A Storyteller’s Critique of John Wick Chapter 2: Eroding Sympathy for the Devil

In my previous post, I explored how the writers of John Wick used five techniques to build empathy for the movie’s protagonist, who happened to be a rampaging murder machine. The sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, had the same challenge as the first. How do you make the audience root for a morally ambiguous hired killer? Though the first movie established a backstory that allowed the audience to empathize with the main character, the sequel made several choices that eroded this connection. 

Spoiler alert

I’m going to spoil this movie. Brace yourself.

How to lose well-earned empathy

I found four ways through which the writers of John Wick 2 compromised the empathy they built between the audience and the protagonist in the first movie.  

(1) That’s my car. The movie opens up with an intensive action sequence. We learn the motive behind the action is that the criminal underworld stole John Wick’s car, and he wants it back. According to this website, our hero kills eleven people in the process of getting his car. 

Recall from my previous post that the first movie brought the audience to a place where they saw John Wick as an angel of vengeance. He was a man who sought redemption. He lost his wife who had pulled him away from his life of crime. Bad guys murdered his puppy, the last gift his wife gave him. Avenging this was the motivation behind the first movie’s action. 

In the first ten or so minutes of the second movie, however, he kills eleven people because they have his car. 

The violence in the first movie came from a place of emotion and pain with which the audience sympathized. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, but I feel straight up murdering eleven people because they stole your car is a bit psychopathic. Did he even try calling his insurance company first? Regardless, a car is not a puppy. It is a much weaker plot device upon which to build empathy for a violent man. 

(2) An honour-bound kill. John Wick makes peace with the (surviving) criminals that stole his car, he goes home, and he buries all the tools of his assassin’s trade. He is once more turning his back on violence. Then the doorbell rings. 

To cut to the thrust of his predicament, John Wick is bound through a debt of honour to perform a task for an old acquaintance. The acquaintance wants his sister dead, and he’s asking John to kill her. John resists this call to violence, but (alas!) if he does not do this, he will be a hunted man for breaking his debt of honour. So, he decides to do it–he’s going to kill the man’s sister.

Well … that got dark fast. Whereas in the first movie, emotional pain drove the violence, here John Wick is killing because he promised someone he would. In the first movie, he risked his life to right an injustice. Now, he kills to save his own skin.

To retain the audience’s empathy for John, the movie uses three tactics to soften the unsavoury morals of this situation. First, the woman he is targeting is a leader of an international cartel of assassins. She is, therefore, not an innocent. Second, when confronted by John Wick in her private chambers, she slits her wrists so she can die, “on her own terms.” Thus, John does not directly kill her. The writers undermine this mere moments later, however, as John ends up shooting her in the head after she falls unconscious. Thirdly, we can tell that John really, really, really did not want to do this.  

Despite those tactics, it is difficult to see the scene as anything other than John appearing in an unarmed woman’s room and putting a bullet in her head. What happened to the puppy avenger from the first movie? 

(3) The rampage. Of course, John Wick is betrayed. The acquaintance who forced him to do the hit is now trying to kill him to “avenge his sister’s murder.” The bodyguard of the sister is also out for John’s blood. John responds by going on a rampage in which he kills 117 people. 

The action scenes are fantastic to watch, but the morality is much more grey than the first movie.  

(4) Why are you taking your dog with you? Perhaps this is my own pet peeve (pun totally intended). In exacting his retribution, John Wick upsets the assassin cartel of which he is a member. Consequently, the cartel blacklists him and the movie ends with every assassin in the world hunting him. This is an obvious set up for the third movie. 

What does this have to do with a dog? Early in the movie, we learn John has a new dog. When he goes on his rampage, he has a friend look after his dog because responsible dog owners don’t take their pets on a murder spree. 

When he returns, however, he reclaims his dog. The final scene of the movie shows John Wick running away with his dog while the world’s assassins learn he has a price on his head.

In those last moments, all I could think was, “Why are you taking your dog with you?” From this point on, John Wick is going to be a magnet for bullets. Pro tip for all dog owners: If all the assassins in the world are trying to kill you, then for Sweet Puppy Jesus’ sake, leave your dog at a friend’s place.

In the first movie, the death of his dog initiated the action. At the end of the second movie, however, he is recklessly putting his dog in danger. 

Still … 

The John Wick franchise has spectacular action sequences. It is a bucket of fun to watch. The first movie did an effective job building empathy for a morally ambiguous protagonist. I felt the second movie, however, eroded that empathy. 

What are some stories you’ve seen or read where the sequel undermined some aspect of the character you loved in the first installment? I’d enjoy reading your experiences in the comments.

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