Spoiler Alert: This spoils central plot points of John Wick, John Wick 2 and John Wick 3.
Should You See Those Movies: Yes. They’re awesome. Unless you do not like violence, especially gun violence, in which case they’re not for you.
John Wick exists in a special universe. Its criminal world has a unique economy and set of norms, laws and actions. Come for the stylized violence. Stay for the world building.
John Wick 2 presents one version of this universe. John Wick 3 takes place directly after, and engages directly with the events of John Wick 2, but presents an importantly different version of that universe. I want to explore that difference.
Beyond this point, the post will assume you’ve seen all three movies, and spoilers will be both massive and unmarked.
Rule of Law
The fundamental divide is between rule of man and rule of law.
Under rule of law, the rules are in charge. Some actions are off-limits, enforcing agreements, and offering protection for life, liberty and property. They determine how the game works and create a playing field. When murder for hire is your core business, you need a different playing field than others do. Thus it is a set of rules very different from ours.
John Wick 2 lives in this world. A central system tracks bounties, and an insanely strong enforcement system punishes those who break the laws. There are two such laws, which are above all.
No business (aka spilling blood) on company grounds (aka The Continental Hotel and a few other protected locations). If you break this rule, you die.
Every marker is fulfilled. If you give someone a marker, they can ask you for any favor up to and including killing the target of their choice, no matter who it is. You have to do it. If you ignore the marker, you die. If you run, you die. If you kill the owner of the marker, you die.
Murder is legal in this world.
Markers are above everything except that first rule. If your target is permanently hiding on company grounds, I don’t know what happens, but presumably you are off the hook until they leave.
If you don’t like the way someone calls in your marker, then the moment you have done what they ask, you can turn around and kill them. But not before. They can try and kill you first. Anyone who wants to can get involved, or get hired to get involved, or not. Same holds true for other conflicts.
Almost everyone has strong norms of civility, hospitality, honor and politeness, in ways that fit the world they inhabit. Many join hierarchies where they have bosses they owe their loyalty to, and must be willing to fight and die for, but others work on contract for whoever pays them. If someone is sent to kill you on a contract, you absolutely kill them, but you don’t take it personally. It’s strictly business.
There is something called The High Table that seems to serve as some sort of governing body, but its powers seem strictly limited. A marker is used to force John Wick to kill a member of The High Table. She also happens to be an old friend of John Wick, so he would doubtless prefer to refuse, but the marker is above The High Table. Then, the man who ordered the hit takes the victim’s place at The High Table. The High Table clearly knows that he ordered the hit, and he knows that they will know, and he does it anyway. So as far as they’re concerned, doing this must be fair game. Rules is rules.
John is not only free but obligated to kill a Table member. The new Table member is free to take a hit out on John, and John is free to try and kill the new member, since there is no longer a marker stopping him. The Bowery King can choose to kill John and collect the bounty, or help John and risk the wrath of the person who wants John dead. He debates his choices out loud.
There’s a large bounty out on John’s head, so everyone (quite foolishly, since they know in-universe how overpowered he is and reliably end up predictably dead when they try) is constantly looking to kill him and collect the money, but John is right with the law until he shoots a man on company grounds. And the problem has nothing to do with who the man is and everything to do with company grounds.
These rules have paid large dividends to the criminal world. Following these rules pays large dividends to individual members. The system works.
In its own way, this is freedom. There is a lot to dislike about the results. But there is also a lot to admire.
Rule of Man
Under Rule of Man, the fundamental rule is that you do what power wants you to do. You obey the whims of those with local power, and those above them with global power.
What matters, above all, is fealty. You must show your loyalty to power, your willingness to serve The Man.
This could not have been more explicit. Power is given a voice known as The Adjudicator.
The Adjudicator tells those who have done wrong that they have forgotten their fealty. That they must then reaffirm it, and obey her dictates and take the appropriate punishments, so that the Table may graciously ‘accept’ their fealty once again.
How do you do this? You accept physical punishment, including permanent self-inflicted personal injury, the killing of those who have been killed, your loss of station and power. And you make it clear you will obey any order. You use the arc words:
“I have served. I will be of service.”
The Bowery King and Winston both seem surprised by the change in norms between movies. They made their decisions thinking there was Rule of Law. The Bowery King points out that he is being accused of not killing John Wick, but there aint no rule that he has to do so. Contracts are optional. Guns are fully legal. He has no problem with John Wick.
They are then informed they face Rule of Man. His crime was doing that which The High Table disliked.
When Winston refuses to give up his post at The Continental simply because The Adjudicator told him to, they do not simply decide to kill him. They alter the core rules. The Continental is deconsecrated. This permits business on its grounds. Then, once agreement is once again reached, they reconsecrate the grounds once more.
Similarly, when Wick attempts to use a Marker, he is informed the Marker is worthless now because he is excommunicado. Helping him would incur the wrath of The Table, and potentially endanger family members as retaliation. So now The Table stands above a marker. In another interaction, The Table asserts it stands above a Ticket, the highest right in another organization.
There are still laws, and breaking those laws is still bad. The Man likes the laws and would prefer they remain respected in general. But The Man will punish you for not breaking those laws when you breaking those laws would help The Man. The Man will change or ignore those laws when The Man sees fit.
There literally is a The Man, in this movie, who is called The Man Above The Table. To even talk to him, you must submit fully to his power, by killing yourself in the hopes he will save you and then grant you an audience.
What does The Man want?
For all to be his slaves. He wants power. He wants fealty.
John Wick chops off his finger and surrenders his wedding ring. He gives the words: I have served. I will be of service. And agrees to kill whoever The Man wants, for the rest of his days. So he can live on, and preserve the memory of his wife.
The Man could maximize John’s value, and send John to kill well-protected, important people that would be hard to otherwise get to.
He does not do this.
Instead, he sends John to kill the man John wants to kill least of all in the world. The man who spared him: Winston. And do so for the crime of having spared John Wick. And for having ‘forgotten his fealty.’
He wants to John to give up his soul completely to power. This is how The Man will test and solidify his power over John, and show his ultimate triumph. Defy me to spare a friend? I will have that very friend kill you for it.
And to do so, I will change the rules to permit it to happen where you are standing, then change them back when I’m done.
Winston convinces John to stand by him, and uses John’s strength and his other assets to defend himself and force a parlay. This parlay succeeds when The Adjudicator realizes that he has not forgotten his fealty. Rather, he is making a show of strength, but only to keep The Continental. He is happy to remain under The High Table. Then, to demonstrate his fealty and complete the deal, he shoots John Wick, who falls off the building.
This is tyranny. All that we admire about this world is now directly opposed to The High Table, when the chips are down. The High Table directly and explicitly wants to destroy the very ties that bind, the honor and the law, and force others to do the same, in order to destroy the threat those rules might pose to them as an alternate source of loyalty or action. Power actively opposes all other causes and values, and prefers harm to health, paranoia to trust, lies to truth.
In both movies, the question is raised, how do you fight the wind? The difference is in what counts as the wind.
Rule of Cool
There can be little doubt that John Wick also operates via Rule of Cool. That is certainly how he wins all those fights against impossible odds. The rules that govern the world of John Wick 2 are much cooler than the rules that govern the world of John Wick 3. So we have reasonable hope that the earlier rules will indeed triumph in future chapters. The new rules have pissed John off. That rarely ends well.
It would be cool if I could share a good answer to how to ensure that Rule of Law triumphs over Rule of Man. One approach is to create strong culture and virtue around the laws, such that they hold the highest place. A second would be to make them impossible to break via overwhelming force. Both seem to be in play in John Wick 2’s world. A third approach would be to structure the rules such that no one is in a position where they can break them, or at least not in a position to profit if they did.
For now I am model building, and laying out examples as groundwork. Focusing on the motivations, incentives and consequences involved, and making sure we know the difference.