pushing him anyway.
Before John Wick 3: Parabellum ever starts, John and by extension we the viewer are exhausted.
It would be enough to deal with the loss of Helen, but no. There’s more. It would be enough to process the loss of Daisy on top of the loss of Helen, but no. There’s more. It would be enough to be forced to kill someone we respected for an immoral and unnecessary reason, to make a man abusing his power over us even more powerful when he doesn’t even have a home, but no, there’s more. It would be enough- and a relief- to meet Winston and take responsibility and die. But no… there’s more.
When I rewatch Parabellum now it is impossible to watch John Wick growing weary with the same enthusiasm as I did in theaters in May of 2019. But I cannot stop watching.
John Wick’s story is a story of the hunted. It’s the story of dual wielding the personas of both predator and prey in a system constantly caving in on itself. As we sit in a 24 hour news cycle and see how an already broken world is continuing to break under the rising pressures of the global- but particularly in the United States- gaping maw of capitalism insists, “ah, she’ll be alright,” we too feel hunted.
It would be enough to be one of the most economically disadvantaged generations in American history, but no, there’s more. It would be enough to live through the rise of new age fascism, but no, there’s more. It would be enough to live through rapidly worsening climate change, but no, there’s more. It would be enough to live through a global pandemic with no healthcare and a rise in conspiracy, but no, there’s more. It would be enough to feel small when the way we process all of this on social media falls short or comes out wrong or invites the worst people in the world to use it as a jumping off point, but no, there’s more.
Like John Wick, we are exhausted. Like John Wick, we have very little power, no matter how much damage we do. Like John Wick, we are human beings and we are the mythos around us. Like John Wick, we are endlessly discovering that there is to be yet more blood on our hands, albeit in a structural and governmental sense that see us yeeting significantly less guns.
And in comes the Adjudicator. Micromanagement personified. Unfriendly HR hotties and their agenda to ultimately make you fall in line or get out of the way. When they arrive they reveal that they’re not there looking for John Wick. They’re there to investigate the Continental and Winston himself, both for “allowing” the murder of Santino D’Antonio to happen on Continental grounds and for giving John Wick the hour instead of executing him immediately. When Winston protests this, assuring the Adjudicator that he has been committed to service for over 40 years, they remind him, “ under the table, serving the table, everything under the table.”
Ultimately, it is not John Wick’s violence that is so great a threat. It is his disobedience. It is his emotions. It is his humanity.
As John Wick seeks out the Elder for absolution and another chance at life, the Adjudicator advocates for the system and does so in a way that feels a lot like colonialism. Winston is to be removed from his post, his long history be damned, and the High Table also seeks to retroactively punish the Bowery King. The Bowery is not officially under the High Table and its seat is in no Continental hotel. It does not rely on their systems of communication or on their code of service. Except that now the High Table has decided it has.
Everything under the table.
John Wick does everything you’re supposed to do if you mess up (although arguably, speaking as an older sibling, Santino’s little “yeah, Jonathan” is absolutely worthy of execution, rules be damned). But his sacrifice, his stamping of tickets, his cutting of deals, his journey through the desert, his resworn fealty all come down to this:
No, you don’t get to grieve. No, you don’t get to be human. Find a way to honor Helen that doesn’t involve being a human being.
John Wick, of course, rejects this notion when he returns to New York and finds that he cannot abide killing Winston. And his reward is Winston’s betrayal after a show of power to the Adjudicator to keep hold of the small rung of power he does have in the system. Management and HR above all .
And so now the Bowery King, who strove only to survive without the High Table, and John Wick, the Baba Yaga, the last man that many men ever see, a man who loved and was loved by his wife, are pissed off, two films to go.
John Wick will likely die. Why then do we want to go on watching?
With death, there comes an end, something deeply appealing to all of us. We are already mourning John Wick. We have watched his wish to feel and to be transformed into a wish for sovereignty and perhaps now a wish for true endless retaliation. Or perhaps revolution.
And when we mourn John, be it his literal death or watching the tender parts of him get lost to the Boogeyman once again, we will really be mourning for ourselves. Violence speaks to a part of us that intellectualism and discourse cannot. To pain. To fear.
For us it is always “The hour.” I can’t go on so I must go on. John gets to live beyond that hour. But as Iosef unknowingly profoundly stated at the start of it all, “everything has a price.”
Perhaps violence is easier than pain, more easily digested than grief, more finite than human suffering. Like us, it seems John Wick won’t get to weigh it. He isn’t getting options. The violence, agony, and sorrow are happening all at once. But for John Wick, it is tangible. When he is hit, he can hit back and now seems determined to do so.
John Wick is living as we cannot. And John Wick is probably dying as we cannot.
And for us, catharsis is hard to come by. So we watch.
If you enjoyed this, check out Be Seeing You: A John Wick Podcast - try this episode on John Wick as a Shakespearean tragedy in five acts or this one on the relationship between John Wick, Tarzan, and colonialism. My monthly supporters got a peak at the rough draft for this piece in November. You can join them here.