Kitsch and camp were two ways to describe the mainstream superhero offerings of the 1990’s, which was dominated by Batman films, such as Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns and Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. These superhero iterations included a dash of Bat-nipples and a sprinkling of Bat-credit cards—a far cry from Christopher Nolan’s seminal and grounded take on the winged-hero with The Dark Knight trilogy. But before Nolan had his bite of the cherry, a young director named M. Night Shyamalan, off the back of his absurdly successful breakout ghost flick The Sixth Sense, decided it was time comic books and superheroes were taken seriously.
From the outset, Shyamalan calls the audience’s attention to the phenomena of comics and their credibility as an art form. Unbreakable opens with a title card presenting the facts about comic books, for example, “172,000 comics are sold in the U.S. every day. Over 62,780,000 each year”. Shyamalan simultaneously situates comics as a popular art form, hence giving them credibility, and by doing so is removing the childish stigma that surrounded comics and the comic book movies in the 90’s. To distance Unbreakable even further from this—there were no leotards or an abundance of CGI that comics fans witnessed earlier in 2000 with Marvel’s X-Men—Shyamalan instead told a tale of a man whose powers lend him a raison d’être, enabling him to be excavated from marital and mid-life slumber.
Shyamalan’s transformative take on the superhero genre occurred nineteen years before superhero films would reign supreme over box office takings, with six of the top ten highest grossing films worldwide in 2018 belonging to the superhero genre. Looking back at Unbreakable, it can be seen as a deconstruction of the superhero genre, although there were only the bare bones of a genre to deconstruct. It is as if McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Wild Bunch were made before Stagecoach, an alternative approach and a critique on a genre which will go on to create and lean heavily the very tropes that they are upending.
Unbreakable tells the tale of David Dunn (Bruce Willis) a middle-aged security guard who belatedly realises he is invulnerable, due to the perseverance of comic connoisseur Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), after he is the only survivor of a fatal train wreck. This glacially paced story is all meticulously planned and executed by Shyamalan whose camerawork resembles a more visually flashy and slick Hitchcock. Through visual motifs of reflections and inversions of images, everything is not as it seems. Mr. Glass collapsing down the subway steps being a sumptuous example, with the camera gradually rotating 360 degrees, adding to the disorientation of the story.
Willis’ sombre portrait of a man wading through treacle, until deep hidden powers unleash his inner vigilante, is remarkably restrained—which is required against Jackson’s superb but exaggerated performance. They are each other’s foil, Jackson the flair and Willis the gravitas. One without the other and the balance tips to either po-faced or a replica of what has come before. This dynamic is paramount in order for the film to work and is emphasized in the film’s denouement. Where Jackson uses all his charisma to sell the, perhaps galumphing, dialogue of “in a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain is going to be? He’s the exact opposite to the hero”. While WIllis looks solemnly on, their relationship is the ballast of Unbreakable.
Where Unbreakable succeeds (and where future attempts at the ‘serious’ superhero film will fail) is its singular vision and story. Once the 106 minutes of the runtime is over there are fully formed arcs and, despite the twist ending, the narrative reaches its patiently earned conclusion. The film’s subdued atmosphere and low stakes nature also sets this apart from what came before and after, with almost all superhero films relying on extravagant action set-pieces. Shyamalan commits to the low stakes of the film even during the film’s climax. Which involves a single, one-minute long, high angle shot of Dunn choking his intended target. This claustrophobic and prolonged sequence exemplifies Unbreakable’s strength as a tightly wound thriller and is emblematic of Shyamalan bravura filmmaking.
There are no aliens falling through portals in the sky, no crumbling CGI-skyscrapers, just human-sized stakes that matter tremendously to these characters. The emotional investment in Dunn’s personal journey is equal or even paramount to any of Marvel or DC’s green screen bonanzas. Shyamalan does this through, simply just, spending time with Dunn and his family. The patience Shyamalan has to eschew tropes that would later become ingrained into the genre, and instead focus on the select traumas that Dunn, his wife, child and Mr. Glass, have to face.
Shyamalan continued crafting stories of, select persons traumas through his subsequent sequels of Unbreakable, with 2016’s Spilt and 2019’s Glass. Although sixteen and nineteen years on, respectively, they both still feature Shyamalan’s aberrant, askew take on the superhero genre. Through the years, he has been able adapt to the current climate of superhero films and divert from the norm and offer audiences a visual treat and thematic motifs that they have not witnessed before.
There is a reason why Unbreakable is continuously flirting near the top spot for best superhero film ever made, partly due to its maturity offering a differing insight into the superhero genre; or maybe it’s because it is emblematic of a once creator friendly industry. Where Robert Zemeckis and Sam Raimi could produce original films—with What Lies Beneath and The Gift. Now to find work in Hollywood, Zemeckis and Raimi have to sign up to banal, algorithmically decided re-makes or franchise installments. Although, there is perhaps a craving to return to an era of original storytelling in Hollywood, which is why Shyamalan’s name still holds such significance.
Despite Shyamalan’s critical fall from grace, he consistently created unique and original films, and Unbreakable is perhaps the perfect distillation of Shyamalan’s eccentricities and storytelling craft. With Unbreakable, he was able to invert expectations of what a superhero film could be aesthetically and tonally, while still crafting a film that was way ahead of the curve. Despite numerous attempts to reinvent the wheel, no filmmaker has quite matched the perplexing realism that Shyamalan deployed 20 years ago.