No one sees him

There’s something otherworldly about the John Wick movies. Primarily a series of set pieces, with the story loosely connecting the parts together, they feel more like fairy tales than standard action stories, and that’s because they are: John Wick is a fey champion, and the world he moves in is not the human world, but a kind of wicked techno-faerie. Here I will explain the evidence that John Wick is a Changeling or a Fey Champion, and the world he moves in is not part of the human realm. There are minor spoilers in this post, so stop here if you haven’t seen the latest movie.

[Spoilers follow]

There is a scene in the third movie, Parabellum, where Wick and his most implacable foe come face to face in a huge railway station (probably I’m supposed to know which station this is but whatever). They come to a halt as they are about to fight because a conga line of small children is moving between them and for some reason they feel they mustn’t disrupt this line; but then after this line passes two of the enemy agents attack Wick from behind and he is forced to murder them in the middle of the station, in plain view of perhaps several thousand people, using knives, and it isn’t pretty and it definitely isn’t very well concealed, but no one notices. Of course when this happens in a John Wick movie you just shrug and go with the flow – you don’t care if ordinary people do or don’t see what is happening because you’re there to see John Wick kill his enemies with righteous fury and you’re not concerned about the collateral damage.

But if you think about it a little more, no one ever sees him killing people. In the second movie he walks along a big white underpass, firing off shots from a concealed weapon at the androgynous bodyguard of his enemy, and thousands of ordinary people shuffle past but no one notices a gun battle happening right in front of them. The same thing applies in both the second and third movies when he is attacked repeatedly by assassins in plain view after his excommunication and no one notices the brutal battles. At the end of the second movie there is a moment where he should be seen by ordinary people but they all just turn and walk away at a single command from Winston.

There is a never a time in the movies where ordinary human beings notice the huge battles happening in front of them. This is because they cannot see the agents of the underworld and don’t know anything about the High Court or its agents. Essentially the underworld (the crime network at the heart of the movies) is invisible to humans: it shares the same space but somehow the world of ordinary people and of the underworld does not overlap. The agents of the underworld can see humans but cannot be seen. They are, essentially, Fey.

There are many hints in the movies as to the faerie nature of the underworld’s members. Although the lower echelons work for money the higher echelons work for favours, bartering with each other in services. Individuals make blood bonds to each other which have a special currency (even depicted as a kind of coin) that trumps all other concerns. Each of the High Table’s members has a Champion, who is universally feared and serves his or her patron absolutely. The High Table’s members also have clearly delineated realms and a kind of aesthetic or sense connected to them, which makes clear that they are creatures tied to a place or a concept. The otherworldly nature of these high beings is even made explicit in the third movie, when the Director says to John Wick:

The High Table wants your life. How can you fight the wind? How can you smash the mountains? How can you bury the ocean? How can you escape from the light? Of course, you can go to the dark. But they’re in the dark, too.

This is as clear a description of Fey royalty as you could hope to hear.

John Wick himself is a mysterious figure, referred to by the Russians as the Baba Yaga, but in the third movie we learn he was adopted by a Russian crime gang connected to the underworld but managed to escape the underworld before the events of the first movie. From his interactions with the Director in the third movie it is clear that he was in some sense stolen from the human world; and from the first movie we know that he somehow escaped the underworld. This marks him out as a Changeling, another classic idea associated with faerie. His abilities are also obviously supernatural, but his sensibilities are human. It is through this character who stands astride both worlds that we learn about the faerie realm he has escaped, and of course we would not care for the troubles of this world if we were not introduced to it by a Changeling, someone part human in their origins.

The movies also reinforce this sense that we are watching a battle between the fey through their choices of setting. When battles occur in the presence of humans they happen in in-between spaces: underpasses, railway stations, night clubs, and other places where humans are themselves passing through and not in a position to stop and help, or to notice what is happening. The denizens of the underworld are never seen in places of permanent human occupation: they don’t fight or meet in human homes, or hospitals, or even hotels (outside the Continental): everywhere they interact with humans is transient, a place where neither people nor fey leave a mark or stay to pay attention to the surroundings. And when battles happen on fey land they occur in strange, tortured spaces that remind us of how otherworldly these people are: halls of mirrors, or John Wick’s journey into the literal underworld in the second movie, or strange businesses (stolen car dealerships, weird ballet theatres without customers), or art galleries devoid of human customers. The classic combination of these two phenomena is the Bowery King, whose palace is a strange place that exists in plain sight but is never noticed by humans, and whose subjects work in all the liminal spaces of human life, begging and passing unnoticed. He is like the classic model of the Goblin King, in a modern setting.

John Wick is a modern fairy story, with John a Changeling trying to leave the kingdom of his abductors but constantly drawn back into it because his power and his passion is irresistible to its denizens. He fights and kills for the chance to be free, but the strange politics of the fey world stops him from achieving the liberation he so wants (and so richly deserves). The real appeal of John Wick is not the violence or the set pieces, but the way it calls upon the faerie stories of our heritage as part of the story and the aesthetic. It is a peculiarly modern fairy story, and a remarkably original and creative work when you see it in this light: not as an action movie, but as a retelling of ancient myths.