Style, Setting, and Sequels: Musings On John Wick

This is (obviously) not the long-promised “shrinking as a creator” post. I will get to that one, but to open 2024, I wanted to do something a bit more lighthearted and a bit less personal.

So, I watched John Wick Chapter 4 over the holidays. Yes, it really did take me that long to get to, and yes, I realize it’s hardly a Christmas movie (though I maintain Die Hard is). After watching it, scrolling through a slew of opinions on the internet, and looking back upon the series, I have some thoughts on it. As always, I’ll disclaim that these are just my thoughts and opinions, and I’m not trying to make any authoritative statements here. It’s also not a review or critical analysis, and isn’t meant to be.

I loved the first John Wick movie. It was a sleeper hit for a reason; a relatively simple concept, but fantastically well executed, and fresh for the time. The second movie, too, I really enjoyed. The third movie I had more mixed feelings about. I generally enjoyed it, but I found the last act, an extended action sequence, fatiguing, and looking back I struggle to remember more than the basic outline of the plot.

The fourth movie I came out of thinking, well, that was fine. Not amazing, not my favourite of the series, but decent. Out of curiosity, I looked up what other people thought and found out it was highly praised as the best in the franchise. That left me scratching my head, going, what are these people thinking? And then, as I tend to do, I started pondering that question.

What are these people thinking? Whether one likes a movie or not is subjective. Arguably, even whether a movie is good or bad at all is subjective. I’m not trying to judge, but rather to understand and to learn. Why did John Wick Chapter 4 land for others but stumble for me? What did it do right, or wrong?

Style and Story

I’m probably going to catch some flak for saying this, but taken on its own, the story in John Wick Chapter 4 wasn’t that good. It completely changes direction halfway through in a way that feels contrived and overly convenient. Characters are introduced in a way that feels like we should already know them, but no, they are new characters. It’s loaded with vague symbolism and touches on a lot of themes without really exploring any of them. It wasn’t terrible, and it had some great moments, but overall it was pretty weak, in general and in comparison to the other entries in the series. As for the ending, it can be interpreted different ways; to me it felt conclusive if bleak.

When I started reading other opinions of this movie, what really struck me was how little that mattered for some. There’s a sentiment something along the lines of “you saw John Wick for the story, what were you thinking?” And on some level, I get that.

John Wick has always ridden high on style. It has tight, well-coordinated visual design, taking us to great-looking exotic locations. It has stunning cinematography, epic set-pieces, great action scenes with incredible choreography, and a sharp sense of wit to top it off. It’s done well, it’s what a lot people see the movies for, it’s arguably what John Wick is, and for some that’s all it needs to be a perennial favourite.

I think this is the single biggest determining factor for whether this movie clicks for you or not. Either you’re into the style, the action, the cinematography, that carries the movie and the story doesn’t really matter. Or you need a good story to underpin the movie no matter how good each moment is, and without that narrative drive it’s just going to feel thin.

John Wick Chapter 4 has some truly excellent choreography and cinematography, and as a creator it’s probably worth watching for that alone. For me, though, that spectacle is never going to bring any movie above the okay-to-good mark on its own. Story is everything for me, and no matter how good a movie is in other ways, it’s not going to really do it for me without a good story.

Myth, Lore, and Setting

I’m just going to come out and say it: I’m not a fan of the John Wick world. It really pushes my suspension of disbelief, and the more they go into the lore the closer that bubble gets to popping. It’s really hard to put a finger on specifically what bothers me about it. There are a lot of things I could complain about, but all of them are kind of nitpicky, and none are really dealbreakers in and of themselves.

It sometimes feels inconsistent and hacked together, although this is probably because of how exposition is often delivered piecemeal. The masquerade of a shadow world that somehow exists below everyone’s notice, even when things are blowing up in crowded cities, feels too implausible for me to go along with. The symbolism is heavy but shallow, adding more aesthetic style but not deeper meaning.

I do want to make it clear, though, that it’s more that I just didn’t like the specific choices made rather than the lore being somehow bad.

There was also a subtle shift over the series from gritty and grounded to something more fantastical. It was always heavily stylized and a bit surreal, but later movies leaned into this more. The first movie, and to an extent the second, set the tone and expectations to something that the series departed from, and there’s a dissonance there. It’s not that the newer movies are unrealistic- it was never truly realistic- but rather that presumably-established rules of the setting keep changing. I think there are reasons for this, but I’ll get into that in a moment.

Ultimately, this is another thing which is subjective and varies from viewer to viewer, but also factors heavily into how much you’re going to like the movie. As the movies lean further into the myth and lore, whether the worldbuilding works for you is going to weigh more and more on how the movie as a whole lands. For me it didn’t really hit the mark, but for others the world of John Wick is a highlight of the series.

Sequel Escalation

It’s an unwritten (okay, probably written down somewhere now) rule that any sequel must be bigger, better, and more bombastic than its predecessor.

You make something great, something that pushes the envelope, and then you have to answer the question of how to top that. Whether it’s upping the ante on spectacular set-pieces specifically or just maintaining more general improvements across the board, it’s as difficult as it is necessary. The audience isn’t going to view each entry in isolation, they’re going to compare it to it the last one and expect more. At the same time, you can’t literally repeat the same thing with higher production values; the audience expects something new too.

I had a list of examples here in an earlier draft, but it really just bloated the section. It’s such a common phenomenon you probably thought of at least one example the moment you saw the heading.

Typically, this escalation can be managed for a while. You can apply the lessons you’ve learned, use the ideas you couldn’t work in, and having a success that translates to a bigger budget definitely helps. Eventually, though, you hit a point where you can’t go any further and the series starts going stale. If business conditions allow, you might be able to just stop in a good place. Otherwise, you either milk it to exhaustion or try to hit some kind of reset to get out of that corner.

Where does John Wick Chapter 4 sit here?

I think it’s really, really close to that tipping point. There’s maybe a bit more that could be done to raise the stakes narratively, but the set pieces are already bombastic, the action is already sublime, there are a lot of names and a lot of money attached and it feels like as much an epic as the franchise can be. I think it would be a good place to stop, or at least pause, and the ending is written in a way that does work for this.

The franchise has gone through some growing pains and some shifts, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing and is definitely something to be expected. It had to evolve and grow. The tone and feel had to change to accommodate grander plotlines and bigger set pieces. The lore that was left mostly implied and mysterious was expanded upon to give some depth to the world and drive new plot points. As I alluded to, though, I definitely preferred the feel of the earlier movies and I felt the lore was better with a shroud of mystery around it.

There are rumours of a Wick 5 being in development. I don’t know how I feel about that. I think a lot of people are going to enjoy it, I think it’s going to be a successful movie, I think it can be a good movie. At the same time, though, I feel that this is a good place to stop, and to me the series feels like it’s run its course.

The Takeaways

This is the part where I bring everything back to what we can learn and ideally how we can apply those lessons as game developers, or something like that. I’m still working on the exact format of these posts, but I think having some kind of constructive takeaway each time is really important. Otherwise, it’s just a rant. While those can be fun, that’s not the kind of content I’m aiming for.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything groundbreaking here. A lot of the potential lessons are lessons I’ve already learned and I think tend to be learned early on. However, the John Wick franchise, and the fourth movie in particular, do serve as a great example of those lessons, of a few important things to keep in mind as a creator.

I’m one of those people who needs a narrative or I lose interest quickly. Even during game jams, tiny indie games that are limited in scope and focus on gameplay I tend to pass over in favour of ones that have even a tidbit of storyline. I never did a proper piece on the Halo TV show, but I did write a draft of what might have been a video, and in it I said something along the lines of “if your story isn’t good, your show isn’t good, and it doesn’t matter how good the special effects are, pack up and go home”. That’s something that still rings completely true for me personally, but others will be different, falling in different places on a spectrum from story is everything to story doesn’t matter at all.

At the end of the day, you can’t please everyone. There are works that try, to get the biggest possible segment of the market (MCU, I’m looking at you), and maybe that makes sense from a business standpoint. But from a purely creative point of view, it’s much better to decide what you’re going to do, focus on that, and do the best possible job of it, even if it won’t have the same broad appeal. I remember seeing 1917 in a theatre, and it wasn’t generally the kind of movie I would go and see, but I was pleasantly surprised by it because it knew exactly what it was trying to be and did it well.

On that note, I don’t think the worldbuilding of John Wick is bad, even though I didn’t love it. Very rarely are worlds built from the bottom up with the goals of consistency and realism at the forefront. Often they’re built the other way, starting with a style to follow and a narrative to serve. The world of John Wick feels like the latter. It’s not put together to answer the question of how a secret criminal underworld could work, it’s put together to look cool and work for the story at hand. Purists will disagree, but I think this is an entirely reasonable way to build a world. It’s how I’m increasingly finding myself doing it. But I’m starting to digress a bit, and maybe this can be a post for another day.

Making good sequels is hard, and I understand why some creators avoid continuing series entirely. You have to bring in something new each time and offer an overall improvement over the last iteration. There’s a significant difference between a AAA or Hollywood context and a small-I indie one: for the former, there’s generally a bigger budget giving the creative forces more to work with. I’ve personally struggled with this a lot because I’m basically trying to do more with less, but this is definitely a topic for another post another time.

The John Wick films are not particularly cerebral. They’re known for bombastic action and slick style, and they do an incredible job of that. To a creator, though, they provide a lot of food for thought, and a lot that can be learned from.