John Wick and the Greek Moral Tradition
I’ve recently fallen in love with Movies with Mikey, because I always learn something about how narrative and film technique interact when I watch it.
I think Mikey outdoes himself with his recent video on John Wick, and I’m especially interested in the lens that Mikey applies: that the characters in John Wick correspond to Greek gods warring among themselves. This is not something I thought of when I first saw John Wick, but when I first heard it I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Mikey points out two things that this lens brings into focus:
- The action takes place at a distance from “mortals,” or non-combatants, who are left simply to scramble out of the way while the powerful work out their grievances. This movie takes place in a world unknown and inaccessible to us.
- The movie plays on tropes of ancient Greek theater. The hubris of Viggo is his own tragic undoing, and the central conflict ripples outward and draws others into it.
I really like this lens, and I think it captures at least two more extremely Greek things about John Wick.
This is some real petty bullshit
The Greek gods are like the shittiest, most jealous high schoolers in history, but with powers. When Hephaestus found out that Aphrodite was cheating on him with the much hotter god of war, his idea of revenge was to get everyone to watch someone else bone his wife.
Sure, Greek mythology contains plenty of useful lessons for children (Like the story of King Midas, by which we teach children not to be greedy), and they also gave us the epic and the tragedy, but even those stories are about mortals getting caught in someone else’s bullshit and having no way out.
For example, the Trojan War started because a handsome boy picked a hot chick (Aphrodite) over a jealous would-be cougar (Hera) in a popularity contest.
Then, because Hera decided it wasn’t enough to be on Homecoming Court, that she had to be the Queen, mortals had to suffer tremendously. Agammemnon had to sacrifice his own daughter. Priam had to watch his son’s dead body defiled behind Achilles’ chariot. Odysseus’s family was left wondering for ten years whether a beloved father and husband was even alive, and Penelope had a bunch of dudes trying to get with her.
And so with John Wick —the whole thing started because a rich man’s dipshit, spoiled failson wanted someone else to know that he, the son, is powerful. Iosef didn’t want the car, he wanted to be more powerful than the man with the car. “Everything has a price” is another way of saying “I have enough money to take what you care about.” The break-in wasn’t about a car, it was about lashing out at a man who would not give in to Iosef’s will or power, which is something wholly unknown to Iosef.
The truth is, all it would have taken was one person in the entire movie to say, “you know what? I’m going to be the bigger person here,” to stop the escalation. Viggo doesn’t want to hand over his son? Okay. Fair enough. But then he captures John Wick, and needs only to Not Gloat to put an end to it. Nope. Ms. Perkins doesn’t manage to kill John Wick, gets captured? Okay, just let it be. Nope, she kills someone on holy ground, and it isn’t even her target.
Even Wick could have just adopted another dog. I get that Daisy had significance to him, but (and here, I think I disagree with Mikey) it’s not clear that Daisy had so much significance it was worth killing dozens of people to reclaim, especially when he does end up adopting another dog after all. I say this as a Dog Person of the highest caliber: I’m not sure any dog is worth a killing spree. But of course: it wasn’t really about the dog. It was about reclaiming power.
In other words, John Wick is kicked off by the same thing that got the Greek gods out of bed every morning, day in and day out: petty genital measuring.
It’s a mistake to think in terms of Good vs. Evil
We’ve inherited a moral sense with a straightforward dichotomy (good vs. evil) from a tradition in which God has a straightforward relationship to morality: God just is the highest good. Even when we speak of morally complicated acts, we tend to weigh them on balance, trying to decide if something was ultimately a good thing or bad thing.
The Greek moral tradition did not have this overriding sense of good and evil. It wasn’t relativist, either; its sense of right and wrong was rooted in excellence and non-excellence, not good and evil. The Greek moral tradition cared about virtues and vices, and a man who was good in some ways could be bad in others without inviting an overall moral judgement as “good person” or “bad person.” Odysseus wasn’t good, per se; he was clever and loyal. Paris wasn’t bad, per se; he was cowardly and selfish. Achilles was brave, but stubborn. If an act was bad, it was bad because it exemplified some vice (like cowardice or rashness) instead of some virtue (like courage).
Because the gods were petty shitheads, they had a much more complicated relationship with morality. Even Hades, god of the underworld, wasn’t an evil dude. Certainly, he did not have the dominion over evil that e.g. Christianity gives Satan. The underworld was just his domain; someone had to do it. The Greek cosmology also had a parallel to Hell, but it wasn’t the same as the underworld, and not everyone there was an evil person. Some of the residents of Tartarus did some real fucked up shit, but some of them just pissed Zeus off something fierce.
And here’s the thing about John Wick: on our straightforward, good vs. evil moral continuum, every character is a bad person. That includes Wick, a former contract killer who helped this crime family come to power in the first place. But the fact that Wick is morally compromised doesn’t count as a reason to root against Wick after all, because John Wick’s sides aren’t decided on the larger moral continuum. Since everyone is evil, the sides are decided on a different spectrum. That spectrum runs from “chill dude” to “piece of shit,” and Wick and Iosef are opposite ends. Wick has discipline and perseverance, Iosef is a slave to his desires. Wick is skilled, Iosef is a hapless fuck up who did this to himself. (“You did this to you,” as Mikey says.)
These are extremely Greek extremes, because they are about specific virtues instead of overall “goodness.” We like Wick because he’s excellent, not because he’s good. We hate Iosef because he’s pathetic, not because he’s evil.
Even the stakes aren’t really about good vs. evil. It sucks that a dog was killed, but that is a minor evil compared to all the, you know, wanton killing. Again, a dog does not a moral crusade make. Wick’s wife died of a terminal illness, and natural death has no moral agency at all. It just is, a fact of life. But again, that frees us. Wick’s mission is not in the service of a larger moral crusade or institution, so we never have to worry either that:
- he’s cool but his mission sucks (whereas e.g. Josey Wales was a Confederate) or,
- his cause is righteous but his methods threaten to tarnish it (as is the case with another classic anti-hero, The Punisher.)
The animus behind Wick’s crusade is morally so small that we’re free to let it fade into the background — no one watches this movie and thinks, “Would Daisy approve of all this bloodshed?” — but it looms large in other ways that matter more.
This is, I think, the miracle and the genius of John Wick’s writing: literally everyone is getting a comeuppance so we never, ever need to worry that collateral damage compromises our hero morally. Since everyone is bad, we’re free to pick favorites on other criteria and to root for Wick totally guilt-free, while completely understanding his motivation. As if to say “Oh, sure. Yeah, all bad dudes, so don’t even worry about that. Listen. One of them is a spoiled brat who killed a dog and the other is a smooth dude who is good at his job without taking too much joy in it. Everyone who dies deserves it. You fucken ready for this?”
Man I loved this movie.
Also, seriously, if you’re not watching Movies With Mikey, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Mikey knows a stunning amount about narrative and film, and I always learn something that makes me a better writer.