Discover more from PostModernConservative
John Wick & Postmodern Conservatism
When modern movies look to the premodern world
The truth that we live in a post-modern world, moving via progressivism toward something even more chaotic & mad, was brought uncomfortably to the awareness of Americans in the last three years. As things crumble around us, people scatter to see how they might survive amidst post-modernism’s ruins of meaning, which seem to grow worse every year. How should we move forward? Among the many paths, three show themselves.
First, we can take the progressivist path. After all, the evolutionary way of the world is forever progressing, so why stand in the way of democratic socialism, technocracy, forced equity, & the like? Why not improve society, perhaps even past humanity, through ideology, technology, scientism, etc.?
Second, we can take a conservative or libertarian view, that things are mostly getting worse, so let’s do what we can to stand athwart history yelling, “Stop!” Let’s recreate the better past where we can & otherwise impede progress where possible, so we won’t run off the road quite as quickly. Sure, we’re fighting a losing battle, but we’ll have to accept the losses & settle for whatever scraps of the past we can keep. The adherents to this view often feel most comfortable in modernity & are at least most comfortable thinking in terms of the Enlightenment. They would be happiest living, say, 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 20 years ago, & that desired timeframe moves forward as time goes by.
Or, third, we can take the Postmodern Conservative view, which understands that modernist & Enlightenment projects have largely failed us morally, so we must seriously consider the truth of our situation & how to move forward, given that our current situation isn’t going away. The Postmodern Conservative view, as laid out by Peter Lawler, aims to move beyond modernism & into a spiritual, humanistic, & realistic (in the Aristotelian & Thomist sense) political approach: There are absolute realities binding the universe, human beings are the most important creation, the soul is the essence of the human being, humans have a responsibility to act virtuously, man lives best in a community where he has a duty to others & vice versa, &c.
Postmodern Conservatism holds that modernity has achieved important successes in terms of politics, the economy, & the sciences, but that modernism is a departure from reality which leads to an individualistic belief that we only know the world through our experimental science & cannot know the world as a thing in itself, but only what we make of it. For these reasons, post-modern thought would have us believe we only have a responsibility to ourselves, with no need to conserve the world as it is; modernity will always lead people to believing they are free to manipulate nature, including their own, a belief which stands in direct opposition to ancient wisdom, whether that be Judaism, Daoism, the early philosophers, Christianity, Islam, &c. Virtues are unnecessary in the post-modern world for the same reason. Postmodern Conservatism stands against the modernist & postmodernist views & considers how pre-modern knowledge can help us move into the future of conservatism, “retrieving antiquity at the peak of modernity,” as Titus Techera put it. I take this view.
Today’s best or most interesting poets, especially the filmmakers, notice some of the same things we Postmodern Conservatives do. Sure, I understand many conservative moviegoers would prefer, to anything made today, the manly & primarily escapist fun of action flicks in the ‘80s & ‘90s like Conan the Barbarian & Die Hard, the political seriousness of ‘70s crime films like Dirty Harry & The French Connection, the masculine war pictures of the ‘60s like Lawrence of Arabia & The Great Escape, the Westerns of the ‘40s & ‘50s like The Searchers & Rio Bravo, & so on. Conservatives are right to love these movies too. The ones I have named are great pictures. But a thoughtful contemporary artist cannot simply look to recreate the past. He ought to observe the current moment, see what needs he should seriously address, ask what premodern wisdom could bring light to our situation, & seek a way forward.
At least a few filmmaking artists have investigated these things in the last several years, with varying degrees of success. Filmmakers that come to my mind include financially successful directors & producers like Zack Snyder & Christopher Nolan, as well as arthouse directors like Robert Eggers & David Lowery. For each of those names, I have included links to places where Armond White, Titus Techera, Justin Lee, Alex Taylor, Dave Woods, Tyler Hummel, Hannah Long, & I have written or podcasted about how these directors exemplify elements of the Postmodern Conservative mindset. But beyond Zack Snyder & Christopher Nolan, few popular filmmakers have displayed shadows of a Postmodern Conservative mindset as successfully (financially & culturally) as director Chad Stahelski alongside producer & star Keanu Reeves in their John Wick film series.
This past weekend, John Wick: Chapter 4 was the #2 movie at the box office in its third week, & it has made more than $306 million worldwide, set to make quite a bit more. Each movie in the series so far has made more than the last, each of them a hit. Not only that, but also, to appeal to my personal experience, John Wick has become one of the only new action movie series being anticipated & discussed by the average, less-online, non-cinephile, male moviegoer. I hear my friends & acquaintances among this group talk about John Wick & the Tom Cruise movies, Mission Impossible & Top Gun, but little else new. I don’t even hear them talking about James Bond much anymore! I, like Titus, believe this is because the John Wick series appeals to the young & middle-aged man’s desire, conscious or subconscious, for manliness, mythology, & a premodern education applied to the present & future.
Like Tom Cruise, Chad Stahelski & Keanu Reeves actually care about giving their audience the most spectacularly entertaining time in the theater they can. The John Wick story is simple but relatable, while taking place in a complex but understandable world, filmed beautifully. The movies are set in a modern-familiar world run by pre-modern forces, the pre-modern overtaking the post-modern. The sites look contemporary, but the powers seem medieval or ancient. A conspiracy of assassins & gangsters runs the world, held together by the absolute authority of The High Table, which references royal Medieval dining. Religion, especially Catholicism, plays an integral role, more important as a spiritual power than a political one. The assassins are more like Christian knights than B-movie mobsters & abide by a chivalric code; their TTI Pit Vipers, Dracarys Gen-12s, Thompson Center Encores, and modified Marlin 1894s (a cowboy gun made current) might as well be knives, swords, & lances. The leaders, at the High Table or not, are more like kings & chieftains than presidents. No policemen or other modern law enforcement can be found.
In the first & second movies, John Wick is the embodiment of Death. The Grim Reaper, the “Baba Yaga,” barely a person, nearly invincible, the greatest of all assassins. But he left his elevated enslavement behind to become a man, take a wife, & lead a peaceful family life. Yet the world stole his quiet life away from him. First, cancer took his wife, naturally. Second, a somewhat random act of low-level gang violence took his dog (a reminder of his wife), his car (a symbol of his freedom), & his house (his shelter & castle). So he struck out, not really in revenge but in order to make sense of the confusion & danger confronting him again, & to try to regain his freedom & safety, which he thought he held but which the Old World would not allow. It ends, however, in Wick killing off his one last hope for freedom from the High Table.
In the third & fourth movie, Wick deals with the consequences of the lives he has led both before & after trying to rid himself of the Baba Yaga tag. To attempt escape, he recommits himself to both the underworld & to his Christianity, via a medallion & a rosary. Eventually, he understands just how much of a mythological figure he has become, so he attempts to kill off that connection too. Yet with his severance attempts failing at every turn, John tries to destroy the High Table itself and finds the disorder he is causing too great, after killing old leaders only brings about newer authorities who are more volatile, arrogant, & modern. So in order to reestablish the governance of fair, though harsh, rulers, he finds a way to invoke principles even older than The High Table: Sacrifice, prudence, justice, honor, fellowship, family, & brotherhood.
Stahelski & company film the story with imagination & boldness. The movies feature more creative gunplay (in a style now called “gun fu”) & martial arts (much of it in the Hong Kong vein) action than American cinema has ever seen. The incredible stunts call back to the great comic actors & films of the silent era. The cinematography & locations are much more vibrant & colorful than American audiences have seen lately, outside Zack Snyder’s visions or Zhang Yimou’s Chinese films. The locations aren’t just chosen for their basic visual appeal either. Each setting conveys mood, emotion, & character. Like the great silent films, the John Wick movies often develop character via visuals. Stahelski & Reeves bolster all of this with references to classical art (pay special attention to the Louvre scene in Chapter 4), architecture, fashion, design, & poetry. There are even allusions throughout the series to The Odyssey & The Divine Comedy. The John Wick series is about the pre-modern offering help to the post-modern. So the good & the beautiful stand out, even amidst brutality.
These interests & concerns show Stahelski & Reeves to be superior pop artists & entertainers. Truly artistic pop filmmakers have always understood that film is the popular medium to portray emotion, beauty, masculinity, & violence. That's why the silent era fostered great movie artists! All the way back to D.W. Griffith, especially in his Intolerance, or even before. Add in Stahelski’s & Reeves’ commitment to offering their audience fun, catharsis, & pre-modern-considering thoughtfulness, & you have some of our best current action filmmakers thinking in various Postmodern Conservative terms!
PostModernConservative is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.