Rediscovering the superhero genre’s quiet innovator
Some movies are simply ahead of their time.
In fact, some are so revolutionary that audiences are just not ready for them. The consensus often conditions the way in which we react to a particular movie. Over time we bow to expectation, become tied to convention, and if a movie fails to hit the right notes we find ourselves immune to its particular tune. We reject it outright.
That was very much the case for me upon discovering M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a superhero movie that struck me as anything but as a teenager, and one that had been relegated to the recesses of my mind until just recently. The fact that a sequel has now been released in 2019’s Glass left me feeling unusually intrigued, as did the discovery that it is actually part of a trilogy along with 2016’s Split. I’m not the biggest fan of superhero movies or superheroes in general. I’ve always had a soft spot for The Punisher due to a brief flirtation with a 1990 comic book series, and the X-Men‘s perennial themes of prejudice and alienation have proved enough of a draw to keep me coming back, as has Batman’s darker sense of personal conflict, but other than that I can take it or leave it.
Still, by the turn of the millennium the nature of superhero movies had been well established in my mind, and certain self-imposed boundaries had been set. The genre would evolve to accommodate social and political changes — that’s only natural — but I was unable to yield to anything out of the ordinary beyond that. Ultimately, there was a specific criteria that I felt must be met. Regardless of all else, superhero movies had to be fast-paced, action-packed and crammed full of special effects; a slow-burning, distinctly human tale was something that just didn’t compute. When was Unbreakable planning to break out the magic cape or x-ray vision? The answer, I would soon discover, was never.
Shyamalan was coming off the back of sleeper hit and box office phenomenon The Sixth Sense, a movie with the kind of twist ending that set tongues wagging, so people inevitably turned out for his latest effort after producers decided to market Unbreakable in the very same mode. Since the superhero genre was still considered a niche market, a concerted effort was made to distance the picture from all comic book connotations, a move that would ultimately confuse audiences when they realised that comic books and superheroes were woven into the very fabric of the story. Unbreakable did good numbers, not superhero numbers, and the expected trilogy never materialised (much to the chagrin of stars Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, who both pushed for a franchise from the very beginning). Still, for a movie seemingly lacking any conventional identity, it proved both a critical and commercial success in its own right.
According to an interview with Shyamalan, a sequel was dependent on how well Unbreakable would fare at the box office, but with the studio unwilling to promote it as a superhero movie, what chance would they have of competing with those of the more flamboyant variety, and how would they rectify their marketing strategy if and when the time came? Compared with X-Men released just a few months prior, Unbreakable was a passing wind commercially, the former’s numbers more conducive to the makings of global franchise, and so began the long and uneventful interim, one that saw the rise of Christopher Nolan and a trilogy of movies that gave the genre a compelling injection of realism. Christian Bale’s Dark Knight was portrayed as a super human, rather than a superhuman, and an immensely flawed one at that. With origins tale Batman Begins, we felt Bruce Wayne’s physical and emotional struggle every misguided step of the way.
Elijah Price: It’s hard for many people to believe that there are extraordinary things inside themselves, as well as others. I hope you can keep an open mind.
In a post-Christopher Nolan climate, it is hard to imagine just how groundbreaking and ahead of its time Shyamalan’s anti-superhero movie was upon its release, but after revisiting all these years later it is startling to say the least. The movie wasn’t a money-spinning, visual spectacular in the Batman Begins mode. It didn’t provide us with a plethora of cool gadgets or breathtaking special effects sequences, and it wasn’t laced with modern CGI. What it did do is present its protagonist as markedly human, a fact made even more incredible by the fact that Bruce Willis’ David Dunn — a mortal name if ever I’ve heard one — was distinctly superhuman, possessing the kind of fantasy powers that were alien to Bruce Wayne. One of the reasons I always had a preference for Batman over the likes of Spiderman is the fact that he possessed no special powers. He was a human being acting in a superhuman way. Unbreakable’s protagonist is superhuman, he just needs to be convinced of that fact, as he is reluctant to see himself as anything other than an average guy with particularly sharp instincts.
To get an idea of how innovative Shyamalan’s movie was upon its release, you have to look at everything in the superhero vein that came before. By the year 2000, cinema’s love affair with comic book adaptations was well underway. Today’s oversaturation was still years ahead, but some of the medium’s biggest draws had already been adapted for the silver screen, with many more geared up for production as the CGI revolution took flight. Bryan Singer’s X-Men would be the franchise that flew superhero fans into the 21st century, a movie with much meatier themes than audiences were used to, but before that particular franchise taught us that superhero movies could be much more than colourful suits and mawkish resolutions, the genre would a adopt a less challenging ethical guise.
Christopher Reeves’ naively patriotic Superman would dominate the 1980s until Cannon’s punt at mainstream success left the franchise in tatters. A poster boy for the American Dream during an era of Cold War paranoia, Superman was a wholesome hero who children could get behind. A character whose only real conflict lay with his alter-ego Clark Kent’s battle with cowardice and self-belief, Superman was a hero of simple delineations who dished out retribution like a freshly baked apple pie. However, by the time Cannon’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace hit theatres, James Bond was getting the 15 certificate treatment, and audiences in general had matured. So poorly received was the third sequel that it relegated the franchise to the commercial doldrums, ultimately contributing to Cannon’s financial collapse along with children’s cartoon adaptation Masters of the Universe. By the turn of the ’90s, Superman’s salt of the earth values had become well and truly passé.
With the squeaky-clean Superman franchise no longer cutting the mustard, Warner Brothers would turn to darker waters as it looked to freshen the superhero formula and establish its next cultural goldmine. Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was a less conventional figure than the wholesome Clark Kent — a billionaire playboy with a deep-burning vigilante streak. This was pre-Christopher Nolan, so Christian Bale’s distinctly human incarnation of The Dark Knight was an approach that was so far unheard of, but with Keaton’s quasi-socialite and Jack Nicholson’s devilish portrayal of the psychologically unhinged Joker, in some ways the genre would mature, regardless of the Gothic fancies and occasional camp of Tim Burton’s aesthetic vision. The director’s 1991 sequel Batman Returns would evolve the genre even further, featuring Danny DeVito’s often savage depiction of the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman — the latter a ditsy secretary turned amoral avenger who blurred the lines between good and evil in a manner that was starkly uncommon.
Elijah Price: It’s alright to be afraid, David, because this part won’t be like a comic book. Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.
Batman would descend deeper into the gaudy ’60s mire as the decade progressed, Joel Schumacher’s glorified Disney On Ice ballet Batman and Robin seeing the genre regress, but by the middle of the decade the superhero movie had been given something of a facelift overall, movies such as Sam Raimi’s quasi-adaptation Darkman and Alex Proyas’ ultra-violent fantasy The Crow both adopting a more adult tone. Even the notoriously violent 2000 AD strip Judge Dredd was given the Hollywood treatment with a Sly Stallone action vehicle that was firmly in the R-rated category. With the vampiric Blade on the horizon, along with X-Men’s revolutionary shift towards more relevant social themes, the superhero movie had come of age, but the reality-based, adult-oriented Batman Begins was still a half-decade away, and superhero movies were still draped in camp fantasy. They were self-aware, tied to grandiose costumes and set-design, and always with an element of humour to lighten the load.
That’s where Unbreakable differs. As a precursor for the genre’s post-millennial evolution, Shyamalan’s subdued slow-burner has proven a huge innovator. First off, it relinquishes the self-reflexive irony of its predecessors, refusing to portray its protagonist as fantastical or tied to the realms of the overtly unreal, instead chaining him to the very real struggles of marriage, and how such abilities can manifest negatively in everyday reality. It portrays comic books as being intrinsic to our nature, not some alien phenomenon reserved solely for entertainment purposes. It portrays superpowers as an extension of humanity, superheroes as seemingly regular people who go unnoticed, whose abilities are suppressed by our sceptical nature, or are simply rejected outright. Because why wouldn’t they be?
Willis’ David Dunn is a strangely subdued soul whose unspoken sense of unfulfillment leads to problems with his family. Day-to-day he is a security guard with an unusual proclivity for sniffing out danger, but after miraculously surviving a train wreck that leaves everyone else dead, he begins to question himself. Almost immediately afterwards, he is contacted by Samuel L. Jackson’s inimitable art dealer, Elijah Price, a character ironically daubed in decidedly comic book attire. Elijah also possesses unique capacities, though the kind that are not so beneficial. While Dunn struggles to remember a time in his life when he was sick, Elijah has the kind of brittle bones that have earned him the nickname Mr Glass. While Dunn has an unusual tendency towards survival, Price spends most of his life in and out of hospital. The fact that they are opposites on the same spectrum fascinates Price. He has been looking for Dunn for as long as he can remember.
As a bullied child who becomes afraid of everyday activity, a young Elijah finds solace and meaning in the boundaries of comic book fantasy. Existing in a world that he is unable to adapt to, he instead finds commonality in the unique and conflicted worlds of larger-than-life superheroes, the kind who come to represent reality in a way that humanity never could. Still, for a character who is plagued by a rare, yet very real and sobering condition, it is the human element that consumes him, a fact punctuated by an early scene in which he highlights the reality beneath the bravado, stressing the difference between an artist’s original, decidedly human sketch and those later exaggerated for the comic book’s release. In David Dunn, Elijah discovers the human manifestation of his beliefs and speculations, a person with powers that go unfulfilled, but which have resulted a very specific and coincidental vocation: the protection of human life.
Elijah Price: Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here. That’s – that’s just an awful feeling.
Willis is pitch-perfect as the quietly oppressed Dunn, in what is the fourth movie to star both him and Samuel L. Jackson (if you include Bruce’s brief cameo in spoof misfire Loaded Weapon 1). Pulp Fiction is the most obvious, and any movie featuring the two will always be a reminder of Tarantino’s cultural revelation, however far detached the material in question. Ironically, the last of those preceding three was Die Hard With a Vengeance, a movie featuring a character who marked a similar change in type. Willis would help revolutionize the action genre in the late 1980s with his portrayal of everyman John McClane, a deeply flawed character who would defy the muscles-to-burn formula in favour of human relatability. McClane is a reluctant hero who views himself as anything but. The fact that he consistently achieves the impossible is hardly registered. Like Dunn, he is simply doing his job in the only way he knows how.
The way in which Dunn comes to understand and accept his superhuman abilities is executed sublimely. Through a series of mini conflicts with his enamoured offspring, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), a person free of adult cynicism, as well as interactions with his distant yet ever-loving ex, Audrey (Robin Wright), David comes to realise that he is unlike everyone else, and what was once a niggling feeling becomes a very relevant issue. Visions of men carrying guns with black handles are no longer professional observations or the result of acute instincts, they are real-life visualisations owing to extrasensory capabilities. Much like Neo in The Matrix, David comes to understand what is apparent to others last of all, but once he does it becomes second nature. Those things he was once so quick to repudiate are exposed as a core part of his being that represent his true calling, one that has been hovering around the edges for as long as he can recall, and after he is sketched as a mysterious, cloaked individual following an anonymous feat of bravery, the subtle transformation is complete.
Perhaps owing to the successful shock factor of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable features a twist of its own, one that speaks to the kind of duality found in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight almost a decade later — and it works, providing the perfect set-up for a sequel that could have more closely resembled comic book convention. Having become synonymous with shock pay-offs, Shyamalan’s career would flounder during the rest of the noughties. Although the following decade would prove something of a renaissance for the out-of-favour director, we would wait an incredible 16 years for Unbreakable to reenter the public consciousness, Split arriving at a time when the modern superhero movie is in danger of become passé.
With the recently released Glass featuring both Jackson and Willis, it has taken a total of 19 years for Unbreakable to get the more direct sequel it deserved. It is rare, particularity in today’s saturated market, that a superhero sequel would pique my interest, but for the first time in a very long time my head has been turned. Still, call it a niggling feeling, a sixth sense, or one of the many intangible human feelings that we find ourselves entertaining, but something tells me it has arrived just a little too late in the day.
At least, that is what I have been conditioned to believe.