It’s hard now today to imagine the comic book movie genre being dead, with the tons of sequels, reboots, Netflix TV Shows, spin-off TV shows, prequels, and crossing universe movies that are constantly being pumped out of the Hollywood machine. If anything, it’s oversaturated today. But that was not the case in the early 2000s, for the genre was fairly empty, many moviemakers believing there was no interest in it anymore. It was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 that led to the resurgence of superhero films, and that shows no signs of stopping here in 2015.
In 2000, M. Night Shyamalan was hot off the heels of his massive hit The Sixth Sense. A hit which his career has yet to repeat. If anything, his career has been declining sadly ever since. However, Unbreakable stands as an underrated masterpiece, (despite the tacked on “twist” ending) equal to The Sixth Sense. It is often overlooked as one of M. Night Shyamalan’s few great films.
What is especially popular with superhero films today is to make it “gritty”. The original Spider-Man was splashy, over-the-top, as if the pages from the comics were ripped and put on screen. That changed with Christopher Nolan’s incredible Batman trilogy. His dark and gritty trilogy aimed to rip Batman away from Joel Schumacher’s Bat Nipples shlock and put it in our real world. What if Batman was in OUR world? And it worked. Other superhero films quickly followed suit, trying to evoke the realistic edge of the Nolan trilogy by making the colors of their films equally dark as the writing. This doesn’t always work for every superhero, though. Perhaps notably, the latest Superman films.
While Christopher Nolan successfully put Batman in the gritty realities of our world, Unbreakable does so in tenfold. Unbreakable truly takes the idea of superheroes in our world. Or, as Quentin Tarantino put it in an interview, Unbreakable is about: “What if Superman was here on earth but didn’t know he was Superman?”
It is a bit different than Watchmen, which was another deconstruction of the genre, also taking a look at the idea of “What if superheroes were in our world?” Watchmen took the traditional superhero tropes and subverted them, but it still has all the aspects of a superhero film that we like to see. The stylized action sequences that are not, well, very “real world” at all. Unbreakable truly explores what it would be like if superheroes walked our streets. What would they be like?
Unbreakable is a sincere and moving attempt to recreate the superhero movie as a quietly epic tale of self-discovery and realization. And it works amazingly well. Unbreakable follows an ordinary man, with a failing marriage and son, who works as a security guard. David Dunn (our hero has an alliteration for a name, like many others Peter Parker, Richard Reed, etc.) becomes the only survivor, without a scratch, of a tragic train accident. He slowly discovers, with the help of Elijah Price (the anthesis of him, who has highly breakable bones and is dubbed “Mr. Glass.”) that he has never been sick a day in his life, and never truly physically hurt. In short, he is a modern day superhero.
What is so striking about the film is how slow, solemn, and methodical the film is. David Dunn’s realization that he isn’t like others doesn’t per se fill him with confidence, but with a sadness and dread. He is aware that he is burdened with a separation from society that will change the outcome of his life. Here the famous line from Spider-Man does come into play “With great power, comes great responsibility.”” What will David choose to do with this power? For he is now ultimately responsible for helping save lives or not. As with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan uses long takes and artful compositions to create an overall mood that is heavy with both loss and uncertainty.
Unbreakable embraces aspects of superhero traditions, mythology, and stereotypes but translates them to make sense in our world. His “costume” is his security guard raincoat (that looks quite like a cape in many shots). His friend becomes his arch enemy. Discovering his powers occurs in a slow and steady scene where his son loads up his weights, and he realizes he can bench up to 350 pounds. (500 in a deleted scene)
This all culminates to the final climax, where David follows a suspicious man to a home, only to discover that he has been holding the family hostage, tied up. Tortured for days, possibly weeks. It is an eerily unsettling scene, one that brings to mind films from today like Zodiac or Prisoners. For isn’t that who the villains of our world are? Serial killers, psychopaths, strangers that break into innocent people’s homes, steal children, murder for fun?
If you are a fan of superhero films, definitely check out Unbreakable. It is a fascinating and complex character study, an incredibly unique take and translation of superhero genre. If you are a fan of the gritty looks that the Nolan trilogy brought to superhero films, you will enjoy the tone of Unbreakable. In my opinion, a highly underrated classic that is worth taking a relook with this huge boom of superhero films.