Wanted: Rites of Passage of a Hero
University of Maryland
Are we really in control of our own destiny? That is a question that the movie ‘Wanted’, produced by Gary Barber, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy and Morgan Freeman, attempts to address. The movie, based on a series of graphic novels, follows the story of a young man who feels insignificant in his life, working in a cubicle and in general having nothing in his life that he can say is enjoyable. As the film progresses the main character, Wesley Gibson, is indoctrinated into a secret society of assassins, taught their ways, and by the end comes to realize that he is in control of his destiny, that life is what he makes of it (Barber & Bekmambetov, 2008). Although Wanted is a movie with a definite moral, it is also a depiction of the myth of the hero, a concept Joseph Campbell determined to be central to the study of mythology as a whole, as well as revealing rites of passage as might be described by Arnold van Gennep (Valk, 2005, para 3). As Wesley goes through the stages that Campbell describes as being necessary for the monomyth of the hero: existence in the ‘mundane’ world, leaving that world for a darker world, overcoming the obstacles presented in the darker place, and returning to the mundane world with new powers and knowledge (Leeming, 1990, 217), he becomes a hero as Campbell would describe one.
At the beginning of the film we meet Wesley in his dead-end job, complaining about how unimportant he feels. He Googles himself, and comes up with nothing. His life is nothing but mundane, there is nothing special about him at all (Barber & Bekmambetov, 2008). Unlike Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, or Adonis who was said to be born to a tree, the hero we meet in ‘Wanted’ does not have a special or miraculous birth. In fact, we learn little to nothing about his birth, other than knowing his father left when he was only seven days old. Leeming stresses the hero’s birth as a “metaphor for our psychological journey” (1990, 218), in which that dark place – in this case Wesley’s cluttered office cubicle in which he ruminates about his non-existence – becomes a symbolic womb from which the hero will be born.
Though the birth of the hero is an important event, it is the journey he embarks on that is the most significant part of the hero’s story. First there must be a “call to adventure” (Leeming, 1990, 219), such as King Arthur removing the sword Excalibur not once but twice from the stone in which it laid, the voices and appearances of Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret (among others) to a young Joan of Arc, or Moses being called to the burning bush to hear the word of God. In this case, Wesley is found in a drug store by Fox, who claims to have known his father; she further explains that his father was assassinated, and his killer was seeking now to kill Wesley himself (Barber & Bekmambetov, 2008). Fox‘s presence is the lure that Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces describes as being the beginning of the hero’s journey (Leonard & McClure, 2004, 17).
His quest is, as is typical of the hero’s tale, troubled by those trying to stand in his way, but at first his opponent is simply himself. He is put through intense training to be able to track down and kill the man who killed his father, but he struggles to overcome his own fears and preconceptions. Unlike Joan of Arc, whose struggle was against those who ridiculed her for being a girl and unable to fight as she was commanded to do, or Theseus’ conflicts with Minos and the Minotaur, Wesley’s battles were within himself. Through the trials he undergoes as part of his training to become a member of the Fraternity, he must overcome the monsters of his own psyche, not unlike the monsters that heroes of mythology have had to overcome. The biggest of these are his feelings of worthlessness and his own lack of identity. One pivotal scene finds Fox – who might also serve as the guide that Leeming professes important to the hero’s journey (1990, 219) – brutally attacking Wesley asking him “Why are you here?” At last the young man replies “I don’t know who I am” (Barber & Bekmambetov, 2008). It is important for Wesley to come to terms with himself, to know who he is.
The training Wesley undergoes with the Fraternity is not only a symbol of the hero’s journey but it also serves as an indication of rites of passage, specifically as a rite of initiation. Valk describes initiation as “any transition of an individual into a new state” (2005, para 14). He undergoes humiliation and tests of endurance at the hands of one member they call the Repairman, and further humiliation from the Butcher (Barber & Bekmambetov, 2008). This is also typical to initiation rites of passage (Valk, 2005, para 15). But once he admits that his reason for being there is to find his own identity as well as to kill the man who assassinated his father, things seem to get easier for him. He no longer suffers the humiliation inflicted upon him earlier in the film and instead is given the training he needs to fulfill the task set before him. Fox continues to be his guide, and Wesley is tested along the way, finally besting both the Repairman and the Butcher at their own game, catching the shuttle from a working automated loom, and winning a race atop a moving train through the city. His final test of initiation is “curving the bullet”, an act which defies the known laws of physics. Upon passing that test – again with Fox’s guidance, as she moves to stand in front of the target and thus giving him the motivation he needs – he becomes a member of the Fraternity (Barber & Bekmambetov, 2008). These sorts of dangerous tests Wesley endures are common to tales of rites of passage, both historical and mythological (Valk, 2005, para 14), and also to the sorts of trials that Campbell’s hero must undergo along his path (Leonard & McClure, 2004, 17).
Another important step in the hero’s journey is facing death (Leeming, 1990, 219), which indeed is another of the rites of passage that Valk describes, making the distinction that death is not simply “the end of life”, but a time of change and often of rebirth (2005, para 18). In Wanted that symbolic death comes at the end of the scene in which Wesley is hunting the man he thinks killed his father, and Fox is in fact hunting Wesley under Sloan’s orders. The train they are on has derailed, killing dozens of innocent people, and Wesley, Cross – who he learns is not his father’s assassin but is in fact his father – and Fox are on a car that has slid into a deep ravine. Upon learning the truth, Wesley shoots out the glass beneath himself and his father’s body, plummeting into the river below (Barber & Bekmambetov, 2008). This is not only a physical descent, but a rebirth for Wesley. He knows the truth now, and can return to the world he left with that gained knowledge.
There are indeed many themes in Barber and Bekmambetov’s Wanted, but when one looks at it from a mythological standpoint, it’s quite easy to see the symbols of Campbell’s journey of a hero and Gennep’s rites of passage. From his inconsequential birth and his anonymous life, to the momentous and remarkable changes that he undergoes during his training and testing with the Fraternity, to the fateful realizations upon his rebirth as he reclaims his life from those that would control it, Wesley Gibson travels the journey of a hero, surviving his rites of passage and overcoming obstacles to become a man in control of his own destiny.
Barber, G. (Producer) & Bekmambetov, T. (Director). (2008). Wanted [Motion picture]. United States. Universal Pictures.
Leeming, D.A. (1990). The World of Myth. New York: Oxford University Press.
Leonard, S. & McClure, M. (2004). Myth & Knowing. New York: McGraw Hill.
Valk, U. (2005). Cross-curricular initiatives in HUMN351. Module 3. Document posted in University of Maryland University College HUMN 351 7380 online classroom, archived at: http://webtycho.umuc.edu