How a New Hit Action Movie Explains Our Politics of Indifference
There’s an irony in this nod to video games, as they’ve been frequently (and wrongly) blamed for the rise in violence in general and school shootings in particular. But it’s not just these video game elements that make the Wick world so familiar, the one where death makes the headlines and social networks, but is quickly swept away by the next tragedy.
As a cultural critic since 2009, I’m always wary of talking about fictional violence in terms of real violence. It risks both cheapening the real events and giving the fiction more power than it actually possesses. Yet the past manual of blaming acts of violence on violent pop culture seems to have lost some of its weight in recent years, if only because violent pop culture feels like it’s trying to follow reality, rather than the reverse. Granted, there’s no John Wicks in the real world, but there’s a lot of violence in the world that many of us turn a blind eye to. When bad things always happen, the horror starts to become just another part of the background of everyday life.
It is fascinating to watch ultra-violent yet ultra-popular cultural artifacts like the Wick films and try to understand what speaks to us subconsciously. After all, many John Wick imitators appeared following the successful release of the first film in 2014, and none of them came close Wickits cultural imprint. So why did these films take off with so much daring and gore?
For me, the answer lies in all those scenes with innocent bystanders who don’t seem to realize they’re bystanders to begin with. Many action movies exist as a sort of wish-fulfillment for audience members. In another world, they suggest, you could move with as much skill and dance as John Wick and, as a result, murder people with incredible efficiency. But the best action films usually also add an audience surrogate or two, a character who exists primarily to reflect the audience’s fear of the action hero doing his thing.
The many extras that populate the world of an action movie are also audience surrogates. People running away from a monster’s foot as it stomps through city streets, cars swerving to avoid the big car chase, people hiding during a firefight – these are all characters important in their own right. They help the audience think about how woefully unprepared we would be to walk into a situation like this.
Yet in the John Wick films, what are these extras for? They just keep dancing. There is a whole world of death, destruction and chaos erupting around them, and this world supposedly lives right next to our world of mundane concerns. But not only do the extras not notice this world, neither do we. There’s death everywhere, but it looks like such an abstraction that a man can shoot multiple people right in front of you, and you might not even blink. It will keep happening, and until it directly interrupts your enjoyment, you might not even watch it.
It’s a strange world to imagine living in, and yet every new mass shooting seems to be met with cascading apathy. Some politicians have even given up on the appearance of caring enough to offer bogus solutions: “We’re not going to fix it.” Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) said on Tuesday after a school shooting in his home country left three people dead. “Criminals are going to be criminals.” In a world indifferent to death, even the boilerplate pablum of “thoughts and prayers” begins to look like too much effort. In our apathy, we become unable or even indifferent to prevent tragedies.
These unaffected extras work as a metaphor for so many ways we’ve become increasingly numb to mass death in the modern world, from the Covid-19 pandemic to how climate change is already disproportionately affecting people. people who live in the Global South. But in a series that fetishizes guns and shoots so much, to the extent that each movie interrupts the action for a character to lovingly describe the guns he’ll equip Wick with, and in a series produced in the States States, it’s not hard to see gun violence as sitting at the very center of the weird vale of movies.
The first political vision of the world Wick movies is always “It’s cool when cool things happen.” Yet their evocation of a world in which death lurks around every corner and we don’t care until it happens to us rings eerily true. Is it any wonder that each film in the franchise is more popular than the last? Even if the world is ending, many of us prefer to continue dancing.