Even if it barely resembles the “grand guignol orgy of spitefulness, violence, and misogyny” of Mark Millar’s comic book, Jacob Farley still finds plenty amiss in 2008’s troubling actioner Wanted, especially in light of the world we currently live in.
Alright, well, let’s get this over with. Wanted is from 2008, directed by Timur Bekmambetov about an angry white guy who self-actualizes himself through gun violence. It’s, uh, a little bit of a tough road watching this film in 2018, a year in which we’ve had 154 mass shootings so far and the most recent one committed by an angry white guy was [checks watch] yesterday.
This flick is based on a comic book by a guy named Mark Millar, who has the distinction of being one of my least favorite writers ever for reasons I won’t bother getting into here. I actually went and saw this one in the theater specifically because I had hated the comic book so much and couldn’t imagine how they would translate its grotesque, over-the-top, grand guignol orgy of spitefulness, violence, and misogyny to the silver screen, so I just had to see it for myself. The answer, it turns out, is—they mostly don’t, because the plot of the comic is almost totally different from the film.
The comic series takes place in a world where there were once superheroes, but the villains all teamed up to kill the heroes. (This is a theme Millar returns to repeatedly in his comic work, presumably because he thinks it is extremely wicked and cool.) Since then, the villains have been secretly running the world. When one of their number is assassinated, they recruit the dead member’s son, a cubicle nerd named Wesley Gibson, to replace him. The son turns out to have inherited his father’s super-killing powers and immediately becomes a despicable sociopath who resorts to rape and violence with next to no provocation. That’s, uh, pretty much it. There’s some nonsense about an inter-gang war or whatever. Also, Mark Millar had the artist J.G. Jones draw all the characters as real-life celebrities (for instance, the main character is drawn to resemble Eminem, while the character Fox is modeled after Halle Berry), because Millar is desperately thirsty for Hollywood attention.
The movie does retain some elements of the comic’s story—Wesley’s (James McAvoy) father was a super-assassin, which results in him being inducted into a society of super-killers too. That’s about it, though, aside from some bits of dialogue here and there. Otherwise, this is a total (and bizarre) overhaul of the original story. In the film, instead of a society of comic book-style supervillains, the secret organization is, according to the title card, a group of weavers who pivoted into the assassination game 1,000 years ago when they realized that God (or someone?) was speaking to them through the warp and weft of the textiles they made. Yes, they’re basically a society filled with Sons of Sam, but instead of their neighbor’s dog, it’s their sewing machine which commands them to kill.
Wesley is initially delighted to be brought into their ranks, but then shocked to discover that a secret society of murderers may actually not have his best interests in mind after they manipulate him into killing his dad and then try to kill him, too. Of course, The Fraternity (as they’re cleverly named) committed the classic Treadstone mistake of training up a super-killer and then giving said super-killer a reason to get mad at them, so Wesley mostly kills them all. The end! We’ve learned nothing.
That’s a fairly brief plot summary, but you get the idea. Really, the plot isn’t the problem—roughly a billion movies have had pretty much the same plot. The problem is Wesley. He’s such an immensely despicable prick for literally the entire movie that it’s hard to care about anything that happens to him. The most satisfying part of the movie is the half-hour sequence that consists of him getting the shit knocked out of him in the name of “training.”
The movie opens with him at an office party, sullenly glaring at everyone who seems to be enjoying a birthday party for their manager Janice. Janice has three strikes against her, to Wesley’s mind—she’s a bit overweight, she’s a woman, and she’s in charge of him at work. This makes her the worst person who has ever lived, according to our lead character. Wesley asserts that everyone in the office hates her because she makes everyone miserable (citation needed, as everyone actually seems to like her just fine) and he is disgusted by her enjoyment of food. Wesley resents his place in the office and seems to deliberately avoid work, yet is also surprised when he becomes known for having performance issues. He spends all day sneering at his coworkers and sulking in his cubicle and wonders why he is not well-liked.
Wesley is, of course, dating a woman who he can’t stand and yet won’t do anything about. She’s cheating on him with his “best friend” (Chris Pratt, basically playing Star-Lord if Star-Lord never went to space). Wesley also thinks of himself as “weak,” because he takes medication for panic attacks (the word “pussy” is thrown around a lot in this movie, you’ll be shocked to learn), but he’ll soon discover they’re not panic attacks at all—they’re his super-assassin powers trying to activate! He’s special! He just needs a gun to PROVE IT.
Once the other super-assassins show up, the movie becomes a little more entertaining, since the action sequences are slick and fun. Fox is played by Angelina Jolie, bringing her signature icy alien cool to an otherwise completely unremarkable part. The leader of the assassin organization is Morgan Freeman, whose warm, fatherly presence goes a long way to explaining how he was able to trick all the assassins into thinking they should be listening to the threads of their pants for murder instructions. The movie descends into an agreeably goofy B-tier action flick from that point forward, and it could even almost win me over, but…
Unfortunately by that point, the damage is already done—Wesley has firmly established himself as a simmering kettle of resentment and rage who needs serious help dealing with his anger issues, and to be kept away from firearms in the meantime. As such, the movie’s unthinking endorsement of the self-actualization of a sexually resentful white man through gun violence is tough to handle. I recognize that this isn’t entirely the fault of the film itself, and I don’t ascribe to the notion that violence in media incites violence in real life, but it’s nevertheless a difficult watch in an era where men just like Wesley routinely plow their cars into pedestrian walkways and shoot up school campuses.
I had 15 minutes left on the runtime when my wife came home. I looked at the screen, then at her, then back at the screen again, and realized that my time would be better spent with someone less toxic than Wesley. I remember how it ends anyway—he gets away with everything, and all the women and minorities that stood in his way are dead. The only consequence for him is that…well…there isn’t any, actually. Maybe that’s the most bitter pill of all.
- The backstory of The Fraternity is really under-explained. They were weavers, but then they became…assassins? But they’re also still weavers, because their hideout is filled with functioning looms, for some reason? Also, the “code” they use to receive their murder instructions is genuinely insane, in the most literal sense. Depending on which threads are woven under or over other threads, there’s an alphabetic code (in modern English, apparently, despite the fact that this loom is supposedly 1,000 years old), which spells out the name of the target. At least, that’s how Morgan Freeman tells it, but I think there’s a lot of holes in the story here.
- Chris Pratt’s character, despite being objectively kind of a dick, is still way more likable than Wesley ever is. It speaks to just how awful Wesley is that this would be so.
- When Wesley is first inducted into the super-kill club, they give him his supposedly dead father’s bank account, and he freaks out when he sees there’s a little more than $3 million in it. Now, that’s a lot of money for sure, but it’s not like…a LOT a lot, you know? I’d kind of expect the top assassin in the world to have a little more socked away than that.
- Common is in this! He’s one of the other assassins. He doesn’t get much to do, sadly, but I like that he’s becoming kind of a low-key action movie guy between this, the John Wick movies, Smokin’ Aces, Street Kings, etc. Someone give him an action vehicle. Marvel should reboot Blade and cast Common as Blade. I am so serious about this now that I have thought of it just now.
- Oh right, also—the bendy bullet stuff. All the assassins in this dumb movie have the power to, like, curve bullets through the air by spinning their guns around when they shoot. Needless to say, this is both ridiculous and dangerous as hell, as it will result in your just firing a gun in some random direction. Please do not try this.