Superheroes are an incantation of human ideas. We superimpose our hopes and fantasies in these god-like figures to vicariously live out the wanton needs we often desire: flight, strength, speed, etc. Yet, their condition is deceiving. Like the complexity of glass—a strong yet fragile, concealing yet transparent, soft yet harmful material—we can view our superheroes much in the same way. They possess in themselves the ability to shield, protect, and guard us. They are seemingly infallible and unblemished. The sun moves freely through them, warming us with an undeniable sense of safety and security. Yet, in them also lives something volatile and broken. Their insecurities, vulnerabilities and fear are often the catalyst that leads to the demise of the people they’ve sworn to protect. But, am I really saying anything that you haven’t already heard or seen in a movie or show regarding comic book heroes? All of this, superheroes, super villains, and comic books have all grown rather…stale. We now find ourselves inundated in an ocean of glass. Shards of generic guardians and forgettable villains brazenly mirroring each other are now shattering on the frenzied shores of our minds. Hero fatigue and the tranquil chaos of drowning, is definitely taking place. But, iridescent and bright, as light passes through the ruins of our heroes, a prism dream illuminates our shipwrecked brains and new original heroes do indeed save us from our dire state. I want to talk about a movie that is not shaped or confined by the money-making formula that has made Marvel and DC the hulking entertainment juggernauts that they are today. Instead, I want to talk about the greatest superhero movie you’ve probably never seen.
Written, produced and directed by M. Night Shymalan, yes, that M. Night Shymalan, this is probably one of the few all around perfect superhero movies ever made. This film traverses all facets of the heroes’ journey from realizing and believing in the existence of our hero’s powers, to discovering his weaknesses to eventually coming face to face with his evil arch-nemesis, creating what is arguably one of the best fully fleshed out super villains we’ve ever seen on film, TV or in any comic book to date.
Our hero, David Dunn (played by Bruce Willis), is a low level security guard going through marital problems causing him to be distant to both his wife Audrey (played by Robin Wright) and his son Joseph (played by Spencer Treat Clark). Like many, he cannot escape the feeling that his life was meant for so much more. Purpose sits heavy in him but after a catastrophic train accident, of which he is the only survivor, suffering no injuries, events are set in motion that will allow him to finally grasp that purpose. It is here where we are introduced to Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book obsessed man who believes that David can be a real life superhero. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Elijah has a rare disease called Type I Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which is a rare disease that makes his bones break easily. With Elijah at one end of the spectrum, he believes that the natural world must have created his polar opposite; essentially, an unbreakable man. Understandably, David is skeptical of Elijah and his ideas regarding heroes, villains and super powers, but with the help of David’s son Joseph, they both proceed to try and convince David of his new found purpose. Now, on paper, this doesn’t sound very original or even moderately compelling for a superhero movie. It is however in its portrayal of the human side of the supernatural predicament that makes the film extraordinary. This film is more than just a story about superhero discovery; it is a film about brokenness, sacrifice, finding a place in the world and family.
Set in a cold and colorless vision of Philadelphia, the bleak setting sets the perfect tone for the pace and process of this film. It is as dreary and deliberate as the weather. And unlike Marvel or DC’s incessant need for flash and spectacle, Unbreakable trades explosions for character development, realism and intimacy. Its story is uncompromising and, more importantly, unencumbered by the constraints of any preconceived mythology or lore that Marvel or DC films are bound to. This film is more akin to the realistic and serious mood of DC’s catalogue of films than the lighthearted and colorful Marvel movies. But, unlike the brooding atmosphere of DC’s films, which are again, to a certain degree, weighed down by their own history, Shymalan has created a truly authentic and believable superhero fable within a real world setting. Ironically, he’s constructed the perfect film adaptation of a comic book movie from the ground up, without necessarily treading the dangers of source material, adaption, and diehard fans. Using all the signature narrative beats and usual thematic tropes of a comic book film, as noted above, he then molds and shapes them within the constructs of this film’s borders, avoiding any awkward stylistic translations. While we can praise Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy for being an excellent realistic/modern take on the superhero genre, which they are, we also have to look at them through a pseudo-realistic lens that tells us, this is still a man running around at night dressed as a bat. With Unbreakable, we don’t have to make those excuses or lapses in belief, despite the more supernatural approach to our hero’s powers in this film—which the explanation of their existence itself comes off as believable and real—M. Night Shymalan gives us the closest thing to a real superhero story than we’ve ever seen before.
This film however, would not reach the heights of authenticity and realism without the performances of its actors; most notably, the performance of Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price. Price is essentially the physical personification of frailty, weakness and pain and Jackson expertly injects such hopelessness into every word he speaks. He is plagued by the feeling of not belonging and not having a place in the world. Like most villains, his motivation stems from a universal sense of opposition, as if the world at large is opposed to his very existence. Jackson however, counters Price’s physical and emotional fragility with an eccentric brilliance and strength, masking at first, Price’s underlying evil motivations. He serves at first as David’s (and our) spiritual guide through his hero’s journey. Through Price, we learn of David’s super strength, a healing factor, a superior immune system, and apparent invincibility. Again, through Price, we also learn that David possess extra sensory perception, allowing him to see previous crimes that people have committed simply by touching them. This then leads David to his first mission against “The Orange Man”, a brutish janitor who is holding a family hostage in their own home. We also learn that as a child, David almost drowned, thus leading Price to discover that like Superman’s kryptonite, because of the density and weight of David’s bones, he is more likely to sink making water his weakness. It is in this encounter with the orange man, that we see all of David’s powers and weaknesses on full display. As David prevails, an air of hope, contentment and certainty fills the frame. Elijah, admitting to almost giving up all hope, extends his hand out to congratulate David. In typical M. Night Shymalan fashion, when their hands touch, David sees that Elijah was the one who had caused the train accident which he survived, as well as countless other disastrous acts, killing hundreds of people all in search of him, his complete opposite, the unbreakable. He continues as the score rises behind his words: “I should have known way back when…because of the kids…they called me Mr. Glass.” And it is all clear. In the plainest of terms, we see the relationship between Batman and the Joker, Lex Luthor and Superman, Professor X and Magneto are all perfectly explained at this moment. It is a sense of purpose and belonging that often drives these mad men to do what they do. For Elijah, his hope was in the hero he helped create through violence and chaos. He found joy in knowing he wasn’t a mistake and that he through David belonged in the world. His purpose now is simple, be the villain to ensure that David will be the hero he helped create.
There is so much more to unpack from this film. Three scenes between David and his son Joseph will leave you utterly breathless. They are beautifully shot and emotionally taxing. Often, without even speaking a word, the looks one shares with the other are more touching and emotional than anything in the film. This pair is definitely the heart that continues to pump life through the story, helping us to continually invest and care about these real people captured on screen. Its amazing. Go watch this movie!
I'll leave you guys with this:
What are your thoughts? If you’ve seen this movie, what did you think? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Is it worth a sequel? A trilogy? Please share your thoughts below.
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