Where is the line between art and intellectual property? What separates a rich work of fiction from a mine for spin-offs and sequels? Since its debut in 2014, the John Wick series has felt firmly planted in the former category. There have been a number of rumored spinoffs, including a TV show that focuses on The Continental (the hotel for assassins that features prominently in the films), but nothing concrete seems to have emerged. The series instead has focused on the titular character’s journey, and no sequel has felt like a cash-grab. Each extends naturally from the one before.
It would, however, seem change is in the air. Len Wiseman will direct the first John Wick spinoff film, Ballerina, which will focus on the Russian dance academy that seems to be a front for a school for assassins in the world of the series. In theory, more Wick-related anything seems like a blast. In actuality, it feels like this could be a moment that potentially breaks the John Wick series entirely.
The Wiseman of it all
Let’s start with the most obvious problem with Ballerina: Len Wiseman is a bad filmmaker. He has directed four movies. The “best” of these are the first two installments of the Underworld franchise, and, let’s be honest, those succeeded at the box office in spite of themselves. His other two efforts are Live Free or Die Hard, which is not good, and the 2012 remake of Total Recall which you probably didn’t remember was a thing until you read this sentence.
Thus far, the John Wick series has been extremely entertaining and well-made. It contains at least one out-and-out masterpiece in John Wick: Chapter 2. Even if a spinoff film were necessary, Wiseman would not be the guy to make it.
Ballerina will also apparently be female-centric, which makes Wiseman an even more baffling choice. There are a number of talented female filmmakers who should be in the director’s chair, adding to the sense that this story is in the wrong hands in just about every conceivable way.
Why should we care?
The standout element of the original John Wick is the tiny glimpses directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski give us into the wider world their protagonist inhabits. They know that showing is better than telling and that if they show just enough (but not too much) we can draw our conclusions without sacrificing the mystique that makes that universe so compelling to begin with.
John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum establishes Wick’s history with the Russian dance academy perfectly. Through subtle visual clues and the conversation he has with Anjelica Huston’s character, we glean everything we need to know about it: this is where Wick was trained. Other assassins are trained here. It’s in Russia, which potentially explains Wick’s ties to the Russian mob. Lastly, he had a falling out with them some time ago.
If almost a decade of J.J. Abrams-influenced storytelling has shown us anything, it’s that it’s almost always better to leave a little bit unexplained. Speculation is almost always better than the actual answers. In the case of Ballerina, we don’t need to know anything more about the dance academy.
The Wick of it
Here’s the thing: John Wick’s world isn’t all that interesting. A society secretly run by a government of assassins is a cool concept, but movies like Hotel Artemis suggest that even the most effective world-building is nothing without a compelling character and story. It’s understandable enough that Lionsgate may feel the need to milk this golden goose for all it’s worth. However, it conveys a fundamental misunderstanding of what has drawn viewers to the franchise: John Wick himself.
Wick’s world is compelling because he is compelling. The Continental, the mysterious coins, the Markers, they’re all interesting pieces of worldbuilding. But without Keanu Reeves’ masterful work, they’re just set dressing.
In potentially showing us too much and overexplaining minute details, the John Wick franchise risks ruining everything it has built. There’s no need for a Ballerina movie, especially not one directed by Len Wiseman. Hopefully the franchise will be able to survive it — and hey, maybe it will end up being a worthy contribution to the series’ mythos. But, for the first time, the future of the John Wick series feels less than certain.