Cinema loves franchises, and if there’s one thing any good franchise needs, it’s a convincing open world; a place that acts as a sandpit for the adventures of the hero, but also as a place that lives and breathes beyond the events of the given movie. It’s no wonder, then, that Hollywood is absolutely obsessed with cinematic universes right now. You can barely get out of bed without tripping over one. Marvel. DC. The ‘MonsterVerse’ with King Kong and Godzilla. Universal’s terrible idea, ‘Dark Universe’. And those are only the ones that survive.
But the thing that unites all of those movies isn’t necessarily how well they’re executed; it’s the fact that they all draw from a rich vein of source material. They’re building a LEGO set with the manual, or whatever analogy works for your childhood. So it caught me by surprise when, as you do, I caught up on the movies that Twitter just loves to talk about; John Wick and its sequel, starring Keanu Reeves as a soulless husk most famous for pencil-related murder, and discovered that this franchise contains one of the most improbably detailed open worlds in cinema at the moment.
This isn’t just a world where assassins operate behind closed doors, like in your average action movie, and where there are some organised criminal organisations. No. In John Wick, there is a hotel for assassins. It’s managed by a group of elders called the High Table, and it’s funded by special assassin tokens. This hotel, in the sequel, turns out to be an international chain. In my favourite, most gloriously stupid scene of the second movie, John Wick goes to buy guns from the hotel, only the guy he buys guns from is called ‘a sommelier’, and the entire conversation is conducted in terms of fine wine. I didn’t know cinema could be as exquisite as the sight of seeing Keanu Reeves ask for a bold dessert, get handed a pump-action shotgun, and then smile as if that’s exactly what he wanted.
I know. It just sounds like I’m listing a bunch of nonsense. And yes, in some respects, it is nonsense. The first movie tentatively embraces this, with the introduction of the hotel and a strange assassin underworld with its own folklore. Yet it’s only in the second movie where the franchise totally detaches from reality. Gunfights, in this world, occur exclusively in massively populated areas where everyone reacts as if it’s just a regular Tuesday, and these are street performers. The only policeman we see is friends with John Wick. It becomes abundantly clear that approximately a million New Yorkers (if anything, this seems like an understatement) are trained assassins under deep cover. It’s incredibly, self-consciously, silly.
But, in its own deeply strange way, it all holds together, and becomes far more convincing than so many other cinematic universes we’ve seen. Too many of those attempts try hard to graft on a mythology, to desperately convince us of the larger world outside the events of this particular movie. Just look at the terrible sequence in Batman v Superman where Batman watches specially recorded promo clips for the other Justice League movies. Attempts like that are earnest, and well-intentioned, but the concerned voice of the studio executive is always discernible.
John Wick‘s mythology works because it never actually treats anything as if it’s a mythology. Particularly in the sequel, Keanu Reeves assembles his gear for an assassination as routinely as he would make scrambled eggs. The absurdity of assassin blood oaths with the penalty of deaths isn’t treated as absurdity – it’s played deadly straight, with the full assumption that we should probably have known this anyway, somehow. In short, the John Wick movies drop us into a world already in motion, with rigid internal logic and processes that stretch back decades, and trusts the viewer to extrapolate how it could all have been built. That’s an impressive feat for any franchise, let alone for one that’s completely created its mythology from scratch, without any ancillary material like prequels or comic books to provide shortcuts for savvy viewers. It means that the movies can hang big dramatic moments, like the sequel’s inciting incident and cliffhanger, on rules that would be incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the franchise.
Even better, though, the world of John Wick is as fun and interesting as it is intricate. As impressive as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, it can create intrigue for further stories purely based on things it hasn’t adapted yet – all Kevin Feige has to do is suggest that the next Spider-Man film will have, say, Kraven the Hunter in it, and he’ll instantly have bought the ticket of thousands of excitable nerds (and hey, that would totally include me, because Kraven is great). John Wick lacks that advantage, but its world is, nonetheless, one that feels absolutely full of stories, far beyond anything the trilogy, or even the mooted prequel series, is likely to manage. Studios would kill for intellectual property that would achieve that effect, but John Wick did it all on its own. It’s an example that Hollywood, as its shared universe attempts flounder away, would do well to follow.