Fiction allows the imagination of writers to build worlds and stories completely of their own design. Cinema and television make for limitless possibility, creativity, and exploration. Absolutely anything is possible. The best movies and programs showcase the combination talents of hundreds of creative individuals, all realizing the same shared fantasy and bringing it to life for our entertainment and enlightenment. It’s pure innovation.
With that being true, why are so many leading men named Jack or John? Why, in an atmosphere of unstoppable potential and ever-expanding creative possibility do we continually refer to leading characters by two of the most threadbare American names available? The short answer is we as a culture are hardwired to respond to those names as authoritative, identifiable characters. They are short, strong, and universal, capable of instantly branding someone with masculine qualities and a simultaneous “everyman” persona.
Edward Furlong as John Connor
The “action” Jacks comprise perhaps the most-populated genre (Steven Segal has played at least four Johns or Jacks), with Jacks spanning Burton, Shaft, Traven, Slater, Bauer, Sparrow, Harkness, Ryan, Shephard, Reacher; and the “action” Johns, including McClane, Connor, O’Neal, Rambo, Sheridan, Spartan, Wick, Snow, Winchester, Archer, and Constantine. You’ll also find “horror” Jacks, namely Torrance and Skellington (and The Ripper, of course), “drama” Jacks like Dawson and Bristow and Stanfield, "funny" Johns from Bender to Blutarsky to Casey, and the list goes on across every other genre. Film and television is one Jacked-up industry.
In reality, the phenomenon predates film and television by ages. Jack is a nickname of John, and John is Biblical. We have old literature and nursery rhymes with titles like The House that Jack Built, Jack and Jill, Little Jack Horner, Jack Sprat, Jack and the Beanstalk -- it's quite evident these names have been go-tos in culture for a long time. Film and television is only the latest trend in their usage.
Using John or Jack may be hackneyed, but it’s also a name with security. Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey says Jack is masculine, informal, and represents -- go figure -- a jack of all trades. She once spoke to Keanu Reeves, who said, “"I play men named Johnny and Jack a lot. There's an energy responsibility to that. When you say 'Jack,’ the shape your mouth takes, the breath it takes, signifies loner, hero, renegade.... Think John the Baptist, Johnny Guitar, Johnny Suede, Jack the Ripper, jack-o'-lantern."
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance
Not to mention, it’s a definitively generic name. E! Online explains that during its origination, Jack became short for “guy” or “dude,” meaning one could argue it literally translates to “common man.” The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines Jack as “a word with a great variety of meanings and applications, all traceable to the common use of the word as a by-name of a man.” This references its unique applicability in the English language as a noun, a verb, and part of compound phrases, e.g.: jack in the box, union jack, jackhammer, jackpot, jack of clubs, lumberjack, and so on. This varied usability instills the name with a certain cultural effect that most other names lack. It makes the name synchronously banal and substantial.
And so, we’re likely to never see the end of Jacks and Johns filling our narratives. They are simply part of the lexicon of American nomenclature, strong and sturdy, capable of impressing us with their strength and poise while existing as “just another guy” to whom we can relate.