Meditations on

Monday, March 20, 2017

John Wick and the appeal of the ruthless action hero

I was slowly becoming aware from conversations with friends and listening to some of the content from The Ringer that the John Wick movie franchise was really landing home with male audiences these days. I also get the sense that no one fully understands why and most either don't bother to think about it (it's good action, what else needs to be said?) or just aren't aware of where this is resonating.

That Ringer column linked above for instance, makes a point about the glorification of brutality in the film and how it seems counterintuitive that this would be popular today when the political zeitgeist (at least at places like The Ringer) is all about depicting gun violence as an abhorrent evil that needs to be recognized and eradicated. As K. Austin Collins noted, that's not what's happening in John Wick.

Intrigued by all the hype, I watched it last night for the first time (haven't seen the second one yet) and was struck by some of the lines in the film and some of the ways in which it approaches the typical "he's got nothing left to lose!" action hero plot and the way they depict the violence. 

The way they get Wick to the point of violence is a little bit amusing. Wick loses his wife (I'm going to litter this with spoilers so just be aware) who had clearly pulled him out of the criminal life to a terminal disease or some such thing. After the funeral it turns out that she arranges for him to be sent a puppy a day or so after she passes. Yes, a puppy.

Her plan is to give him something to care for and protect to give him meaning and help him grieve healthily, which is pretty important that he do because as a former underworld assassin his capacity for destruction is immense if he's not under control.

Unfortunately some Russian thug (LOL, it's always the Russians in movies today, the politically correct uber-villain) decides to break into his house, beat him up, steal his car, and murder his dog. Now John Wick has nothing left to lose and he's going to go buck wild on the Russian mafia to make sure this punk (the apparent prince of the underworld and son of the main Russian mob boss) and pretty much everyone else involved in the crime network.

The style of this film is to feature Wick winning endless close range gun battles and ruthlessly administering precise kill shots as he saves ammo, much like a savvy 1st person shooter would do out of an awareness of the need to save ammo for the later bosses.

As one fellow Texas Twitter blogger noted to me, "John Wick is to guns what Fast and Furious is to cars."

Wick is fueled by cold, focused anger and supported by a network of fellow underworld killers who understand the rules and structure that need to exist for their lives to work. Every battle is a contest of sheer will and he wins them all easily and with a casual indifference to the danger. Keanu works well here both for his ability to display that kind of cold anger and detachment as well as the fact that at 6'1" and lanky he's actually somewhat imposing in these shots. He evidently went through a ton of gun and combat training and it paid off big time.

Now this plot is really typical, a man who has been trained to be an absolute destroyer is pushed to the edge by villains, he has nothing left to lose, and he's loosed as a killer that acts as the wrath of God upon those villains that pushed things too far. What's interesting is that this is still really resonating with today's male audiences and its artistry seems informed by gamer culture with its bleak scenery, massive body count, and ruthless murders.

What John Wick really is is an adaptation of #GamerGate into the action movie genre.

If you're not familiar, #GamerGate was basically a movement that resulted out of a frustration by gamers that politically correct forces within gaming media world were trying to control and manipulate the gamer world to suit their political agenda.

It's my belief that what most young men want in this world is a chance to build and protect a family, the ultimate way of building and passing on a legacy, yet that's not terribly easy in today's culture. We don't have a society that's geared around pairing couples for marriage instead favoring casual hook-ups. It's not always obvious or easy for young men to find jobs that can set them up to support a family, and the political zeitgeist amongst progressives is all about destroying "the patriarchy" and eliminating the role young men would have expected to have in society before they can assume it.

Now I'm not saying all gamers use video games as a distraction or means of handling their grief over having their role in society appropriated, but it definitely happens. With #GamerGate a generation of otherwise detached and disconnected young men felt that being taken away as well...and so they went wild and sought to take down the entire system they felt was unjustly working against them.

So while I initially chuckled at John Wick explaining to the Russian mob boss that the loss of his puppy had robbed him of his chance to properly grieve his wife and as a result he was going to murder him and his son...perhaps the truth is stranger than the fiction.

The reason that these "he's got nothing left to lose!" action movies appeal to young men is that they speak to the destructive potential of uninitiated young men in society.

If the young men in your society aren't being directed to use their creative energy and capacity for violence and ruthlessness to protect and defend your civilization or structure, they're going to instead use it to bring it all crashing down. The Russian mob boss even pauses to ask Wick,
What happened, John?... We were professionals... Civilized.
To which Wick responds...

Do I look civilized to you?? 
...before murdering the boss. That's the whole movie and archetype in a nutshell.

Action movies tend to glorify this process by depicting the young man as justified because whatever he's taking down is rotten and evil, but that may or may not be the case in reality.

The fact that these depictions in video games and film are getting increasingly grim, violent, and ruthless should probably be sending off alarm bells but most people simply aren't hearing them. Our nation just elected a man who absolutely plays into the "I'm a maverick who's going to bring this all crashing down" archetype and no one saw it coming (well some of us did).

America's young men need to be initiated and directed to fuel their capacities into productive ventures or they may find other uses for their talents that we don't like as much. In their telling of the story they're going to be the heroes and that story is being told in a pretty compelling fashion right now.