Wanted (2008 film)

Posted: September 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

After recently watching The Spirit, I was ruminating on the idea of changing a piece of work so thoroughly in an adaptation that it no longer resembles the thing from which it came. That got me thinking about whether or not I’d seen a movie that changed a concept to the point of near unrecognizability but the end result actually still worked. That, of course, got me thinking of Wanted.

Pictured: visual flair.

Pictured: visual flair.

Directed by Timur Bekmambatov in his English-language debut, Wanted is a film full of contradictions. It more or less completely ignores the source material, save the first 15 minutes or so, and has a central conceit that is as awesome as it is silly (which is also not from the source). This is a testament to the power of the director when it comes to visual storytelling. Frank Miller, for all his on-the-page flair, isn’t able to capture excitement or interest when the medium is film. Bekmambatov, however, has enough visual style to compensate for massive changes to the subject matter. And, oh, the changes were massive. I’ll go into it more further down, but the film is essentially about a fraternity of assassins who have vaguely mystic powers and seek to maintain a balance in the world. The comic, however, is about a group of supervillains who came together decades ago and wiped out all of the superheroes then erased them from the public consciousness. This cabal of villains secretly run all of the major events in the world (and some alternate realities as well). Just a slight departure, I suppose.

The film opens with young Wesley Gibson, an office drone living an unremarkable life with an unfaithful girlfriend. He learns early on that he is the son of a world-class assassin and has gained his father’s remarkable ability to manipulate bullets mid-air when fired. This introduces the much-parodied concept of “bending bullets”. On paper, this idea seems to be completely ridiculous, and it totally is within the film, but it also works. The commitment to the crazy world that these characters live in is absolute. Bekmambatov assembled an impressive cast of A-list stars and B-list character actors to help sell the insanity and ground it in believability. When you have Morgan Freeman explaining that the “loom of fate” has spoken in binary code to decree who needs to be murdered for the betterment of society, you don’t question it.

He was God, you know.

He was God, you know.

In trying to understand just how different this film is from the comic, there are two very obvious points of reference. The first is the cast of characters. Wesley essentially fills the same role in both stories as does Fox, the assassin that brings him into the fold (although she is much more sympathetic in the film). Everyone else is either a proxy of a character from the comic or created whole cloth. The film’s initial antagonist is Cross, played by Thomas Kretschmann. He, along with Sloan (Freeman’s character) are very loose analogues to various characters from the comic. Keeping to the film’s reliance on fire-arms, most of the Fraternity members are just variations of the “marksman” stock character while the comic has a huge variation of villains.

Badguys, goodguys. It's all the same.

Badguys, goodguys. It’s all the same.

Rictus, the primary antagonist in the book, is a ghouslish Joker-inspired madman who engages in rather…untoward…proclivities. He leads a group with members who include (and I swear I’m not making these up): Fuckwit, Sucker, Shithead, Johnny Two-Dicks, and many others. Most of the aforementioned villains are analogous to DC comics villains like Bizarro and Parasite and they play to their supervillainous nature by being completely irredeemable. Since there’s a hairs-breath between them and the more “heroic” characters of the story, it’d be pretty tough to pull them off in a big-screen blockbuster. After all, characters ultimately effect the world in which the story is set.

Which leads to the other major difference: the tone. This is where there are probably the biggest diversions in the adaptation. The film deals with some fairly heavy subject matter (fate vs. choice, the life of an individual weighed against many) but consistently keeps that in line with the over-the-top action creating a tone that is playful but serious. The comic, on the other had, could best be described as “mean-spirited”. Written by Mark Millar, it’s a look at the reality of life amongst the worst and most vile people in fiction. Oddly, the subject matter is deceptively childish (what if you could do anything?) while the tone is overbearingly nihilistic. At one point Wesley, after having accepted his purpose to become a supervillain, enters a police station and proceeds to murder everyone there. What’s even more off-putting about the scene is that it’s not portrayed negatively. There’s no catharsis or revelation other than “killing people is fun”. But then again, this is also a character who brags about rapes he’s committed throughout the story. Now, none of this is inherently unadaptable, but the final page of the series addresses the audience directly and essentially chastises them for living a meaningless life with a lack of any real power. The implication being that you can’t know true happiness until you can kill and rape whenever you feel like it, consequence free. I find that to be a pretty troubling final note, albeit one that would’ve been worth exploring at an earlier point in the story. Sadly, there is no exploration as that is literally the final word.

Don't piss off Professor X.

Don’t piss off Professor X.

What’s interesting is that even though there are huge differences between the film and comic, you can still see the same story if you squint hard enough. The basic opening, as stated above, remains unchanged as Wesley is still a nobody who is brought into a new, consequence-free world by Fox where he gains a remarkable new set of skills and becomes a lethal killer. The film merely gives him a purpose to be doing these things. Wesley still finds a nemesis from within the Fraternity and there’s still a late-story reveal about his father that changes his path. Hell, the movie even ends with a bit of 4th-wall-breaking dialogue in an obvious nod to the comic’s ending.

Overall, I’d say that the visual style of the director is still the film’s biggest strength. However, the character of Wesley is a close second. In the comic it’s tough (if not impossible) to feel any connection to him. I’m not saying protagonists need to be inherently likeable, but they have to have some quality that keeps the reader engaged. In the film, his reaction to the power that he’s given feels much more legitimate than within the book. As such, we don’t see him warp into a monster but grow into a seasoned killer who is still human. In the end, it’s not so much about the power, but the person wielding it.

See ya!

See ya!

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