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John Wick's entire backstory explained

John Wick has all the makings of a comic book movie franchise without actually being based on one at all. Written by Derek Kolstad from his own original idea, this high-concept series starring Keanu Reeves in the title role features some of the most remarkable fight scenes ever put to screen — but the world-building in John Wick, John Wick: Chapter 2, and John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum is just as exceptional. 

Unlike many other action films with straightforward plots, the backstory of assassin John Wick reveals his history in small bites that force the viewer to engage with far more than just the epic battles onscreen. Director Chad Stahelski was Reeves' stunt double on the Matrix movies, and his comfort with the actor is evident in the full-body filming style that allows us to see John's conflicts with others play out in spectacular detail. The spectacular light design and banging score all contribute to John's epic rampages. The fact that Stahelski also relies on nuanced performances from his entire cast in every John Wick installment certainly helps audiences figure out exactly who John Wick is and why he makes the choices he does. So why is Baba Yaga so bad at staying retired? Here's what we know so far: John Wick's entire backstory explained.

"The man, the myth, the legend": John Wick's early childhood with the Ruska Roma

In a poetic turn of events, it isn't until the third installment of the John Wick franchise that we learn anything about Wick's early life and upbringing, and even that is in many ways coded in ciphers and symbolism from where audiences can infer his story. Born Jardani Jovanovich in Belarus, he was orphaned as a child and adopted by the Ruska Roma — with is an ethnic group as well as a criminal syndicate — who then began training him as an assassin at the Director's (Anjelica Huston) performing arts institute in New York City. It isn't clear when he changed his name to John Wick, but Jardani translates to John from Romany, and "Wick" is the phonetic pronunciation of the final four letters of his birth name.

We also don't know when exactly John received all of his tattoos, but as we get a short tour of the Director's institute we see that the older students are already heavily tattooed with Catholic imagery similar to John's, possibly indicating they've gone through a similar initiation into the assassin underworld. We also see the students in the process of various kinds of training, from dancing to wrestling, and so much more — John is an expert marksman and driver, a skilled martial artists across a number of different styles, experienced in hand-to-hand combat, and is preternaturally strong, also suggesting there might be some kind of physical enhancement that's taken place along the way too.

"Everyone's got a price": John Wick's assassin years

While his back tattoo reading "Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat" ("fortune favors the bold") might suggest John Wick was once in the Marine Corps, we haven't seen any confirmation that this is true. But what we do concretely know is that Wick was an incredibly proficient and prolific assassin who quickly earned the nickname "The Boogeyman" for his killing talents. After leaving the Ruska Roma, John joined the Tarasov Mob as one of its leader Viggo Tarasov's (Michael Nyqvist) main enforcers. During this time John developed different relationships with people at various levels of the High Table, the ruling body of this mob underworld, with delegates from each controlling mob family having a representative there. Among Wick's friendly contacts and colleagues fostered here include Marcus (Willem Dafoe), the concierge of the Continental Hotel, Charon (Lance Reddick), and its manager Winston (Ian McShane).

But he also made a collection of frenemies along the way, as is to be expected in the assassin game, including Ms. Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), Sofia Al-Azwar (Halle Berry), Cassian (Common), Ares (Ruby Rose), Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) and his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), and many more. It is during this time that John helps Sofia get her daughter to safety from the mob and receives a blood oath marker from her. These markers are made of elaborate gold designs and open like a locket. Inside they have room for two thumbprints, the first establishing the oath and the second when the oath has been fulfilled. These markers are non-negotiable.

"I'll be seeing you": John Wick gets out of assassin game

At the heart of this action franchise is an operatic love story that ends in tragedy. John falls in love with Helen (Bridget Moynahan) and knows he has no choice but to get out of the assassin game. When he approaches Viggo Tarasov about retiring, Viggo first laughs at him. But once Viggo realizes John is serious, he seizes the moment to take full advantage of John's new vulnerability. Viggo tasks John with killing all of his rival leaders in one night, an event that needs to happen fast to avoid retaliation. The Tarasov family doesn't have a seat at the High Table, so it's possible this was an attempt to show force and win one. 

While John does as he was tasked, coldly dispatching each target, he unfortunately isn't able to do this one alone; he gives his blood oath marker to the son of the head of the Rome Syndicate, Santino D'Antonio, for tactical assistance. This will prove to be one of the biggest mistakes of John Wick's life. 

Still, John gets to spend five years with his beloved Helen before she gets cancer and dies, shattering him in a way that he'd never been broken before. She was his anchor in the real world outside of the assassin game. What we would he do with her gone? As a last gift, Helen leaves John a puppy named Daisy, someone new for him to take care of and to help him remember his humanity and all the love he has in his heart.

"It wasn't just a puppy": John Wick is forced back into the game

John isn't out of the game long... but apparently still long enough for younger mobsters to forget who he is and what he's capable of, including the famous anecdote about killing three men with only a pencil. As John is filling up at a gas station near his home, a brash man asks to buy it from him, which John refuses. This happens to be Viggo Tarasov's son Iosef (Alfie Allen), who puts together a team to storm John's house, assault him, and steal the coveted car. In the moment heard around the world, Iosef's henchman kicks John's puppy Daisy, killing her instantly. 

Badly injured and emotionally devastated once more, John's grief turns to pure unbridled rage as he plots his revenge against Iosef. Viggo tries to advocate peace for his son, but John will hear none of it. He digs up the trove of markers, gold coins, and weapons cemented underneath his garage and goes after Iosef and his goons one by one.

In the meantime, Viggo sends his own assassins after John — his old friend Marcus as well as a very angry Ms. Perkins who seems to have her own grudge against John that is never explained. After an enormous death toll that takes out Viggo, Iosef, Marcus, Ms. Perkins, and dozens more, John adopts a pit bull who is set to be euthanized the next day and goes home.

"Not vengeance, justice": John Wick and The Rome Syndicate

Knowing quite well that John Wick was battered after his war with the Tarasovs, an opportunistic Santino D'Antonio pulls John back into the underworld even further by cashing in his own marker. Santino's request? Kill his sister Gianna, who's been selected to represent their family at the High Table so he can assume her throne. John can't refuse so he takes his conundrum to his old friend Winston at The Continental Hotel. Winston feels for Johnathan, as he calls him, but reminds him that a blood oath is not optional. A sad and reluctant John Wick flies to Rome where he uses gold coins to get a stylish, but tactical, wardrobe as well as weapons. 

When he arrives at Gianna's ascendence party, a gorgeous affair set in Roman ruins, she knows what her brother has done. To maintain what little agency she has left, Gianna slits her own wrists and John only shoots her after she's dead. But because Santino can't leave well enough alone, he lies and puts a hit of $7 million out on John Wick for assassinating his sister that leads to another huge showdown between John, Santino's minions, and his assassin colleagues Cassian and Ares, all of whom John defeats. 

Back in New York, John is forced to visit the Bowery King (Lawrence Fishburne), a low-level player but one with access to resources. The Bowery King gives John seven bullets, one for each million of the bounty, and John returns to the Continental for his showdown with Santino, who has taken up residence there. The rules don't permit assassinations on the property, but John kills Santino anyway.

"I'll kill them all": John Wick, excommunicado

Murdering someone on Continental grounds results in immediate excommunication from the entire underworld network that was once available to John Wick. Because Winston knew Santino set John up, Winston gives him an hour to escape before putting in the excommunicado order, a decision that would bite him back soon enough. The bounty on John's head has also doubled by John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Badly injured and running out of time, John goes to the New York Public Library where he has stashed away a photograph of his wife Helen, as well as a rosary and more markers inside a hollowed-out book of Russian folktales. While there, a giant assassin (Boban Marjanovic) tries to kill him before the hourlong grace period is up, but fails when John murders him with a library book.

John manages to make it to a friendly face, the Doctor (Randall Duk Kim) who begins stitching up his wounds, but he isn't able to finish before more bounty hunters attack him in a museum of ancient weapons. John defeats everyone and stumbles his way back to where he started in New York as a child, the Director's performing arts institute. The Director decides to help him, securing him passage to Casablanca where he will try to connect with the only person above the High Table who can save his life, the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui). In the process, the Director brands over John's back tattoo. He has cashed his ticket. The institute, and Ruska Roma, are no longer home or allies.

"If you want peace, prepare for war": John Wick's journey to The Elder

As John Wick travels by boat to Morocco, a new emissary of the High Table enters the mix. The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) arrives in Manhattan to mete out the consequences of John's actions since Santino called in John's marker. Every person who helped John receives severe punishments that involve mutilation, while Winston goes into hiding to avoid the Adjudicator's sentencing. 

In Casablanca, John meets with Sofia, the manager of Morocco's Continental Hotel, who doesn't look happy to see him or his marker. But John helped Sofia get her daughter into hiding years before, and she'd made a blood oath to him. Sofia and her two German shepherds finally agree to help, which involves going to Sofia's old boss Berrada (Jerome Flynn) who tells them how to find the Elder, then demands Sofia give him one of her beloved dogs for the information. She refuses, and Berrada shoots the dog. A new line is drawn that John Wick totally gets — and John and Sofia both fight dozens of Berrada's henchmen before defeating them all.

Sofia drives John out to the desert where he's supposed to walk until he can't walk anymore and wait for the Elder to find him. After he does, John agrees to be back in service to the High Table for the rest of his days, no exceptions. "I have served. I will be of service," John says before cutting off his ring finger — with his wedding ring on it — and offering it as tribute to the Elder. John is officially back now.

"Guns, lots of guns": John Wick's new path toward reconsecration

John's first task for the High Table is to return to Manhattan and kill Winston, who the members of the Table feel has gotten too high on his own power. Sending John himself to kill Winston is painful irony. In the meantime, the $14 million bounty is still on John's head and he has to battle more minions in order to get to Winston, including the ninja trainer Zero (Marc Dacascos) and his acolytes. But John can't bring himself to kill Winston and defies the High Table's order once again. The Adjudicator de-consecrates the Continental, meaning it's open season on John and Winston. Charon helps kill many of The High Table soldiers, but there are too many of them. 

After a parley between Winston and the Adjudicator, Winston decides to sell out John Wick and agrees to kill him himself in order to get the hotel reconsecrated and maintain his position as manager. Winston shoots John several times point blank and John falls from the roof to what should have been his death. 

But the Bowery King has his own power... and he is pissed. His minion the Tick Tock Man (Jason Mantzoukas) rescues John and brings him down to the Bowery where John and the Bowery King team up for a new bout of revenge killings. John tells the Elder he wants to live so he can remember his love for Helen. But what is this extreme vengeance doing to honor that love? What would Helen say about the hundreds of people he 's killed with his own hands?

"Yeah, I guess I'm back": Why is everyone so angry with John Wick?

Even someone who only dabbles in the John Wick world should notice that people are inordinately angry whenever they come in contact with John. With the exception of a few people, like Charon, the Doctor, and Zero, everyone seems to have massive vendettas and anger against John. Ms. Perkins, Sofia, Cassian, Ares, Gianna D'Antonio, and even eventual allies like the Bowery King are absolutely livid with John when they see him again. This isn't an average kind of anger that comes with a small grudge. This is fury, and their resulting fight scenes act out that rage in fine detail, with the exception of Gianna, who looks at him with a combination of sadness and love along with her anger. Why is this?

Are they so angry because John got out, even if briefly? Because he's the best assassin and they're jealous? Did he have affairs with some of these folks before meeting his wife and they harbor grudges about the love he had for Helen? Because underneath it all he's actually a good and kind person if people would leave him alone? So far we have more questions than answers in this regard, but these ongoing reactions are a notable part of John Wick's lived experience.

"They call him Baba Yaga": Where does John Wick's nickname come from?

Throughout the John Wick franchise people regularly refer to John Wick as "Baba Yaga." It's translated onscreen as "The Boogeyman," but that isn't exactly accurate. In Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Russian folktales, Baba Yaga is a witch who lives in the woods in a cottage resting on chicken leg stilts. She is either wicked or benevolent, depending on who has called on her for help and their success in completing whatever task(s) she has asked of them first. On the rare occasion Baba Yaga needs to leave her enchanted space, she rides a mortar and pestle to wherever she must go, a symbol that she is either ready to grind up herbs for magic or alternatively beat someone to a pulp. Baba Yaga presents as an ugly, deformed, elderly woman.

It's unclear why everyone in the John-Wickiverse calls him "Baba Yaga" since John's modus operandi and appearance couldn't be more different than Baba Yaga's. He is a young, handsome man, and gets paid to go out and hunt people down on the regular. John's targets don't usually approach him, except in the case of Iosef Tarasov, who breached John and Helen's sanctuary and paid for it. But since it took us until the third film, Parabellum, to find out about John's childhood, we can only hope that by John Wick 4 the story behind this odd nickname is explained further.

"I'd like to see the manager": John Wick comic books contradict the movies

John Wick fans want to know more about this enigmatic character and the events that made him who he is today. But unfortunately, the John Wick comic book series fully contradicts some important events in the movies. While one aspect of his friendship with Charon is explained in a way that fits film canon — John saved Charon's life — nothing else in the comics meshes with the movies, especially the version of John's childhood we learn about in Parabellum. In the comic, writer Greg Pak sets up John's childhood in Mexico as a homeless street urchin who steals to survive. But we learned in Parabellum that John was an orphan from Belarus who was trained as an assassin from a young age in New York City. Mexico plays no part in John's life onscreen, at least not yet. 

The comics also suggest he's a cat person, which doesn't gel since Helen would have gotten John a kitten if that's what he preferred. It's almost like the comic book creators didn't really watch the John Wick films all that closely. It makes more sense when you learn that the comics weren't created or produced by anyone who wrote or directed the movies. Hardcore John Wick fans can safely disregard the comic book events as separate canon and instead wait for John Wick Chapter Four to reveal more.