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John Wick walks out of an opulent cathedral adorned with lots and lots of lit candles and chairs in John Wick: Chapter 4 Photo: Murray Close/Lionsgate

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The John Wick movies’ real message: Wealth is violence

John Wick is the unlikely hero of our economic collapse

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

What kind of hero is John Wick? In the Hollywood blockbuster continuum of superheroes and antiheroes, he feels like neither one. He killed people for extravagant sums of money, fell in love, got out of the assassin trade, then went on a four-movie rampage to avenge a personal slight. He’s not out to save the world, and he’s not interested in the morality of his actions. He’s just angry. As the franchise continues with John Wick: Chapter 4, his anger has stumbled into a compelling target: the wealthy. In the John Wick universe, anyone with significant money cannot exist without violence.

The business of murder is an honorable one in these films, buttressed with rules and ensconced in luxury, to distinguish its practitioners from “the animals,” as hotelier-to-the-assassins Winston (Ian McShane) repeatedly says. The rules of contract murder are a big part of the John Wick franchise’s appeal: The biggest surprise of the first film wasn’t necessarily its commitment to surgically precise widescreen action that redefined the action-thriller genre, but the elaborate lore the film deliberately kept out of its trailers, which doesn’t come into play until midway through.

The most significant fantasy element in the John Wick movies isn’t hypercompetent bloodshed; it’s the way people weaponize wealth. In his world, even the lowliest street thugs can compete for multimillion-dollar assassination bounties, but for the actual players — men like John and the assassin elite who want him dead — money isn’t a concern. Entitlement is. The idea being sold from the first John Wick onward is that in his world, someone can walk into a building, slide a token across a desk, and expect absolute deference and premium luxury. Everything offered in these glittering spaces is available to players with the right kind of funds.

John Wick sits in an elaborate lobby by a fireplace across from Sofia and between her dogs in John Wick: Chapter 3 Photo: Mark Rodgers/Lionsgate

This gives a new dimension to the Wickian gag where screenwriter Derek Kolstad and his various collaborators/successors give their supporting players titles that evoke trades found in the lifestyle industry. Arms dealers are “sommeliers,” “tailors” fashion bulletproof suits, and “concierges” make sure everything runs smoothly for every client, all from the desk of The Continental’s international chain of five-star hotels. There’s one in every city, and an assassin in the John Wick world can find everything they need within its walls — including peace of mind, as one of the unbreakable rules of this world is that there is no “business” (meaning, no murder-for-pay) conducted on Continental grounds.

It’s death by Gentlemen’s Quarterly, the idea that true wealth means that money itself isn’t needed. (Actual currency appears less and less in the films as the story goes on.) What separates John Wick from James Bond, besides one extra letter, is that the Wick films end up being about what it takes to achieve and maintain that kind of wealth.

Consider the nature of Wick’s antagonists as the series continues. The first film kicks into gear when Iosef (Alfie Allen), the reckless son of a Russian mobster, steals Wick’s car and kills his dog. Iosef’s arrogant thuggery comes with the swagger of the nouveau riche. His entitlement displays a lack of understanding of his immigrant father’s careful work to build the wealth he enjoys.

Viggo holds a knife to his son Iosef’s face in John Wick Photo: David Lee/Lionsgate

Iosef’s father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), is a crime lord, but a principled one in the Vito Corleone mold — someone who honors his relationships and understands that his status is fickle, constantly imperiled by desperate crooks beneath him and power players above him. Iosef’s arrogance is the domino that brings it all tumbling down, sending Wick on a journey that shows viewers just how deep this world’s criminal rabbit hole goes.

That’s reflected in the changing composition of John Wick’s body count. He starts mowing through street-level gangsters in chop shops and bathhouses, then slick hired muscle in the Old World ruins of Europe, tactically armed kill crews that run him out of New York, and, in Chapter 4, samurai SWAT teams. The franchise has drifted from the flashy, loud crime of street kingpins to the theatrical opulence of the overlords many levels above them, who rely on an increasingly higher caliber of foot soldier, in addition to regularly sending Wick’s former colleagues against him.

Through this escalation, Wick gets further entangled in his former world’s economy of favors and power brokers. His universe of assassins is governed by the High Table, a mostly unseen board of 12 people who keep the global balance of power in check with a very Catholic system of ritual and reverential deference. Wick’s vendettas against gangster-movie crime lords lead him to violate their rules, which in turn makes him the target of the High Table (and virtually every assassin alive), because the system’s integrity is only maintained if everyone obeys the wealthiest powers, the ones most distant from the mayhem they orchestrate.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick, riding a horse under elevated train tracks at night, with a motorcycle chasing him through traffic Photo: Niko Tavernise/Lionsgate

All of which makes the John Wick movies an accidental commentary on wealth as violence: John Wick’s sin isn’t just getting out of the game, it’s returning to assassination and thinking he can just go back to exerting his privileges under the High Table without reintegrating himself into its strict economy of lives and debts. When we meet Wick, his wife is dead, but he still enjoys a life of comfort with the puppy she left him as an attempt to keep him focused on his humanity. He has a spacious modern home and a muscle car he cares for. He ostensibly wants for nothing.

That’s an exceptional existence, as we learn from Wick’s many disgruntled former colleagues, that the High Table barely tolerated. (Getting out of the assassin trade, as we’re told in Chapter 2, required him to take on an “impossible task.”) Wick’s return to the assassin underworld is also tolerated, up until the point he starts breaking rules. Then he becomes an existential threat — because he might, as they say, fuck up the money.

The irony here is that the closer Wick gets to the High Table, the cleaner everyone pretends their hands are. The wealth gets more extravagant as the settings shift from grimy dive bars to villas in Casablanca, or palatial estates in Paris, all owned by High Table players or those who cozy up to them. Chapter 4 continues to show Wick bringing his vendetta to the people who command violence and profit from it without ever participating in it.

There is catharsis in watching him mow down the rich, even if he isn’t ideologically opposed to them. They’re just so pointedly insufferable — the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who represents the High Table in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, moves through the world with clipped entitlement, secure even among buildings full of killers, as a representative of the institution that makes their world go round. On the other end of the spectrum is Bill Skarsgård as the Marquis Vincent de Gramont in Chapter 4. He’s an agent imbued with all the High Table’s authority and petty propriety. He is seen eating expensive pastries off tiny plates from large buffets that seem to be prepared only for his pleasure, having phones brought to him by underlings, and petulantly demanding to know why his massive army of killers hasn’t delivered him John Wick’s head yet.

A medium shot of John Wick standing in front of neon red lights in John Wick: Chapter 4 Photo: Murray Close/Lionsgate

This sly shift from a vendetta against street-level criminals to an attack on the pampered elite makes John Wick’s goal not simple revenge against a person — the movies have long characterized him as a dead man walking, a guy who said goodbye to a happy ending the moment he picked up his gun again — but against an institution. As with so many broad genre constructions, the High Table can stand in for any number of things: the real-world 1 percent, domineering religious orders, or political regimes that gild oppression with the veneer of democracy. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that Wick, like many in the modern world, is trapped by something much bigger than him, something he can’t possibly defeat. But maybe a death march toward the root of his pain can bring him some satisfaction before his inevitable end.

If John Wick: Chapter 4 has a central question, it’s this: When is enough enough? John Wick has murdered his way across the world and up the social ladder. His existence is a threat to the 1 percent’s control of everything. And yet, as the movies have stressed before and continue to stress here, the idea that his violence might achieve anything is dubious. Satisfaction cannot be had. His puppy isn’t coming back, and the wife that puppy symbolized for him isn’t coming back. The High Table will likely persist, even if its officiants drop like flies. Just as in the real world, in John Wick’s story, wealth and power have a way of self-perpetuating, and mostly trickling upward to a privileged few.

Which brings us back to the question we started with: What kind of hero is John Wick? He’s one for audiences that feel a primal need to burn it all down and start over, who find the world so broken that they don’t know how to begin fixing it. But they sure do know who to blame — and in the John Wick movies, they know who to go to for satisfaction.