John Wick: A Modern Day Greek Tragedy

Keanu Reeves as John Wick has quickly become one of the most iconic action-movie stars | Summit Entertainment

Last “Black Friday” I decided to rectify a huge error I made as a cinephile and watched the John Wick trilogy. Walmart had a pretty good deal for all three movies on Blu-Ray, so I went ahead and bought them. Flash forward to last month when I wanted a break from the cycle of television binging and decided to finally see what all the fuss was about. Turns out that all the films totally lived up to the hype! All three films were nearly perfect action films that actually had great fight choreography, unlike our modern, almost-epileptic, overly cut and edited fight scenes (looking at you, Black Panther). But even more enjoyable to watch was the way John Wick utilizes different aspects of Greek, Roman, and Christian mythology to tell its story. I originally was going to use this editorial to describe the various myths and the way they were portrayed in the John Wick franchise, but I think Movies With Mikey has me covered. Instead, I decided that I would use this time to explore the ways that John experiences grief and loss, and how the story is more in line with a typical Greek tragedy.

Ancient Greek mythological tale of Orpheus rescuing his wife, Eurydice from Hades.

Orpheus: What if?

The Greek Tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tale about a man (Orpheus) who descends into the Underworld to retrieve his wife (Eurydice) from Hades. He is told that he can take her, but only if he does not look back during the long road up to the surface. At the very end of the journey, Orpheus, unable to resist, looks back and thus loses his wife forever.

In the John Wick universe, The Continental rules the crime world, and can be symbolic of the Greek Underworld. In the first film we learn that John has a chance to leave the Underworld (The Continental) to be with his wife Helen (a reference to Helen of Troy), on the condition that he could not return to the life he had known. Unlike Orpheus, John does not look back. He and Helen stay happily married for (presumably) many years. This retelling of the Greek legend doesn’t end in tragedy—or rather, the same kind of tragedy…

Keanu Reeves in a scene of John Wick (2014) | Summit Entertainment

The Boogeyman

 At the start of the first film, Helen dies from an illness and leaves John with an adorable little beagle in order to make the grieving process a little easier to bear. Unfortunately, Ioseph, the son of a notorious Russian mafia boss, has his eye on John’s car and decides that he wants it for himself. After having John refuse to sell it to him, Ioseph and a couple of his cronies break into John’s house, steal his car, and kill his dog. This act sets in motion a chain of events that leads John to taking on the Russian mafia, The Continental, and the all-powerful High Table. He plows down wave after wave of enemies in order to take vengeance on those that wronged him. But the ripples he makes in the Underworld only cause him to be noticed by prying eyes as more and more people seek an audience with him—for good or ill. The legend of ‘Baba Yaga’ (the Boogeyman) grows from a ghost story of the past into a threat of the present. 

John’s legendary status in the Underworld, and his actions in taking back the mantle of ‘Baba Yaga’, ultimately condemns John: he loses not only his dog and car but also his house, and finally his wedding ring. 

Keanu Reeves in a scene of John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) | Lionsgate

Looking Back

 The reason we love John Wick is that it gives us the ultimate injustice—the loss of the ability to grieve. John has almost everything taken from him, and goes on a rampage to seek catharsis; and we, the audience, need the catharsis too. But that feel of relief comes at much too high of a cost. What starts as a simple revenge spirals into complete chaos until John is forced to take on the entire Underworld. Near the end of the third film, Winston, the owner of the Hotel Continental, tells John, (and I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t find the exact quote) “You have a choice: you can either give up now and honor her, or you can become the monster she’d always feared you were.”

In the ultimate twist of irony, John Wick (the modern Orpheus) turned back after all. In seeking revenge against Ioseph, John returned to what he sacrificed in order to be with Helen; and as consequence, lost all physical reminders of her: his car was stolen and destroyed, his dog was killed, his house was blown apart, and even his wedding ring was taken by the Elder of the High Table. Throughout the course of the trilogy, the man known as John Wick slowly died, taken over by ‘Baba Yaga’.

Keanu Reeves and Anjelica Huston in a scene of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum | Lionsgate

The End?

 Ultimately, I predict that the story of John Wick will not end happily. In my opinion, there are only two ways the story will conclude. The more optimistic way to end will have John finally refusing to kill, and lay down his weapons of war. This act of defiance to the High Table would lead to his death, but he would die as John Wick—the man who loved his wife.

 The more tragic end that could possibly occur is where John Wick fully embraces the mantle of Baba Yaga: the Boogeyman of the High Table—he would live, but now fully trapped, in the Underworld.

 But no matter when and how the series ends, there is one thing for certain: the John Wick franchise will go down in cinema history as one of the greatest action franchises of all time. I am super glad I picked up the series on Black Friday, and I can’t wait to see what the future installments have in store!

About the Author
I’m Parker! I was raised in a military family and like most military families, we lived in many different places. I called Washington, Okinawa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee home before settling in Logan, Utah when I was in middle school. I went on a religious mission to Reno Nevada for two years, and now work as a program analyst for Conservice. My hobbies include watching as many movies as I can while also learning from them, reading books, hiking, and being distracted from the inevitability of adult responsibilities. So in the meantime, you can find me writing for Backseat Directors, and for my personal accounts on Instagram. You can also find me on my Letterboxd account: prj492
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