If nothing else, accepting a role in Wanted, the outrageously violent and seriously R-rated action movie that is fast becoming a phenomenon at the box office, was a good career move for James McAvoy.
Had he not played Wesley Gibson, a cubicle-drone-turned-assassin, so well, he might have had to continue building his resumé in children's fantasies like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or in complex period dramas like Atonement and The Last King of Scotland. In short, he might have become Colin Firth-someone respected by critics and beloved by female moviegoers, but whose name draws blank stares from the majority of males between the ages of 18 and 30.
There's no danger of that happening now. It's not just that McAvoy is a far better actor than most action-movie leads, or that his costar is Angelina Jolie-the pinup girl for over-the-top tattoos and gun-toting. It's that Wanted taps into the same fears and fantasies that made Fight Club and The Matrix favorites among a huge number of young and not-so-young men.
All of them share a similar plot arc. A seemingly useless pushover who is bored with his job discovers he has power that he will eventually unleash to the shock and awe of the world.
Fight Club's protagonist begins as a sad-sack claims adjuster who doesn't even warrant a name. In The Matrix, Thomas Anderson's cog-in-the-machine job of computer programmer is revealed to be a coverup for his even more wretched role in life-human battery. And as Wanted opens, Wesley thinks his father abandoned him as a baby because he "took one look in my baby blue eyes and wondered if he'd just fathered the most insignificant [expletive] of the 21st century." Men's movies have always featured larger-than-life heroes, but never before have those heroes started out so small.
And it is that smallness-a smallness that is not an act in the vein of Clark Kent or Peter Parker, but rather a deep self-loathing-of which Wanted relieves its main character. The story proves that Wesley is greater than the sum of a broke accountant with panic attacks and an unfeeling, cheating girlfriend. He and his cinematic predecessors may look like pallid scrawny guys in cheap ties, but after intensive training with fists and firearms, the nameless insurance man will become the revolutionary Tyler Durden. The plain-named Anderson will become Neo. And Wesley Gibson will become the greatest trained killer of a 1,000-year-old fraternity of trained killers.
The problem is that the only kind of significance films like Wanted offer comes through dominating others. At least Fight Club dared to question whether that kind of significance is anything more than self-delusion. Wanted never does. The film ends (spoiler alert) with Wesley shooting his adversary through the head and turning to the camera to issue this challenge: "Six weeks ago, I was ordinary and pathetic, just like you. This is me taking back control of my life. What have you done lately?" Heaven forbid any viewers rise to his boast.
Taken alone, this latest in the growing genre of little big men (to borrow from the Dustin Hoffman classic) doesn't amount to much more than a masochistic if clever adrenaline ride. But taken in the context of other films that have specially resonated with young males, we have to wonder just how quietly desperate many of them are that they should identify with such characters. How little opportunity does our culture offer them to feel deserving of respect? And what have we done lately to show them a better, lasting path to significance?