Existentialism and Misconception of Masculinity

Existentialism is a concept explored during 1940-50s, by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, through such themes as dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, and nothingness as fundamental to human existence. By embracing the complete absurdity and other-worldliness of a graphic novel on which the story is based, Kazakhstan director Timur Bekmambetov manages to integrate some stylized high-octane car chases, shoot-outs and fine-quality scenes of creative ultra-violence which totally get the adrenaline pumping, and at the same time, explores what those writers have done on screen.

Based upon the celebrated 2003-04 comic book miniseries by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, Wanted’s lynchpin is that quietly desperate account manager Wesley Gibbons (James McAvoy) is a loser, in a hovel, trapped by the numbness of his life, the dull existence that he accepts. As a drone in a dull office job, he works in a cubicle, suffers panic/anxiety attacks, knows he’s being cheated on by his nagging, cheating girlfriend (Kristen Hager) with his “best friend” on their lunch break, and takes the abuse of his oppressive, overbearing, and obese office manager (Lorna Scott). While in line at the pharmacy trying to get his anxiety medication refilled, he’s rescued by sizzling mysterious physics-defying Fox (Angelina Jolie), an agent of the mysterious Fraternity of Assassins, with the motto “Kill one, save a thousand”. All of his deeply rooted anxieties finally go away when he realizes he’s actually the son of one of the elite assassins, and here comes the renegade Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), the man who killed his father.

After the breathless shootout and car chase, Wesley can a.) Go back to be a lifeless, passive, washed-out cubicle drone or b.) Join the Fraternity, a millennium-old institution of super-powered assassins, run by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) that has maintained order by following the instruction of the Loom of Fate to eliminate the world’s undesirables, whose names appear in the coded patterns hidden in textiles woven in the factory that serves as their headquarters. Like his father, Wesley is a natural born killer, with superhuman reflexes, wild stunt-driving skills, and death strikes that swerve bullets into serpentine trajectories. Realizing he has another greater destiny, he embarks on a psychological journey to avenge his father before he learns the Fraternity’s secrets. From a meek, pallid cube jockey, Wesley morphs from loser to bruiser by joining the secret society.

This sense of identity, this understanding of who he is, comes with his membership in the group, and it comes from trying to follow in his assassin father’s footsteps. If people don’t know who they really are, they can neither know what kind of decisions they want to make, nor establish their relationships with other people. Wesley starts the film as an account manager for an anonymous company, spending his working days in a typical corporate cubicle. He finds no satisfaction from work or relationship he is having. His life adds up to nothing, and he is not in control of it because it is simply carried along by the cruel currents of fate. According to Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir, individuals create the meaning and essence of their lives, as opposed to it being created for them by deities or authorities or defined for them by philosophical or theological doctrines. Likewise, at this stage, Wesley epitomizes the existentialist idea of an alienated existence. He is alienated from the world around him, which seems hostile towards him, but actually has no purpose or meaning to him. In an existential sense, his life is inauthentic. He has the freedom to choose his course of action in life, to define himself by what he does, but he does nothing of the sort. He, however, allows others around him to define him, and his sense of himself is entirely dependent on their stance towards him. Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir, would say that Wesley is living in questionable faith because he will not take responsibility for choosing what he is. Having chosen his path for himself, Wesley finds himself with the Fraternity and put through a frightful program of training, conditioned to be able to withstand any amount of pain, as well as to shoot like his father. Eventually, having been inducted into the Fraternity, for the first time ever, he is in control of his life and he no longer has to do things simply because that’s what everyone else does. Now he is acting upon the basis of what he choeses and defines himself and becomes authentic. It seems to him that way though.

The complication of existentialism in the story is that the assassins see themselves as the weapons of Fate. Their duty is to restore the balance of the world by eliminating the evil people whose actions undermine it. The assassins are nihilistic since they work out of their thousand-year-old belief that what they do is an essential service to humanity. Their logic rudimentarily serves the utilitarian purposes as they justify evil actions for the sake of a supposed greater good, but they see themselves as simply doing what ‘Fate’ tells them to do. All this talk of Fate cuts across the authentic life which Wesley now believes he has. While Sarte would ask “Is Wesley choosing freely?”, Camus would ask “And now is Wesley in control of his life?”, and De Beauvoir would ask “Is Wesley merely being carried along by another of Fate’s currents, though a more exciting one?” Another important question will be “Is he the master of his destiny, or on the contrary, its servant?”, because he exists by taking orders from the Fraternity. However, after ‘Fate’ is exposed as a fraud, Wesley has to take responsibility for his life and for the first time, he defines himself on his terms, not those of others. He actually chooses a course of action, takes control of his life, and defines himself. In terms of existentialism, through the transformation, with his self-orientated goals, he has established himself as genuine and authentic because he is in control. His true authenticity is found in his unbridled individualism. His leap of faith into concluding self-authentication is taking him in precisely the right direction. Emphasized by the metaphor, not symbol, of cat-and-mouse-game, Wanted turns out to be an interesting reflection on existentialism because Wesley’s true authenticity is finally found.

Nevertheless, the only problem of Wanted is that it is an enthralling saga of how white men empower themselves through violence with women figure in the story as either obstacles or turncoats. The problematic conception of masculinity is troubling because it defines being a “man” as a violently angry refusal of any kind of weakness. Wesley’s goal is to stop being a “pussy” which can be accomplished only through physical violence, murder, and a zealous rejection of anything reeking of the feminine, the peaceable, and even the weak. Notice one of the first people Wesley has to kill. That one is the only member of the Fraternity to show anyone any sort of kindness, which makes him weak, and makes him a victim. The misconception of masculinity is probably the only flaw of this film.

Wanted is an utterly confident action flick focused on a man who greatly suffers from a lack of confidence, stuck in his routines and longs for adventure, for challenges, for more. With intense yet impressive and surreal choreographed battle scenes with some expensive CGI Matrix-style homage, it’s an unorthodox and eccentric action film because it represents a rebel attitude without condoning anarchy. Visually stunning, well-acted, and dexterously put together, beneath the film’s exploration of blind revenge, corrupted justice, and the whole notion of destiny manifesto, Wanted poses the question about the law, justice, and the manipulation of power in the highest forms. It is something most uncultured action-packed movies fail to achieve.

Rating: 3.5/5

To see Wanted in theatres, check your local listings, or visit the http://www.wantedmovie.com/

Criticetc is a journalist and critic in Bangkok and Pattaya, and at http://www.bkklive.com and http://www.cinemania.com  

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