John Wick vs. QAnon
How Keanu Reeves made a new type of conspiracy theory movie.
The features which make John Wick a beloved franchise tend to be obvious — dogs, stunts, Keanu Reeves. But the movies also excel at something more surprising. In between all the action scenes, John Wick offers a clever rebuttal to an unfortunate trend in conspiracy-inspired fiction.
John Wick is a world of feudal hierarchies. Instead of a monarch, there’s the High Table of criminal syndicates — and the Elder, the High Table’s leader, but we’ll discuss him in a bit. Everyone in this world, from crime lords to beggars, owes loyalty to these rulers, obeying an assortment of pseudo-religious rituals (“markers” sealed with bloody fingerprints, hotels “consecrated” as neutral ground, a “ticket” for safe passage in the form of a cross on a rosary). Living far beneath these aristocratic power players are the modern peasants, a host of faceless civilians kept ignorant of the world’s true hierarchy.
Hidden societies like the one in John Wick are common across science fiction and fantasy. But the belief that secret organizations control the world is one that’s also appeared with increasing frequency in actual newspapers. The QAnon conspiracy theory operates on the belief that the world is ruled by Satan-worshipping elites, a theme echoed by online personalities like Andrew Tate, who purport to oppose a shadowy “Matrix” oppressing society. These beliefs, in turn, descend from a long historical legacy of racism and antisemitism. Will Sommer, a political journalist who studies QAnon, explains that its key beliefs — that wealthy “elites” are harvesting adrenochrome from humans and controlling media and finance — are modern adaptations of age-old antisemitic myths. This legacy of bigotry means conspiracy-inspired fiction can risk recycling, even or being co-opted by, these harmful narratives. Critics of the game Hogwarts Legacy have argued that its depiction of hook-nosed goblin bankers evokes antisemitic stereotypes, and the alt-right has attempted to depict They Live and The Matrix as films that support their conspiracy theories, despite their directors’ repudiation of such beliefs.
As the Campaign Against Antisemitism states, antisemitic imagery like conventional depictions of goblins is so culturally ingrained that “those who continue to use such representations are often not thinking of Jews at all.” Even if fiction about conspiracies and hidden societies is made without discriminatory intentions, it can still unintentionally recycle damaging tropes which have become culturally normalized.
This is where John Wick offers a better alternative. Its criminal underworld is a notably egalitarian one. We’re shown criminals and assassins of every race and gender, from an assassin who’s a mute woman to an emissary of the High Table who’s non-binary. John Wick: Chapter 2 does depict a Jewish pawn shop, but according to director Chad Stahelski, this was suggested by some Hasidic Jewish men he met while filming the first movie.
Notably, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum introduces the Elder, the High Table’s ruler, who’s presented to the audience with an aura of exotic mystique. The implication seems to be that the assassins’ underworld originates from the Order of Assassins, a heavily mythologized historical organization founded by Nizari Isma’ili Muslims and led by a similarly mysterious “Old Man of the Mountain.” However, though the Elder is indeed an ominous foreign figure, he’s not made out to be more mysterious or malicious than any other antagonist in the films, and the world of assassins lacks any connection to portrayals of Islam (if anything, its iconography is largely Christian).
This makes the film series an excellent counter to the conspiracy theories its world-building evokes. The dark forces governing its criminals aren’t Satanic cultists or the covert influence of a particular social group. No, John Wick is a universe ruled by capitalism. In it, as long as you’re willing to take a life (or give your own) for your employer, your race or creed or gender doesn’t matter. It’s the bleakest, most exploitative form of egalitarianism, where everyone is equal because everyone’s life has an equally low value. Profit is the true ruler of this world, from the High Table to the hapless, faceless goons who throw themselves at John Wick for the chance of million-dollar bounties.
This gets to the core of why we love conspiracy theories. A 2022 study shows that high levels of economic inequality cause conspiracy theories to become more popular, as these beliefs offer “a way to deal with feelings of insecurity and anxiety that result from economic inequality.”
If you’re anything like me, you’ve occasionally felt as faceless as the civilians populating the John Wick films or wondered how much (or how little) your life would be worth to a billionaire. The buying and selling of lives in these movies give these anxieties literal shape. But John Wick never scapegoats ethnic groups or religions or shapeshifting lizard aliens as the source of our financial insecurity and anxiety. Instead, it simply shows us a world governed by a brutal capitalist economy even at its highest and most mysterious levels. These films belong to the same cultural trend as serious award-winning works like Succession and Triangle of Sadness, which seek to envision what the world of the wealthy is “really” like and how it affects everyone beneath the one percent.
This is, of course, not to suggest that the portrayal of race, gender, or conspiracy in John Wick is immune to criticism. Donnie Yen has mentioned altering the racial stereotypes evoked by an early version of his character in Chapter 4, and Mel Gibson’s involvement in a spinoff show has already attracted criticism. But, considering the action-heavy franchise most likely wasn’t envisioned as deliberate political commentary, I find it impressive how John Wick finds an alternative to the many pitfalls common to conspiracy fiction. It’s not often that intelligent deconstructions of harmful political beliefs also feature gunfights.