Warning: Spoilers ahead. Watch the video version.
John Wick: Chapter 4 came out recently, and people seem to be lovin’ it. The film has Rotten Tomatoes scores over 90% from both audiences and critics (the highest so far for the series), and its release pushed the franchise past the $1 billion mark at the global box office.
As I mentioned, a lot of people seemed to love it. So, why didn’t I?
I adored the first film—the nightclub sequence is still one of the best action setpieces of all time—and the second movie wasn’t half bad either, dialing the gunplay up to eleven and providing unmatched worldbuilding and set design for the genre. Chapter 3 didn’t tickle my fancy quite as much, but Chapter 4 was an enjoyable return to form in a lot of ways.
That said, even from the start, something about the series felt a little off. People made memes about it: John Wick’s rampage was always over the top, the kind of revenge plot that elicits nervous chuckles and raised eyebrows when you pitch it to someone unfamiliar with the premise. Here’s how I imagine the actual pitch meeting going:
“So, what happens in *checks notes* John Wick?”
“Get this: someone kills Keanu Reeves’s puppy.”
“Yikes. Does he get a new one, maybe do some soul searching? I’m picturing a Lake House vibe.”
“Oh, no. He reacts by murdering nearly everyone else in the movie.”
“Everyone? Even people who had nothing to do with it?”
“Even people who are clearly sorry about the dog. One guy gives up his own son as sacrifice.”
“Wow. Does it work?”
“Nah. He’s super dead.”
Although the killing spree from the first movie may have been a slight overreaction, it was also very satisfying to watch. Cruelty against animals is horrible, so maybe these horrible people deserved their horrible deaths. Right?
But what about now, four movies in? Why is John Wick still killing everyone on screen?
His motivations have become muddier and muddier with each movie. In Chapter 2, the writers leaned heavily on the robust worldbuilding from the first film to justify his homicidal insatiability. Some guy showed up with a “marker,” which dragged John back into the underworld of assassins–the same one he tried so hard to escape despite being its biggest, baddest Killer of Dudes. And Wick’s resulting actions pissed off the leaders of that world so much that they put a huge bounty on his head instead of trying, you know, anything else to dissuade this time bomb made of grim reapers and broken glass. Diplomacy doesn’t sell tickets, I guess.
See how convoluted that was? As the series goes on, the lore has been getting broader but not deeper, and as a result, John Wick’s motivations no longer make sense, aside from simply reacting to a world that wants him dead. This, I believe, is why the movies have begun to lose me … and why I think they’ll start losing everyone else too, once the novelty of this style of intense, violent action movie wears off.
Even in an action movie, the protagonist needs a flaw, which drives them toward external and internal goals. In most stories, the external goal is a tangible object of desire, such as a new job or more money, which the hero believes will solve all of their problems. They don’t realize that the real solution is their internal goal—the life-altering epiphany that helps them overcome their flaw. The catch is that they also don’t figure out they need the internal goal until the end of the story, when conflict finally forces them to change.
This flaws-and-goals framework helps create nuanced, believable, sympathetic characters because, in real life, we all have flaws. Maybe you worry too much, maybe you doom-scroll too often, maybe you don’t like to bathe. And we all have goals. Most of us believe that something external–like a new job or more money–will finally fix our messed up lives, but our flaws often hold us back from true enlightenment.
Layering these elements into your writing helps create characters who seem real—emphasis on “seem” because, well, they aren’t. Characters are facsimiles of people, rough copies, cardboard cutouts. It’s impossible to recreate the expansive inner world of a real human in a fictional character, but we can forge believable fakes by giving them goals and a flaw.
Here’s one way to do this. Before you start writing, create a character sheet, just like if you were rolling a new character in a tabletop role-playing game. This sheet can be as quick and painless or as painstakingly detailed as you want; what matters most is defining the flaw and internal and external goals. To determine these, ask yourself a few key questions:
What lie does my character believe about the world? (This is the flaw.)
Why is that belief inaccurate? (The real truth about the world is the internal goal.)
How does this belief hinder growth as a character? (They should be trying but failing to overcome their flaw by chasing their external goal.)
How do they finally overcome their mistaken belief? (How do they reach their internal goal?)
Here’s an example everyone is familiar with: Die Hard. The quintessential 80s action movie that spawned a thousand subpar sequels and knockoffs—and a few really good ones. The 90s classic Speed, for example, was originally written as a Die Hard sequel.
John McClane’s external goal is, obviously, to stop the terrorists at Nakatomi Plaza. But the movie shows us right away that his internal goal is to reconcile with his estranged wife. His flaw is that he thinks he can do it without bending, without sacrificing anything or admitting that he might be wrong. He starts the movie so stubborn and aloof that he immediately picks a fight with her after traveling across the U.S. just to see her.
He does use his flaw to fight the terrorists, but it doesn’t work. He saves a lot of people, but not his wife. Only at the end, when he’s broken and bloodied, having given up just about everything–including his pride–does he succeed. He pretends to give up, places himself in a position of vulnerability, acts as though all is lost, to rescue the woman he loves. His relationship with his wife might seem like an inconsequential subplot, but it’s really the beating heart of the movie. It’s what makes Die Hard work so well.
OK. Let’s return to the flaws and goals framework. The most important part of this exercise is getting comfortable with your characters–you need to inhabit their heads so you can speak and act as they would. That usually starts with defining the flaw.
Does John Wick have a flaw? Sort of, if you count his willingness to kill—murder is all he’s good at, all he knows how to do, and he keeps ending up in situations that require him to do it. Maybe that’s his flaw: a refusal to accept who he really is. But that flaw makes for a character who’s a little too passive, despite all the murder.
His flaw isn’t the real problem with the character anyway. Neither is his external goal, because that usually boils down to “kill every em-effer in the room.” No, John Wick’s issue is that he lacks an internal goal. In Chapters 3 and 4, the writers seemed to realize this and started hinting vaguely that he wants to be a good husband to his dead wife, whatever that means, but it’s not very convincing. And therein lies the rub.
In the first movie, Wick’s external goal was vengeance, while his internal goal was to find peace. He decided to act, to do something about his dog being killed, and we, as the viewer, sympathized with that. We could respect the twisted logic of his goal and understand why someone with those skills and that background might make that choice. But he fails in the end. He kills all the bad guys, sure, but he also ends up alone and nearly dead, with only a new dog to keep him company. He ends up right back where he started, making him a tragic figure, which we also find appealing.
In the sequels, however, we’ve started to lose sight of that. Rather than making an active choice to kick ass for good reasons, Wick is merely reacting to everyone else, and as a result, I’ve felt less sympathy for the character with each passing film. He’s just drifting through the movies like a robot with a gun, following his programming to kill, kill, kill. Nothing can stop him—not even himself.
Don’t get me wrong, these are still fun, stylish action flicks, and I’ll definitely see John Wick: Chapter 5, which is on its way even though the ending of Chapter 4 felt pretty final. I’m simply not as excited about it as I wish I was, because John Wick really was a good story, once upon a time.