I was thinking about John Wick this weekend.
If you’re not familiar with that character, he’s a former assassin played by 58-year-old actor Keanu Reeves. The plots of the John Wick movies are all, more or less, pretty similar: A former assassin wants to call it a day, but his line of work makes it difficult to just walk away and, say, play golf or something. Wick’s former associates are determined to take him out. So he’s forced to return the favor.
Honestly, it’s about as straightforward as it gets here. This is not rocket science. It’s a franchise about killing, plain and simple.
But people love it. John Wick: Chapter 4 earned a franchise-best $73.5 million in its opening weekend. Those are huge numbers for a hyperviolent, R-rated film—more than twice what Shazam: Fury of the Gods earned in its debut the week before.
I think it’s worth asking the question why this franchise connects so deeply.
At the most basic level, Keanu Reeves has always been an entertaining guy to watch. You don’t watch his John Wick films for his acting range, because Reeves’ monotoned interactions are practically the textbook definition of the phrase “low key.” Instead, we watch because bad guys tend to underestimate the characters he plays—especially so in the case of John Wick. And they do so at their peril.
Second, these are skillfully made movies—state-of-the-art thrill rides that are so remarkably choreographed that one review called it “A Beautiful Ballet of Bullets, Blood and Brutality.” Somehow, these films manage to make nonstop bloodletting look almost … like art.
Finally, we can add in the appeal of movies about seeking justice or revenge on the hero’s own terms. We’ve all been wronged at some point. We’ve all felt miscarriages of justice, whether large or small. And when someone like John Wick unleashes his considerable set of skills on bad guys—permanently—we get a cathartic thrill out of this kind of “justice.” We know it’s not how things work in the real world. But we love seeing someone like John Wick—or Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, or Bruce Willis’ John McClane, or Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills—give the bad guys what’s coming to them.
I get all of that. And I’d be a liar if I tried to insist I’d never watched—and enjoyed—some of these movies.
But with that said, I want to ask a question: What happens when we make violence look beautiful? What happens to our hearts individually? What happens to our culture as a whole when we have a franchise that makes brutally slaughtering people look so good, so … attractive?
I’m not sure of the answer to that question. It’s not that it’s going to turn us all into shooters. But for those few who do tread that terrible path, what role does our violent culture play? Does it desensitize? Does it reinforce a fantasy of seeking a twisted expression of vengeance or justice?
As we continue to lament how violent our culture is these days, we often focus on issues such as mental health and gun control—which are both important conversations to be having. But I think we need to keep franchises like John Wick in the picture, too. Because I think when we make bloodshed look beautiful, there may be consequences for our culture that stretch beyond the mayhem that appears on the screen.
-Valid concerns about the aestheticization of violence in film go back to the days of The Wild Bunch and A Clockwork Orange, and they’ve continued through the days of Kill Bill, The Matrix and Mad Max: Fury Road. In this era of school shootings, I think it’s important to raise these concerns without challenging filmmakers’ right to make these movies.
I enjoy all of the movies I mentioned, but I don’t think they’re suitable for the typical 10-year-old whose moral value system is still taking shape. If kids do see movies like that, parents should talk to them about the value of human life, how movies differ from reality, and the traditional tension between art and morality. It might turn into a positive lesson that gets kids interested in art history (not just movies), teaches them why artists feel compelled to push moral boundaries, and helps them analyze more critically the movies, music and video games they’re exposed to.
Parents shouldn’t panic either. The overwhelming majority of people who were exposed to violent media as kids mature into decent, non-psychotic adults. I grew up singing along to rap songs that glorified brutal gang violence, misogyny and drug use, and I became a peaceful guy with a happy marriage who doesn’t mess with anything stronger than DayQuil.
It’s also good to draw a distinction between the aestheticization of violence and its seedier cousin, gratuitous violence and gore for the sake of shock. I can tolerate the first if it’s done well, but the second has no entertainment value for me.
-I think these are good questions but that movies/TV shows/games are usually not the place to point fingers. We have too many pundits demonizing Muslims, people of color, and LGBT people, and openly calling for violence against them (sometimes even against churches, e.g., people unapologetically calling for violence against female pastors and describing almost in fetishistic terms how they would do so if they could get away with it).
We have a foreign policy that’s led to hundreds of thousands of collateral casualties in other countries and a domestic policy that all too often glamorizes hundreds of unnecessary deaths at the hands of police officers each year. We have minorities repeatedly targeted as being “threats” to America or Christianity. A Knox County, Tennessee detective openly called for death (i.e., murder, though that’s not the word he used) against gay people. All of those ideas and concepts are going to be way more dangerous than John Wick (I’d be more concerned about children being dragged to movies traumatically inappropriate for them, as sometimes happened when “The Passion of the Christ” was in theatres) or Grand Theft Auto.
-My husband and I were shot by strangers. They approached us and pretended to need help, but they actually wanted my phone and car keys. This did not happen in a “bad area”, but in an average middle-class neighborhood…where people think those crimes don’t happen. Now they are prison.
However, my husband has still watched all of the “John Wick” movies and similar ones. I like Alfred Hitchcock and several thriller movies. I guess we still like them because we don’t want the criminals deciding what we can and can’t do. Maybe other people watch these movies/series for a similar reason, even if they have never been mugged and shot. Maybe they understand that it’s stylized and glamorous, and get a weird enjoyment from the fantasy fake-ness.
I would like to add: if someone ever makes you uncomfortable, get away. Don’t worry about offending them or being “judgmental”. Get away, be safe instead of sorry.
-Oh, no, I hope and pray you guys are all right.
-Thank you, Erik H. We are both fine now, and the people who attacked us are in prison.