Building a franchise, let alone building a shared cinematic universe in which everything connects, is an art form. It takes a lot of planning and discipline to build something from scratch. Just ask the master, Kevin Feige.
The John Wick franchise is vastly different from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of tone and content, but the MCU is, undeniably, the gold standard when it comes to building a connected cinematic universe.
Nothing has come relatively close to matching the MCU in terms of world building, connectivity, and quality. Warner Brothers and DC tried and failed (I will admit their upcoming slate looks promising). Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ failed to even get off the runway, stalling out with their first film, The Mummy reboot. Transformers tried to build a larger universe but everything was too messy and confusing.
Then there’s John Wick that started off as a little b-list action film starring Keanu Reeves who, before the first John Wick film, had been going through a significant rough patch in his career. Reeves hadn’t had an actual hit film since the Matrix trilogy concluded and many counted him out as a bankable action star.
Then it all changed.
“But John Wick isn’t a cinematic universe” you might say. To that I reply, “Not yet, but it certainly can be.” Let’s take a dive into the franchise and get a better idea of where they plan on taking the world of John Wick.
When John Wick was first announced, it was to minimal response from audiences. Again, Keanu Reeves hadn’t had a hit in awhile, and in a world dominated by comic book movies, sequels, prequels and remakes, an original story like this just doesn’t have the hype behind it.
Word of mouth, however, carried the first film, which released back in 2014, to financial success. The film made roughly $90 million worldwide on a budget of just $25 million. Critically the film was also praised as it boasts a fantastic 86% on Rotten Tomatoes to go along with its 80% audience score.
The first film was a perfect franchise foundation. It spent a lot of time explaining who John Wick is. It explained thoroughly how he was the most badass of assassins and he got out of a world that nobody gets out from. Then, it made us genuinely care about him as we learned his wife passed away and all he had left was the puppy she left him with. When that puppy was killed, that was it, everyone was now #TeamJohnWick.
Getting the audience to care about and root for its title character is half of the battle that all franchise starters face. With that in the bag, the franchise was already off to a good start, the hardest part was done.
The directors then gave us just a little taste of the world John Wick got out of it and returned to. An underground world of assassin’s located right there in the heart of New York. This world is, for all intents and purposes, exactly like a society. It has rules that must be followed and consequences for breaking those rules. It even has its own form of currency in the form of bonds, contracts, and paths between assassin’s.
The smartest decision that was made in this film was the decision to barely scratch the surface of this society of assassins because it left a lot to be further explored in future films.
A GAMBLE PAID OFF
The gamble to only scratch the surface in the first film more than paid off.
In 2017, John Wick Chapter 2 was released, and wouldn’t ya know it? Chapter 2 was an even bigger success than Chapter 1. Audiences wanted more after the first film, they wanted to see more of Keanu Reeves being a complete badass, they wanted more of that unique brand of action, and they wanted to learn about and see more of this intricate, unique world that John Wick inhabits.
Well, they got just that and more in the second chapter, as this time we see John get sucked even further back into the world he tried so desperately to escape. The world is further explored and fleshed out and of course that unique action that was mentioned? They somehow managed to step it up even further from the first chapter.
Chapter 2 went on to make $172 million worldwide at the box office against a budget of just $40 million. Critically, the franchise added another acclaimed installment as Chapter 2 received an 89% critic score to go along with an 85% audience on Rotten Tomatoes. So far, at that point in time, the franchise was two for two.
Could the franchise do the unthinkable and go three for three? You’re damn right it can! John Wick Chapter 3 was released just over a week ago, on May 17th, and picks up exactly where Chapter 2 left off.
Chapter 3 continued the franchises hot streak as the film opened with $57 million domestically and $93 million worldwide (both franchise highs). Critically, the film currently sits at an 88% critic score to go along with an incredible 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
For those that have not seen Chapter 3 yet, I won’t go into what happens here in this article, but I will say that in terms of the action, it’s the best in the series. The ending definitely left the door open for future chapters and with the news breaking recently that Chapter 4 is indeed on its way, where else can the franchise go from here?
BUILDING A UNIVERSE
So how do we turn John Wick the franchise into John Wick the cinematic universe? How do we take this world and explore it further outside of the John Wick story?
The John Wick franchise does two things extremely well:
1. It gives us a unique and inventive brand of action that we haven’t seen before, and somehow they keep getting more and more inventive.
2. It builds its world and characters very thoroughly and efficiently.
The action aspect is self-explanatory, if you’ve seen the films then you know exactly what I’m talking about, if you haven’t then I suggest you do so.
It’s the world and character building aspect that lends itself to the longevity of this franchise.
The world that has been built is already, just three movies in, so intricate and fleshed out. Remember, we only got a small taste in Chapter 1, Chapters 2 & 3 really took us deep into this hidden world.
For instance, Chapter 1 was very contained within the city of New York, almost so contained that you’d be forgiven if you assumed this was just a local organization that operated in New York only. In the following two chapters we quickly learn that isn’t the case.
This world is, well, global.
In Chapters 2 & 3, the story takes John overseas into numerous countries, each of which having assassin factions living and operating there, similar to what we saw of the New York faction in Chapter 1.
What this means is that the writers and directors didn’t limit themselves in terms of how far reaching the stories in this world can go. They gave themselves the options of keeping the stories small and localized or upping the stakes for more grand, global adventures.
But who would those stories follow you ask?
That brings me to the most important thing this franchise does well; giving us plenty of interesting and fleshed out characters.
We have met some truly fascinating characters throughout these first 3 chapters. Although John is without a doubt the main character, the films still do a fantastic job at fleshing out the characters that John interacts with, from Winston the hotel manager (Ian McShane) to the Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne) who runs an underground assassin syndicate.
These films have provided a plethora of interesting characters to spin off stories about. For instance, a prequel following Winston as he works his way up from assassin to hotel manager, or a prequel tagging along with Fishburne’s Bowery King showing how he earned that title.
Perhaps the one spin off every should want would be a spin off for Halle Berry’s character Sofia from Chapter 3. Talk about a scene stealing performance!
Another brilliant move the writers and directors made was having the characters John interacts with mention past events and the history they shared together. In Chapter 2 John fights an assassin named Casian (played by Common) and they already knew each other. In Chapter 3 John and Sofia talk about the past they shared.
The writers are throwing these little moments in there, and it could be to leave the door open to tell John Wick prequels where we could follow the exploits of Mr. Wick before he got out of the game the first time.
With the world the writers and directors have already built, they also gave themselves the option of telling stories about all new characters set within this world of assassins.
They crafted this world so delicately and so thoroughly and there’s still so much left of it to be seen. John Wick isn’t the only assassin with stories, they could very well introduce us to a new protagonist assassin and take us on a journey with them. Crossover anyone?
This franchise has so much potential to become so much more. Unlike a lot of franchises that have big aspirations to follow in Marvel’s footsteps to become cinematic universe’s, John Wick didn’t rush its growth. It started small, and it only decided to grow when the studio was sure audiences wanted more.
The ceiling for this soon-to-be-universe seems extremely high. For the reasons already mentioned, there is plenty of room in this world to explore and plenty of stories to be told. From what’s already been announced by the studio thus far, I’d say they agree with me. The franchise is indeed branching out, and in more ways than one.
First on their docket, the John Wick universe is headed to television. The series, titled The Continental, will focus on the day to day operations of these “safe-havens for assassins and hitmen”. It was also reported that Reeves would reprise his role as John Wick on the series, but it was not specified if it would be a main role or not.
Next on the list is a spin-off film about a character we haven’t met yet. This spin-off film will be titled, The Ballerina. For those that have seen Chapter 3, you’ll know the importance of ballerinas.
Announced to be in development back in 2017, the film is going to revolve around a young woman raised to be an assassin (obviously), seeking revenge against the hitmen that killed her entire family. The film will take place in the same world inhabited by John Wick.
I said they were branching out in more ways than one, well we have already mentioned two ways, so how about a third?
There have been talks to crossover John Wick with Charlize Theron’s hit woman from the 2017 release, Atomic Blond. The director of Atomic Blond, David Leitch (Deadpool 2), also co-directed the first John Wick film. Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves doing assassin stuff together? I’m in.
Then of course there’s the continuation of the main series. Chapter 4 has already been announced to release in May of 2021. That will always be the bread and butter of this cinematic universe. The main storyline will, and should, always run through John.
Make no mistake, this franchise is undoubtedly beginning to blossom into a full blown cinematic universe. Through the world building and character development already done in the first three chapters, the writers have given this soon-to-be-universe plenty of material to easily expand upon.
Spin offs, prequels, cross-overs and new original character entries are all options going forward. Television is obviously another avenue that can be and is being pursued, and it’s only a matter of time until it expands into streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, etc…
Add those potential projects on top of the projects already in development, and you have yourself all the makings of a budding cinematic universe. Get used to seeing Mr. Wick and his friends, because the JWCU (John Wick Cinematic Universe) isn’t going anywhere for a while.