A Beautiful Gory Display

A Beautiful Gory Display: Wanted (Jul 8)

On the one hand, the movie version of Wanted has Morgan Freeman. On the other hand, it does not have a character made of “the collected feces of the six hundred and sixty-six most evil men on the planet”. Morgan Freeman is pretty awesome, but that’s not what I call an even trade.

Wanted began, as it seems most summer movies do these days, as a comic book. However, almost every element that defined the series was lost in the transition. The first fifteen minutes of the film closely mirror the opening pages of the comic, and two of the characters keep their names. And then it all kind of hops the rails, making the opposite point of the original series, and not making any damn sense along the way. (SPOILER ALERT: The movie’s plot hinges heavily on a magic loom. How could I make a thing like that up?)

Originally published in 2003, the Wanted comic book was written by Mark Millar with art by JG Jones. The lead character, Wesley Gibson, is an average office drone disgusted by his own existence. Everything changes when the father he never knew, and also the world’s greatest assassin, is murdered. It’s then that Wesley is abducted by Fox, a beautiful jewel thief who teaches him the truth about reality.

The world of Wanted is run by super-villains. (All the main characters are recognizable analogues for DC Comics characters.) In 1986, the villains wiped out all the super-heroes and made the world forget that they had ever existed. We only remember them as comic books and TV shows, never realizing that Adam West actually was Batman, and the villains exiled him to a life of signing autographs at car shows as punishment. And yes, this means that Christopher Reeve actually was Superman, which is in such audacious bad taste that you have to tip your hat to Millar.

The villains split up the world, each taking a continent, which they run from behind the scenes. The series deals with Wesley’s initiation into this world, and its inevitable unraveling. It’s an enjoyable and sleazy story, great entertainment, but not great art. It’s sort of a violent thrill ride, which has just enough depth to leave you thinking about it at the end. See, after all the pyrotechnics, Wesley directly addresses the reader. He calls the reader out for leading the same kind of despised life that he once did. Essentially, he calls the reader a hypocrite at the end of the book. People hated the ending, but I found it just interesting and funny enough to be workable. You don’t watch nineteen seasons of The Simpsons without getting used to having your chosen entertainment occasionally take a moment to criticize you.

The movie version of Wanted starts out in almost exactly the same way, only with fewer casualties. In the comic, Fox (Angelina Jolie) shoots a number of people in a sandwich shop, just to prove to Wesley (James McAvoy, squeezing that American accent until it bleeds) that she can get away with it. In the movie, a firefight in a convenience store is largely casualty-free. Already, this was not a good sign. The moral confusion and outrage created by the comic book was not in place, which turns it into just another action scene.

In the movie, there are no supervillains – instead, it’s a fraternity of assassins. They train Wesley, in scenes that are similar to the comic, but the movie includes a healing bath to quickly cure any injuries Wesley or his trainers suffer, which is not only a silly narrative shortcut, but immediately downgrades the stakes of every action scene.

When Wesley is ready, Sloan (Morgan Freeman) explains how the Fraternity really works. It was established 1000 years ago by a group of weavers (seriously!) and they choose their targets based on orders given by a magic loom which encodes their names into thread-based binary code. You can see why they dropped the supervillains from the movie, because that would make it silly! A thinly-veiled version of the Joker? That’s too hard to accept. Magic loom? Genius!

See, the magic loom orders the deaths of people who will make the world a worse place. So, you know, the assassins are actually good guys! Of course! After all, we couldn’t possibly put an audience in a position where they’re identifying with somebody who is actually doing the wrong thing.

There are some legitimately exciting action scenes, but the storytelling is weak and clichéd. And let’s face it, the parts that you haven’t seen a million times before are mind-numbingly stupid. Bending bullets, the magic loom, the fact that people consistently shoot bullets out of the air with other bullets, it’s ridiculous and cartoonish (in a bad way). The comic book includes obscene variations on Bizarro and Clayface, and manages to not be insulting, while the movie jettisons those “comic book” elements in exchange for insulting your intelligence for ninety minutes. And if anybody can given me one good reason why anybody makes the choices they do for the last twenty minutes of the movie, I will give them a dollar. (By the way, filmmakers, when a bullet hits something, it tends to lose momentum and change direction. That’s why snipers choose a vantage point that affords a clear path to their target. They don’t set up in order to shoot through a whole bunch of things first!)

At the end of the movie, Wesley challenges the audience to take control of their lives. By which I mean, he addresses the point for two whole sentences and in a way that could be construed to advocate murder as the solution to angst. It comes off as quasi-inspirational, albeit half-assed and poorly thought out. In the comic, as I said, Wesley calls out the reader for being a part of the problem. In his closing monologue, he reminds them that they bought the comic book in order to forget about their failures for a few minutes. It’s actually thought-provoking, instead of being a Successories poster like the movie’s finale. (Well, except for the part about blowing somebody’s head off.) I’m not saying the movie could have been saved if the last line had been “This is my face when I’m f***ing you up the *ss” (spunkybean – Safe for Work since just this minute), but it certainly would have sucked less.

If the concept appeals to you, read the comic and rent Shoot ‘em Up. I’m happy that Mark Millar is making a pile of money off the movie, but I can’t recommend it. Cross your fingers and hope Kick Ass turns out better.

Wanted (comic book)  out of 5.

Wanted (movie)  out of 5.

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