Comic book adaptations are always a tricky thing to pull off correctly. Do them right, and you're a hero to geeks everywhere. Do them wrong, and you're Joel Schumacher. In the case of "Wanted", the producers faced the unique task of adapting to mainstream film a comic which is uniquely unsuited to it in content and tone. That they had to make some changes is not unexpected; that they succeeded in their endeavor is.
If there's one common thread that unites both the comic book and cinematic versions of "Wanted", it is the concept that the world is set up to make life difficult for the weak and spineless. What's interesting about both versions of the story, however, is the utter contempt they have for the aforementioned weak and spineless.
But we're hitting the philosophy a bit early here. After all, for all their philosophical similarities, the two versions of "Wanted" could not possibly be more different, and that may be a source of contention for some fans who were looking for a faithful adaptation. Whereas "Wanted" the comic concerned itself with the amorality and nihilism of the world's supervillain community to paint a very bleak picture, "Wanted" the movie trades that attitude for one more palatable to the mainstream, in which justice (or at least a facsimile thereof) does prevail, and the wicked are ultimately punished.
In fact, apart from the fact that several of the character names are retained for the movie and some sections of dialogue in the script are either cribbed from or heavily inspired by the script, "Wanted" the movie might as well be a completely unique creation. To understand why, it is best perhaps to give a brief overview of the plot of each. In the comic, a young man named Wesley Gibson who works a dead-end job with a controlling, vicious boss and spends nights in his hovel of an apartment with a girlfriend he doesn't actually like and is in fact cheating on him finds out that his father was one of the world's greatest supervillains before he was killed, and joins one of the "five families" of villains to take his place and avenge him. Now, when I say supervillains, I mean supervillains - we're talking guys who make killer puppets, mad scientists, that sort of thing. Mark Millar's initial work is the text of someone who is intimately familiar with and loves the traditions of comic books, though it should be noted he has no problem "taking the piss out of them", as he would put it. In fact, one of the best parts of the book is how it cleverly explains and mirrors the shift from the world of Golden and Silver Age-era superheroics to the grim and gritty world seen in modern comics in a way I dare not spoil.
The film version follows the same general premise, but it eschews the psychic viruses and reality-changing imps of the comic for a more realistic world in which the supervillains have been replaced by a secret order of assassins that live in a textile mill, tasked with killing people in order to keep the world in balance. So they're not exactly good guys, but they're not exactly the sort of folks that Superman would throw down against, either. In fact, it seems that the screenwriters used the basic arc of the comic for the main character, throwing references to the original text in to give fans something to smile and nudge each other about.
That, however, is perfectly fine, because both versions are not only worth experiencing, but they also succeed at telling a similar story in very different ways and keep a consistent underlying philosophy that should be familiar to anyone who's ever seen or read "Fight Club" - in fact, the last line of "Wanted" the movie could have fit perfectly into the script for "Fight Club", and I mean that in the best possible way because it might be one of the best closing lines in recent cinematic history. The idea of the "castrated male" is very much in play here, with both Wesleys being trapped in a world that is postulated to keep them from reaching their full potential, and the only way out of that world for both of them is violence, whether it's killing a few targets with curved bullets or an epic freakout at the cubicle farm where they work (the comic's "freakout" is confined to one panel, the film's is a much bigger part of the story and is absolutely hilarious in its catharsis). If anything, the movie does a better job of making the audience identify with the main character and understand the appeal of the new life offered to him, if only because it devotes more time to explaining his situation (then again, when each issue of the comic is only about 20-odd pages, it's sort of necessary to compress things a bit).
I mentioned in the beginning that both works acknowledge the unfairness of the world to those who do not strike out and challenge it, but have no sympathy for them. This idea is manifested in the monologues that close both versions of the story, and I dare not spoil either one because the writing is so forceful and well-done in both that it's hard to walk away from either not thinking about your own life a bit. In short, "Wanted", in either form, knows that your life sucks, but what are you going to do about it - sit there and cry, or "grow a pair" as Wesley puts it and make your own destiny?
That particular choice is ultimately up to you, but one thing is for certain: both versions of "Wanted" are excellent, but don't go into the movie expecting a totally faithful adaptation of the comic. Do go in expecting a fun, surprisingly intelligent action movie with a bit of subliminal self-help and some pretty ridiculously awesome action sequences. In any summer blockbuster season, even one with as many quality films as this year, that's always a welcome thing.
-Bryan Carr is the host, creator, and producer of Geekspeak, airing Monday nights on Modern Rock 91.5 in Mid-Michigan and streaming online/podcasted via http://www.geekspeakradio.us. He didn't even talk about how amusing it was to see Morgan Freeman drop the "f-bomb" or how weird it is that the guy from Atonement is totally plausible as a gun-toting badass. Babbling about the actual meaning of things will do that to you.