A Storyteller’s Critique of John Wick: Creating Sympathy for the Devil

John Wick is a rampaging murder machine. He is also the hero we root for in the movie of the same name. Does that make us psychopaths?

Within the opening moments of a story, the storyteller must present the protagonist so that the audience empathizes with them. The protagonist drives the story. If the reader doesn’t care about the protagonist, they won’t care about the story.

How do you do that when the protagonist is someone you would fear, if not hate, in real life?

The makers of John Wick had such a challenge. Their main character was a hired killer who murders a crap-ton of people through the events of both the first and second movie. 

I felt the first John Wick movie did a good job creating empathy for its rampaging protagonist. The sequel, however, fell flat in this regard. I want to explore these differences to learn how to build empathy for a morally ambiguous character.

I will do this in two posts. In this post, I will consider how the writers effectively built the audience’s empathy for John Wick in the first movie. Next week, I will explore why, in my opinion, the second movie did not build empathy as effectively. 

Spoiler Alert

I am spoiling these movies. You’ve been warned.

John Wick: Creating empathy for a rampaging killing machine

In the first movie, we learn John Wick is a hired killer. According to this website, he kills seventy-seven people. How did the writers create the audience’s empathy for such a character? They used at least five tactics. 

(1) He’s not a villain, but a ‘redeemed’ villain. John Wick was a hit man who retired from the profession. Retiring was no small thing. We learn retiring from his line of work is rare. He must have paid a heavy price to do so. John Wick is not a villain, but a redeemed villain. We love stories of redemption. He saw the darkness of the path he walked and turned his back on it. This makes him interesting. As events of the story pull him into his old life, we root for him to pull himself out. 

(2) The love of a good woman. Beauty and the beast–it’s a tale as old as time. It was through the love of his wife that John Wick found his redemption. He left the assassin’s life to be with her. This hits two emotional buttons. First, we like people who are liked by others. We assume that if someone likes the protagonist, then the main character must have worthy qualities, even if we cannot see them immediately.  Thus, the fact a woman wanted to marry him despite his profession tells us he has some inner quality of worth.

Second, consider the contrast between the life of a killer versus husband. In our culture, we see marriage as the vehicle through which we conceive and raise children. He left a life of death to pursue a life of creation. The contrast between his two lives sharpens the redemptive elements of retiring. 

(3) His wife’s death. We have all these emotional connections with John Wick through his redemption at the hands of his wife, but–gah!–his wife died recently. The loss of a soul mate is enough to create sympathy for a character. With John Wick, however, this is magnified by the wife’s connection to the protagonist’s redemption. He left a life of crime for the reward of love, but that love was taken from him. We feel fate has treated our hero unjustly. 

(4) The dude likes dogs. His wife gave John Wick a parting gift before she passed–a puppy! This is a cheap writer’s trick. Audiences like characters who like dogs. The fact the puppy was a gift from his dying wife adds to the emotional resonance of the bond between character and dog. 

(5) The bad guy straight up kills John Wick’s puppy. Holy crap. Who kills puppies? Monsters, that’s who. Similar to how liking a dog instantly builds an audience’s connection to the character, we hate dog abusers.

In John Wick, this puppy was more than a puppy. He was a symbol of John’s redemption and a connection to the woman who redeemed him. If losing his wife was an injustice, then gaining the puppy was fate’s attempt to balance the scales.

Consequently, the audience sees the killing of the puppy as a great wrong that must be righted. With this background, we not only understand John Wick’s return to his dark past, but we forgive him for it. Rather than seeing John as a killer, we see him as an avenging angel, a hammer of vengeance. 

Cue ninety-minute rampage. 

It’s funny when you think of it. The bad guy killed one dog. The good guy killed seventy-seven people. In real life, who is the monster? As a result of the writer’s skill, however, the audience cheers for John Wick. It makes you wonder what other horrors we merrily celebrate.

Overall, I felt the writers did a good job turning a rampaging hitman into an empathetic character. The movie’s box office success suggests others felt the same. In John Wick 2, however, I do not believe the writers accomplished this as well. I explore how they fell short in my next post. 

Our stories have power

They are how we understand and change the world. What stories have you read or seen where the writer did a good job of creating a character of questionable morals that you found yourself rooting for? How did the writer earn your engagement with their character? I’d love to read your experiences in the comments.

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