Reely understanding ‘John Wick’ and parallels with Roman mythology

One of my favorite things about John Wick: Chapter 2, and one of the most illustrative ways in which John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum represents a slight step down, is how well it sews mythology into its narrative. Chapter 2, and by extension the original John Wick, is a hyper-stylized retelling of the Roman and Greek myth of Hercules, with Wick cast as the legendary hero.

Image courtesy Summit Entertainment.

The original myths surrounding Hercules, or Heracles in the original Greek, is kind of niche knowledge now, so, a quick summary. There are several stories about Heracles, but the most famous surround the 12 Labors. It started when the goddess Hera, who hated Heracles because he was her husband’s illegitimate son with a mortal woman – this happened a lot, it’s a whole thing –drove Heracles mad and had him murder his own wife and children. When Heracles recovered his sanity, which was its own whole entire adventure, he went to the Oracle of Delphi to ask how to atone for his crimes. The oracle, who was also under Hera’s control, directed him to serve King Eurystheus for 10 years, which, Heracles and Eurystheus hated each other, that was also a whole thing.

Eurystheus assigned Heracles 10 impossible tasks. However, Heracles accepted help when slaying the Lernaen Hydra and accepted payment for cleaning the Augean stables, so those tasks were discounted and replaced, bringing the total to the mythical 12.

Several themes of this story play out over the first two John Wick films.

When we first meet Wick, he’s grieving for his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), who died of an undisclosed illness. Helen’s death is not Wick’s fault, but really neither is Magera’s death Heracles’ fault. Then some Russian goons murder his dog, which sets Wick off on the roaring rampage of revenge that composes the first film.

Between the dog murder and the rampage, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the father of one of the goons, explains to his son that Wick used to be in the Tarasov’s service, but when he wanted to get out so that he could have a life with Helen, Tarasov assigned him an “impossible task,” which is implied to have involved multiple difficult assassinations, drawing multiple direct lines between Wick and Heracles.

Image courtesy Lionsgate.

One rampage later, at the start of Chapter 2, Wick is approached by Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). D’Antonio, who helped Wick with Tarasov’s “impossible task” in exchange for a blood oath that Wick would return the favor, has come to collect, and when Wick refuses, D’Antonio destroys his entire house. When Wick is forced to honor his agreement, D’Antonio sends him on a suicide mission, and then D’Antonio tries to kill Wick himself when he succeeds.

As D’Antonio puts out a contract for Wick’s life, ostensibly for killing his sister which is the think he asked Wick to do, he is framed by the statue Ercole e Lica, which depicts Heracles killing Lichas for bringing him a poisoned shirt. It’s pretty on the nose. Image courtesy Lionsgate.

Chapter 2 is where several the Heracles parallels really kick in. We seem to be entering the story of the 12 labors very specifically near the end, when Heracles – Wick – is asked to perform additional tasks. As Heracles was reluctant to serve Eurystheus, with whom he had a history, Wick pleads with Winston (Ian McShane), who is portrayed as an ultimate, god-like authority within the confines of this specific chapter, to not be forced to honor his agreement with D’Antonio, who, again, had just destroyed his home.

What I love is the level of detail with which these parallels are established and maintained. They couldn’t be the main thrust of the movie, so they were woven into the background details throughout with choice bits of dialogue, settings and character names. There are also several scenes in D’Antonio’s art museum which prominently features several key works of art, most notably Ercole e Licha, an 18th century sculpture of Heracles killing the treacherous Lichas.

Additionally, multiple characters are named for Greek gods – the Continental’s forbidding concierge (Lance Reddick) is called Charon, after the ferryman who carries souls to the underworld, and D’Antonio’s top assassin (Ruby Rose) is named Ares.

Image courtesy Lionsgate.

Parabellum is not about Hercules, instead making references to multiple mythologies.

This starts from the first trailer, which is set to “The Impossible Dream,” written for the 1965 Broadway show Man of La Mancha, which is based on the 17th century Spanish novel Don Quixote de la Mancha. In the first minutes of Parabellum, Wick rushes to the New York Public Library and demands a collection of Russian folktales by Alexander Afanasyev, from which he collects currency that is hidden behind a picture of Vasilisa, a hero associated with the Russian Baba Yaga. In the library, he’s accosted by Ernest (Boban Marjanovic), who reads a passage from Dante’s Inferno.

The story has rough parallels with all three of these stories, but doesn’t map onto them as solidly.

Vasilisa the Beautiful. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The parallels with Man of La Mancha are the most tenuous. The play-within-a-play takes place mostly within an inn, as does Parabellum, and both innkeepers have an enormous amount of power within the story. The parallel here has mostly to do with the most famous Don Quixote story, in which he tilts at windmills that he mistakes for giants through his helmet. The idea of Wick fighting the High Table is often referred to as “fighting the wind.”

In the library, Wick’s currency in the book of Russian folktales is hidden behind a picture of Vasilisa the Beautiful. In the story, and I’m summarizing heavily, Vasilisa’s wicked stepmother puts out all the fires in their home and sends Vasilisa to Baba Yaga’s hut to fetch more fire. Baba Yaga demands that Vasilisa do an inordinate amount of chores, something she can only accomplish with the help of her birth mother’s sacred doll.

The story roughly parallels Wick’s journey in Parabellum in a few obvious ways. Most apparent is the presence of the Baba Yaga – Wick is nicknamed Baba Yaga, which is simplified into being essentially the Russian Boogeyman, but in folklore, the Baba Yaga is a famous witch who lives in the woods. Vasilisa’s journey to seek her out could roughly equate to Wick’s journey to seek out the Elder.

By far the most detailed parallels, though, is with Inferno. It’s introduced into Parabellum with this passage from Canto XXVI-

“Consider your origins. You were not made to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.”

The quote is from Ulysses, also known as Odysseus in the original Greek, found suffering in the eighth circle of Hell for his stunt with the wooden horse, explaining to Dante and Virgil how he convinced fellow sailors to voyage past the edge of the Mediterranean Sea with him, resulting in their deaths. When Wick asks the director (Anjelica Huston) for passage to Casablanca, she remarks that “the path to paradise goes through hell,” and Wick is branded with an upside-down cross, language and actions that directly relate back to Dante. Given Casablanca’s pop-cultural fame as a waypoint between the Nazi’s expanding territory and the Americas, a place where souls caught in between could be waylaid indefinitely, it’s a good stand-in for Purgatory, the first circle of Dante’s Hell.

Like Dante, Wick also has guides on his journey – first the director, and then Sofia (Halle Berry), both of whom he pays sacred items for passage. Additionally, Wick goes out of his way in Parabellum to kill enemies with their own tools and techniques, which could be roughly analogous to Inferno’s ironic punishments.

The most looming parallel between Parabellum and Inferno are the presences of Wick’s and Dante’s dead loves, Helen and Beatrice. Around the midway point of Parabellum, Wick makes clear that his wife is still his driving motivation, saying the reason he wants to stay alive is to remember her. Dante’s paramour Beatrice Portinari was already dead when he wrote The Divine Comedy, and he wrote her in as the symbol of divine love. She would later appear to guide Dante through Paradise.

***

As I’m enumerating all this, it’s important to understand that literary references do not make a movie good or bad. They are tools to tell a story, among many, and any movie is judged by how well its tools are used.

In Chapter 2, motifs surrounding Hercules reinforce the story about a great hero trapped in bondage by his own might. In Parabellum, well, the motifs are kind of just there.

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