Is John Wick 3 Fantasy?

No, don’t worry. I am not about to launch a campaign for John Wick 3 to be a Hugo Finalist but watching the third instalment the other day it clearly felt like a genre-fantasy film.

Of course even the first film was, in a broad sense, fantastical. Wick’s absurdly proficient capacity to shoot everybody and his legendary status among nearly everybody can’t be described as realism. However, ostensibly this first film was about a hitman who had tried to quit and ends up going on revenge-fuelled killing spree. The sense that Wick is part of another world in a fantastical sense is limited and really only touched on by the assistance he gets from the Continental Hotel, which we learn is a hotel for elite assassins.

Organisations of assassins aren’t necessarily fantastical, as there are real world examples. The reality of groups like Murder Inc is a long way from the mystique of assassin’s guild in fantasy genres, though. The organisation of assassins in the first John Wick film already feels more akin to the kind criminal guilds that occupy the cities of fantasy novels. However, the fantastical elements are nothing like as overt as in comparable films such as the 2008 movie Wanted with James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie.

The second John Wick movie expanded on the setting and introduced a broader world of inter-related criminal families. The sequel embraced the absurdity, physical comedy and Keanu Reeves unalterable dead-pan delivery. It also introduced further fantastical tropes such as Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King, who runs a secret network of apparently homeless people akin to the kind of beggar’s guilds that again tend to crop up in fantasy cities.

By the third movie, all of the plot has shifted to this secondary world-within-a-world. Ostensibly New York (plus brief foray to Casablanca and the Sahara) but effectively this is a fantasy city. Nearly everybody and everything is part of this secondary world from a Russian Romani ballet school to a street sushi diner. While the previous films provide backstory explanations of various elements (the High Table, the Bowery King etc) the third film expects the audience to understand that this is just another world with its own factions and motivations and rules.

So urban fantasy then? There are parallels with the kind of ‘masquerade‘ trope of urban fantasy. However, Wick feels less like the kind of protagonist of an urban fantasy and a lot more like Conan the Barbarian. He’s a man with unsophisticated morals and prodigious skill at killing who is drawn into the complex machinations of competing groups. Of course that description also matches non-fantasy characters like Clint Eastwood’s Man-With-No-Name or Toshiro Mifune’s ronin in Yojimbo.

Fantastical then in the sense of detached from reality and fantastical in the use of various tropes associated with fantasy genres but not fantastical in the use of magic or the supernatural.


12 thoughts on “Is John Wick 3 Fantasy?

  1. The only elements that count are ones that are actually fantastical/supernatural and the Wick movies technically don’t have those elements. Even when he goes out into the desert on the quest, there are no fantasy elements.

    What the Wick movies do have is something common in some sorts of suspense stories and in the Asian martial arts film tradition — enhanced reality. Reality — nothing technically unnatural — that is saturated with imagery, action sequences and events that require a very large suspension of belief to swallow, that are for visual and visceral effect rather than representing precise reality. This is a common demand in film action movies, where the plot is usually fairly nonsensical and unrealistic, but since Wick pays homage to various Asian action films, that approach is deliberately dialed up to eleven and satiric to boot. But none of those events are supposed to have occurred due to supernatural/magical means or origins, and so they aren’t fantasy, just very implausible fictional reality.

    Historical elements — assassins guild, organized beggars, special places for crime families, etc. are not fantastical. They are elements of historical fiction, not fantasy. It’s just that some fantasy stories borrow historical fiction elements along with the fantastical ones. Some fantasy stories likewise borrow contemporary urban fiction elements such as cities, glass and steel decor, guns, organized crime, cyber-crime, along with the fantastical ones. Some fantasy stories combine science fiction elements — androids, laser pistols, etc. with fantastical elements. That does not turn the science fiction elements into fantasy, nor make the story science fiction if it has fantastical elements.

    If we went with suspense elements being fantastical just on a feeling but without the actual fantasy part, then basically all suspense fiction is fantasy fiction since realism is in short supply in suspense fiction and even shorter supply in suspense action films and t.v. shows. Of course, there are some people who claim that all fiction, being fictional and creating fictional worlds on top of or in addition to our real one, are fantasies, but we have a category called fantasy fiction that is much more specific than that. We do in fact assign it a very clear meaning — fictional stories in which there are elements that are fantastical/supernatural as the reason for their existence. Having a pair of incredibly well trained German Shepherds who are not freaked out by constant guns going off next to their ears is highly improbable, but it’s not magical or supernatural in origin. It’s just asking you to go along with the neat images. Having Wick have incredible aim and resilience to injury is improbable, but it is not, in the context of the world of the story, supernatural — just scary.

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      1. Well that’s an awful lot of movies then that “feel” like fantasy. Any movie with a secret society or spy organization or organized crime gangs or martial art fighters, etc. None of those things are fantasy elements and are used in many types of suspense stories that aren’t fantasy. And there are movies that heighten the visual imagery, mostly through lighting and color filters, which the Wick films also use, casting settings and/or characters in sepia, blue tones or saturated high def color which gives them a painting patina that isn’t realistic but aren’t fantasy elements either. The hall of mirrors scenes, for instance.

        For me, it feels very limiting to what fantasy stories can be, if “fantasy-like” has to be a certain way, rather than fantasy elements used in a variety of different stories and visual styles, including with hyper-realism.

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  2. I think it’s not explicitly a fantasy film but it definitely feels like it draws on the framework of fantasy. Paying in gold tokens feels very fantasy, as do the assassins’ marks exchanged for favours. The Continental as this liminal space where the assassins’ worlds meet, the strict rules, the ritual punishment for breaking those rules (the execution even takes place in a very temple-esque area). John Wick (which as a name itself feels just a touch unreal) has nicknames: He’s the Bogeyman, he’s Baba Yaga. It all has this very folkloric/mythological feel to it.

    I want to believe that this is all intentional on the part of the film-makers but it’s just as likely (perhaps more so) that I’m making it all up.

    As for (maybe) unintentional things: Odin runs The Continental.

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  3. As Shawn Wallace likes to argue, all fiction is fantasy. Although that certainly can’t be argued with if you take it literally, it’s also not a useful definition. This movie, as you describe it, doesn’t sound to me as though it has either enough speculative element nor speculative elements of the right kind to consider it genre.

    That leads me to propose a thought experiment: Can we adduce a rule that would exclude this work but still include Batman?

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      1. Okay, but imagine a Batman movie where there’s nothing involving technology that would be out of place in a James Bond movie. (In function, not form; Bond with a Bat Drone would be weird.)

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    1. “As Shawn Wallace likes to argue, all fiction is fantasy. Although that certainly can’t be argued with if you take it literally, it’s also not a useful definition.”

      That’s what I said above. Fantasy has a meaning and it’s not assassins guilds — which is a long time factor of suspense and historical fiction, not fantasy. It’s not snowy inns or secret societies with tokens or tattoos — all those things are non-fantastic, although ritualistic in some areas. Some fantasy borrows those things, but not all fantasy stories do. They aren’t fantasy elements, just things that can be turned into fantasy elements if a creator wants to do so. And having fantasy limited to those things, that those non-fantasy things make a fantasy “feeling,” gives a lot of folk a very narrow view of what fantasy fiction can do. Which is ironic, as fantasy fiction has the least limits on what it can set up.

      In the John Wick series, they use Asian cultural markers drawn from long traditions of Asian martial arts films, including the bombastic gun ballets. And since non-Asian Westerners tend to view Asian culture as mystical and superstitious based — and they’ve sometimes used fantasy elements in their martial arts films — that can give it a “fantasy” feeling or a folklore feeling because we’re used to thinking of those sorts of elements and symbols that way.

      Superheroes exist in either of two types of universes — science fiction or fantasy with science fictional characters/elements. A superhero like Batman or Superman is science fiction. A superhero like Doctor Strange or Ghost Rider is fantasy, because of the rationale given for their powers. If you have a universe with no fantasy-based superheroes, it’s a science fiction universe, because science fiction only has natural-based elements. If you have superheroes with fantasy/unnatural-based powers, it’s a fantasy universe and can have science fictional characters in it. So Marvel and DC are fantasy universes with science fictional characters like Batman who interact with fantasy-based superheroes like Wonder Woman.

      Since a lot of superhero universes have a mix of fantasy and science based superheroes (fantasy universe,) and have been the dominant form in comics more than literature, superheroes have generally been considered their own SFF sub-genre, able to have both kinds of stories, like steampunk — and including steampunk stories that have superheroes. That includes some superheroes who possess highly capable abilities, mental or physical, but do not have science fictional abilities or tech or fantasy-based powers.

      The John Wick series is within the superhero thriller sub-genre in that sense and almost has science fiction elements additionally. However, bulletproof suits are actually a thing, so it hasn’t quite used any tech that doesn’t currently exist yet that I’m aware of. But it’s very possible future installments of the franchise will show non-existent tech, establishing the series as science fiction, since the series has employed cutting edge current tech, (not necessarily in a believable fashion but still it’s existent tech.) The emphasis on things like bulletproof suits, powerful gun and other technically enhanced weapons, computer tech, etc., place John Wick much closer to near future cyberpunk SF than to fantasy fiction, even contemporary urban fantasy.

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