I saw Wanted over the weekend, and I liked it. I accept that it was a bad, bad movie, but it’s a bad movie that turned out more awesome than it had any right to, and was super fun. I like actionish movies, and superheroish movies, and this fit the bill.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Wanted stars James McAvoy as Wesley Gibson, a 20-something guy with a horrible office job, mean boss, whiny cheating girlfriend, a best friend/coworker who is banging said girlfriend, and fourteen dollars in his checking account. Until, that is, he is kidnapped by Angelina Jolie and informed that he’s descended from The Fraternity, an ancient order of super-assassins who can curve bullets, leap between the tops of skyscrapers with ease, and whose bodies produce so much adrenaline that their hearts beat 400 times a minute. One of their members has gone rogue and murdered Wesley’s long-lost dad, and Wesley is the only one who can avenge his death. Wesley joins them, is trained, and learns about the Loom of Fate: a massive room-sized loom that delivers instructions on who the Fraternity must kill via a binary code. The Loom’s orders are interpreted and delivered by Chief Assassin Sloan, played by a dapper Morgan Freeman.
Lest we be squeamish about protagonists who just roam around using their superpowers to murder people in cold blood, Angelina Jolie’s character gives us a nice piece of plot exposition about the power and importance of the Loom of Fate. She tells Wesley a story of how “a little girl” was tied up and forced to watch as a mobster tied up her father -a hard-hitting federal judge- and burned him alive. The mobster then took a coat hanger, heated it in the fire he’d set, and branded his initials into the little girl’s neck. When Angelina joined the assassins, she discovered that the mobster’s name had come up on the loom several weeks before the girl’s father was killed, but that a fraternity member had failed to take him out. (Then, her hair swings back -wait, are those initials? OMG, could the “little girl” have been her? What a shocker!) The message is clear: if the Fraternity doesn’t do its job, unspeakable things will happen. To tiny Angelina Jolie! Wesley can’t let that happen.
All regular readerati know that my thoughts tend, in any situation, to turn to law. (LOVE law. Love it.) This being no exception, I got to thinking about Loom of Fate, which is not so much fate as -wait for it- law! It governs the Fraternity’s actions, but not through force. Its instructions are interpreted by Sloan and carried out by the individuals who are governed by it: the Fraternity members. Just like law! So exciting!
(WARNING: Spoilers ahead. Spoily Spoily Spoilers. Do not continue reading if you don’t want to know what happens in the movie. Seriously. I am going to reveal the big twist. I am not kidding.)
So, in the final third of the movie, we learn that Wesley has been cruelly manipulated. The Fraternity did not send him to hunt and kill his father’s assassin, they sent him to kill his father. Which he does, and only realizes his mistake when it is already too late. And then Angelina Jolie slinks in and shoots at him, and he falls into an Italian gorge and wakes up in a magical bathtub in Chicago.
As it turns out, the entire belief system in which the Fraternity operates has been hijacked by Sloan for personal gain. Sloan, Wesley discovers, has been ignoring the Loom of Fate and assassinating for fun and profit instead. The other Fraternity members relied on Sloan to decipher the Loom’s code and give them their orders, so were unable to discover the duplicity for themselves. All, that is, except Wesley’s father. He, for reasons unknown, had begun to second-guess Sloan’s interpretation of the Loom of Fate’s orders. After discovering Sloan’s duplicity, he set out to shut down the Fraternity, at which point Sloan recruited Wesley and sent him to kill his dad, because he knew that Wesley was the only person who his father wouldn’t kill.
When Wesley discovers this, he also finds one more key piece of information: a piece of cloth in which the Loom of Fate orders Sloan’s death. Gasp! He knows what he has to do: use explosive peanut butter rats to bring down the whole Fraternity. He and the rats get to work, exploding and fighting and generally kicking ass, until finally Wesley is trapped inside a ring of Fraternity assassins. He tells them what has been going on, and then Sloan comes in with a handfull of scraps from the Loom of Fate. And, OMG, each one has the name of one of the Fraternity members woven into it! The Loom of Fate ordered them all killed!
So, now the assassins have a dilemma. They can kill Wesley, abandon the code of the Fraternity and stop living by the Loom’s orders. Or they can continue to live by the Loom’s orders, which won’t last long because the Loom has ordered them all to die. (The third option -checking the pieces of cloth to see if Sloan was telling the truth- seems not to have occurred to anyone.) They choose option B, or rather Angelina Jolie’s character does, curving bullets around the room to kill every assassin, and then herself.
Now, I can’t help but think that this is the worst possible outcome. The assassins are all dead, so it’s bad for them. That leaves Sloan unprotected, which is bad for him (Wesley later kills him). Wesley never gets to kiss Angelina Jolie again, which is bad for him. And now all of the known Fraternity members are dead, presumably leaving chaos to reign unchecked, which must be bad for the Loom of Fate itself.
I think there is a lesson here, folks. And that lesson is that legal formalism leads to death and suffering, and should be avoided.
Let me explain. Assume that The Fraternity is a society, and that the Loom of Fate is its constitution. It certainly serves a constitutional role: it is the Fraternity’s central document (in cloth form), providing both the foundational theory for the group and guidance for its actions. The group has pre-committed to follow the Loom’s requirements, even if the practical effect is upsetting to them.
However, the document is not enough. There must also be a method of interpreting it, and this is where the Fraternity went wrong. Their interpretive methods were rigidly formalistic: whatever the loom said was taken absolutely literally. Worse, the means by which it was interpreted -Sloan cuts out a square of the cloth, translates the binary code, and informs the other Fraternity members of the Loom’s orders- contained no reasoned elaboration! There was no way for the other Fraternity members to second-guess or reinterpret the orders, because they were never given an explanation of Sloan’s reasoning. This, we know, led to big trouble for moose and squirrel: the assassins were duped into killing the wrong targets.
But then, presented with a situation in which departure from the Constitution has led to problems, but following it leads to greater ones, the members of The Fraternity do not question the validity of the document itself. No character ever asks whether the Loom of Fate could have been wrong, nor do they consider whether Sloan might be lying to them about the Loom ordering their deaths. They remain rigidly compliant with their pre-commitment to follow the loom’s orders, and they continue to accept Sloan’s interpretation as valid, despite proof that it, well, isn’t. This is stupid. It makes me think that they deserved to die, but also that the Loom of Fate shouldn’t have selected such dopes as its minions.
I think that the lesson here is clear, folks. If approached in your cubicle by a gang of superhero assassins, make sure to have your attorney look over any Loom of Fate clauses very carefully. Demand published, reasoned elaboration of all Loom of Fate decisions.
And, if you find yourself in a tough situation, remember this: the Loom of Fate is not a suicide pact. Sometimes you need a little legal realism. And if things get really tough, whip out your Critical Loom Theory. There is no weaving, only politics.
And if that doesn’t work, then remember the first rule of the Pirate Code: it’s more like guidelines, really.