“The One You Sent to Kill the Boogeyman”: Folklore and Identity in John Wick

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Russian folklore looms large in the John Wick universe: John Wick 3: Parabellum begins with John Wick retrieving an identity-affirming “passport” from a hollowed-out volume of Aleksandr Afanasyev’s collection of Russian folktales, an appropriate storage-place for the identity of a man referred to as “Baba Yaga,” an ambiguously villainous or benevolent witch from Russian fairy tales,and established as a killer of both monstrous and mythic proportions in the first John Wick movie. As “Baba Yaga,” John occupies the paradoxical role of monster and protagonist in his quest for vengeance.Though his grief for his wife and occasional vulnerability to deception or injury humanize John and establish him as a hero worthy of sympathy, his legend as a man who can perform “impossible tasks” (a common folklore motif) looms large as he inexorably succeeds in his quest. As the series progresses, however, John’s hybrid identity begins to fall apart as his impossible tasks return in a system of conflicting obligations that move him from the position of active pursuer to reactive prey, and as he is dragged back into an underworld that he seemed to have escaped from in the first movie. Originally presented as a singular and mythic figure, as the world of the Continental and the High Table expands, John is repeatedly compelled to discard and reclaim aspects of an increasingly inchoate identity unable to fit coherently into the rigid system of rules that produces the inhabitants of his world as subjects. Utilizing structuralist analyses of character function in folktales, particularly Vladimir Propp and Stith Thompson’s motif index, this paper will trace the way that the initial folkloric structure that gives John Wick his identity is gradually deconstructed as his world grows more complex, arguing that the end of Parabellum demonstrates the incommensurability of the folkloric world and the detailed hierarchy established by the High Table and the inevitability of John’s expulsion from the latter.