John Wick and toxic masculinity flicks

Kevin Kilroy
3 min readJun 7, 2021
Funko Pop John Wick toy (with dog)
Photo by Matthew Ball on Unsplash

Over at The Guardian, Steve Rose reasserts the issue with movies like Nobody, Falling Down, etc — i.e., movies where a symbolically castrated man reconnects with his baser, animalistic instincts in order to exact revenge on society. As Rose notes, and with which I largely agree, it’s difficult to tell what comes from these movies — are they criticizing toxic masculinity, or are they celebrating the characters’ “return to form”? Palahniuk has overtly stated over the years that Fight Club is meant to be critical, and Falling Down (if memory serves) ends with Douglas’s protagonist coming to a similar realization; however, that doesn’t really matter if viewers come away from the movies celebrating Pitt or Douglas.

Something I’ll note, though, is that to me, Wick doesn’t really fit into the same category. I haven’t seen the sequels, but in the first one, at least, John Wick begins the movie as a much-feared assassin — this fact isn’t hidden from the audience, nor is it lost on his targets. So yeah, he’s also going after people who wronged him, but the direction of toxicity is different than the other examples in the article. In most of these examples (I’ve never seen the Death Wish series, so not sure), the protagonist begins as a mild-mannered, conventional, modern man, but then events “force” him to connect (or reconnect) with an inner violent brutality that either he, the audience, or both were not aware previously existed. The difficulty for the audience comes from how we interpret that change — is it good that the character has shed his adherence to modern social norms and complacency, or is his desire for revenge ultimately a tragedy?

In Wick, on the other hand, the protagonist is a man who has spent a life partaking in rampant acts of violence, enacting that toxic masculinity, but who is now attempting to put that life behind him; the problem comes from the fact that he is unable to do so due to events outside of his control. This sends a different message, I think — one that is much more inherently critical of society’s toxic masculinity because it suggests that even if men try to move past it, larger structural forces make it difficult or impossible¹ to do so.

In this way, I think it has more in common with something like Mads Mikkelsen’s Polar, which, similarly, follows a newly retired hit man forced to go after his firm, which would rather kill him than pay him his retirement package. In both cases, the violence is still gratuitous and celebrated simply by virtue of being spectacle, but the films lack a process of becoming which can too easily be misconstrued as a good thing: John and Duncan start the film as bad men², and the tragedy is that they’re unable to escape the cycle of violence; they’re never forced to become something that they previously hadn’t been in order to satisfy those latent violent urges.³

¹ Probably not literally impossible — after all, John could have not gone after the mob for killing his dog.

² Or, arguably, good men stuck in a bad world, but I’m not partial to this interpretation given [3] below.

³ Nobody confounds this difference a bit since Odenkirk’s Hutch was previously a killer of some kind — haven’t seen it, so I’m not sure about the details — but I think the issue still stands because to the audience he begins the film having become a mild-mannered family man. In a way, he was successfully out of the game. John and Duncan, on the other hand, still reaped the benefits of their work — Duncan was literally trying to get the retirement package he had earned through his years of work as a hit man.



Kevin Kilroy

Poet and doctoral student in Writing Practices at SUNY Albany. Erstwhile drummer. Television addict. Traveler. Skier. Papa to two kitties.