Timur Bekmambetov’s 2008 thriller Wanted was that year’s 18th top-grossing film, bringing in more than $130 million domestically, and another $200 million internationally. It opens with the following:
A thousand years ago… A clan of weavers formed a secret society of assassins. They silently carried out executions to restore order to a world on the brink of chaos. They called themselves The Fraternity.
Wanted is based on a comic-book miniseries written by Mark Millar (also the author of the Kick-Ass books, which also made it to film) and drawn by J.G. Jones. That series does not involve a clan of weavers who carry out executions, and unlike in the film version, does not prominently feature a loom with uncanny powers of prognostication. Oh sure, the comic involves a secret society of assassins who call themselves The Fraternity, but otherwise, the two premises differ wildly. And both the comic book and would-be-tentpole-blockbuster traffic in power fantasies seemingly designed to appeal to the men’s-rights demographic.
Both versions of Wanted are narrated by Wesley Gibson, an emasculated, anxiety-ridden, cuckolded wage slave who oozes hatred for the company he works for, especially his boss. In its various forms, Wanted offers a seemingly irresistible tease: What if you woke up in the morning broke, depressed, and anxious, just another paper-pusher with a nowhere job and a spiteful girlfriend who’s sleeping with your smarmy best friend? What if, before the day was over, you found out your father was one of the most gifted men in the world, and has passed his extraordinary skills to you as the ultimate genetic blessing?
Both comic and movie offer fantasies of power they then take in opposite directions. As a $75 million potential international franchise, the film version of Wanted does not have the comic’s luxury of amorality. So its fantasy is similar to the comic’s, but also fundamentally antithetical. The book asks, “What if you were Bane’s son and could be one of the secret evil rulers of Earth?” Bekmambetov’s film instead asks, “What if you were Batman’s son, and with a little training, could carry on his legacy meting out justice?”
The comic Wanted is an unabashed, hateful celebration of supervillains and rage-filled adolescent misanthropy. It takes place in a Watchmen-like world where in 1986, the supervillains defeated the superheroes so thoroughly that nobody in their world even remembers what a superhero is, let alone recalls a time when their derring-do filled the newspapers. The comic proposes a twist on Spider-Man’s axiom: Here, ultimate power comes with no responsibility. Once Wesley discovers that his father was the world’s greatest assassin, and that his fellow supervillains secretly rule the world, he uses his knowledge to get revenge on everyone who’s ever wronged him, while also becoming a prolific, indiscriminate rapist and murderer. He becomes the kind of conscienceless sociopath who thinks nothing of heading into a police station and leaving only a single survivor, just to pass the time.
It’s a nasty piece of work that doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse the revenge fantasy-fueled nihilism of its deplorable protagonist, but doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with it, either. There’s a transgressive kick in rooting for someone with no sense of ethics whatsoever, but as a comic book, Wanted is repellent without being fun. It’s a scuzzy macho power trip that leaves all the pleasure to a creator who seems to be working through his own antisocial issues.
To give a sense of the comic book’s tone, one of its main supporting characters is literally a sentient shit-monster called Shithead, made out of the combined excrement of the 666 most evil people in the universe. (Hitler, John Wayne Gacy, etc.) And while bringing such a whimsical creature to life would represent a formidable challenge for a special-effects team (and I’m afraid he’d still be more appealing than Jar Jar Binks), the shit-monster is nowhere to be seen in the film. The same can be said of about 80 percent of the book’s other characters, and its many alternate universes, which similarly are nowhere to be seen.
Another element the film discards: the notion that Gibson looks exactly like Eminem (Millar was possibly hoping to lure Eminem into playing him in the inevitable film version), and that his love interest (or rather, considering the nature of the project, fuck-buddy) is a dead ringer for Halle Berry, right down to the Catwoman-like furry ears. It’s a fitting touch for the comic, which feels like it could have been the product of Eminem’s hateful early persona.
But while the two versions of Wanted travel in different directions, they start out similarly. The cinematic Wanted begins with Wesley (James McAvoy, a Scottish actor who is noticeably not Eminem) bemoaning his awful life. He’s a cubicle drone cursed to live and work in Wrigleyville, one of the most frat-tastic parts of Chicago. (I write that as someone who used to work there.) His girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend Barry, who is played by a young Chris Pratt; consequently, he emerges as the most likable character in the movie, despite being posited as an asshole.
Then one day, Wesley’s miserable life changes when he encounters Fox (Angelina Jolie), a tattooed, bad-ass assassin who is part of a Fraternity Of Assassins led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman), who informs him that his recently deceased father was the greatest assassin of all time. Like most fraternities, this one says that before Wesley can join, he has to endure a brutal hazing process that involves him getting kicked around until he’s moaning and fearing for his life. Unlike most fraternities, however, The Fraternity operates out of a working textile mill in industrial Chicago, which contains a magical loom with a secret code that dictates who the Fraternity will kill, and in what order.
When the filmmakers threw out the “supervillain” aspect that represents most of the comic book, something had to take its place, and God bless them, they decided on a magical loom that dictates morality and sees the future. In a textile mill. Speaking in code only The Fraternity can understand.
The Fraternity are agents of destiny, assassins with the aim of maintaining order in the universe. In that respect, they subscribe to a form of religion. It could be argued—has been argued—that when reduced to their bare outlines, all religions can sound silly. (Well, with the notable exceptions of Mormonism and Scientology.) Yet Wanted plays its mythology so straight that it almost seems halfway palatable. Besides, if you’re going to present a ridiculous central mythology to replace the rancid misanthropy of your source material, it’s smart to have an actor like Morgan Freeman deliver the exposition. Cinema’s popular choice for the voice of God brings an automatic authority to everything he does, no matter how idiotic.
The idea that a magical loom is giving out orders to a secret fraternity of borderline-superhuman assassins is silly, but the film and its leads play it seriously. Angelina Jolie had just worked with Clint Eastwood on The Changeling when she made Wanted, and she reportedly based her performance on Eastwood’s persona: tight-lipped, grim, and minimalist. It was a smart decision, because the Fox of the comic book is less a character than a wet dream, a hot chick whose hobbies include fucking and killing people in mind-blowingly cool ways. Jolie lends a hint of gravity to the character, a sense that she’s tormented by what she’s supposed to do and who she’s supposed to be. She gives the character a sense of conflicted destiny echoed by McAvoy, who undercuts the fantasy at the film’s core by playing Wesley as generally overwhelmed and terrified, even after he’s learned of his incredible destiny and achieved self-actualization as the ultimate killer.
So the magical loom of destiny tells The Fraternity who they must kill for the sake of society’s betterment. What kind of people? Bad people, of course, like a random dude who broadcasts his evil by being fat and smoking an equally fat stogie in a bulletproof limousine. Much of Wanted is devoted to breathless action sequences that attempt to replicate, on a stylistic, visual level, the heart-stopping rush of being a gun-toting, bullet-curving prince of a secret world unbeknownst to everyone else, of being faster and sharper and more in control than anyone around you.
On the level of spectacle, Wanted is largely a success. Bekmambetov borrows extensively and wisely from The Matrix, not just in the central theme of a nobody who discovers a new world where he’s to play a messianic role, but also in its visual vocabulary. Wanted slows and speeds up time, and generally rushes through setpieces in such a dizzying rush that audiences aren’t given too much time to ponder the ridiculousness of that magical loom, or the countless plot holes it creates. It doesn’t toy with the laws of gravity so much as ignore them altogether.
Bekmambetov transforms a tribute to nihilism into pure eye-candy, a glibly entertaining exercise in popcorn escapism that replaces the villains of the comic with less distinctive but more feasible leads who tend to be anti-heroes at worst, and genuinely heroic at best. Like Barry Levinson with Disclosure and Peter Berg with Hancock, they transform repellent, viciously sexist, hateful source material into slick entertainment that works in large part because its busy surfaces actively discourage audiences from thinking too hard, of from thinking at all.
Wanted ends by revealing that The Fraternity has been serving evil all along, but only by accident. It seems that the loom ordered the execution of Sloan, who then began sending out fake kill orders for profit rather than genuine kill orders for the sake of society’s betterment. One of those fake death contracts was for Wesley himself, with Fox assigned to execute the deed. When Wesley confronts Sloan at the textile mill with accusations of his duplicity and dishonesty, Sloan tells The Fraternity that the loom ordered the execution of all of them, as well as himself and Wesley, so if they want to continue living by the code of the magical loom, they’re obligated to kill themselves. The magical loom clearly thinks the Fraternity should not be in business anymore, and the magical loom is magical for a reason. Also, did I mention the magical loom?
This should be a moment of unintentional comedy, the point where the preposterousness of the plot folds in on itself, but when Fox unsmilingly kills her fellow killers and herself—everyone but Wesley and Sloan—in order to live up to the code of the magical loom, it’s actually surprisingly poignant. This also leaves the film nowhere really to go, except to have Wesley return to his sad old life just long enough to lure Sloan into a deadly trap using a decoy, and then end the film by breaking the fourth wall and accusingly asking the audience, in the same sneering tone with which he began his narration, “What the fuck have you done lately?”
This doesn’t quite have the bite of the final page of the comic, where Wesley similarly breaks the fourth wall and sneers to the reader, “This is my face while I’m fucking you in the ass.” But I prefer the film all the same, in part because I do not like fictional comic-book characters talking about forcibly sodomizing me. But I also prefer this final line because it is precisely by dialing way back on the comic’s nastiness that the filmmakers are able to transform Wanted into a passably mindless piece of entertainment, a good-enough time-waster that despite its modest success, never became the tentpole the studio clearly envisioned. Oh well, there’s always time for a reboot, and the world of magical-loom-based superhero thrillers hasn’t been the same since Wanted. I even have the ideal cast for the rebooted Wanted: Eminem and Halle Berry. I don’t even have to imagine what they’d look like in those roles, since the comic book was considerate enough to do that for me.