The year was 2000. The Sixth Sense, an original psychological thriller by a then 28-year old M. Night Shyamalan, was the second-highest grosser the previous year, only to be surpassed by the fourth entry in one of the biggest film franchises of all time, Star Wars. Shyamalan – hailed as the next-Spielberg following the thumping critical and commercial success of The Sixth Sense – arrived with Unbreakable, opening a day before Thanksgiving. However, neither the audience nor the studio could precisely categorize Unbreakable, owing to the restrained action, which held it back from promoted as an action spectacle, and sparse horror, which refrained it from being the film the audience expected to see – a confluence of horror and psychological facets, akin to The Sixth Sense. In its true sense, Unbreakable is a superhero film, but not many knew it at the time of its release.
In an interview with the Rotten Tomatoes, while promoting Glass in 2019, Shayamalan recalled that comic books and superheroes were considered niche in 2000, restricting the appeal to a cult that celebrated them, and consequently prompting the studio to market the film as a psychological thriller to capitalize on the success of The Sixth Sense. Labeling the superhero genre niche and superhero fans a sect now seems far from accurate, but Tim Burton’s Batman, the zenith of the superhero genre at the box-office, was 11 years in the past. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was two years away from hitting screens, and two films that would eventually catapult the genre to box office glory – The Dark Knight and Iron Man – were eight summers away.
Unbreakable, although not based on one, is a comic book movie by every sense. It’s profoundly meta, and its beauty emanates from the very fact that the story weaves character motivation and perspectives using comic books, and doesn’t desist from ostentatiously expressing its love for them. The film respects comic books, like Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who strongly believes them to be an extension of historical documentation. As a film, too, from its color palate to symbolism, the film simultaneously abides by and breaks its comic nature and superhero conception. For instance, the main characters – David Dunn and Elijah Price – are distinguished using green and purple, respectively.
David Dunn is the sole survivor of a cataclysmic train accident that leaves 131 dead. Soon thereafter, he receives a letter from Elijah asking how many days has been sick in his life. The answer turns out to be zero, shedding light on the grey area of his life. The two meet, and Elijah bolsters David to ascertain his supernatural abilities: excessive physical strength coupled with extrasensory visions of people’s crimes when he touches them. David is the physically superior one, while Elijah is on the other end of the spectrum. The contrast is glaring, and one certainly wonders why Elijah is fixated with finding his polar opposite; he is too good to be real, even by fantastical superhero movie standards. The absence of a gargantuan adversary furthers our apprehension about Elijah’s genuity, and the Shyamalan-twist reveals that Elijah orchestrated multiple disasters, including David’s train accident, to find such a person of super strength.
“I mentioned the ending. I was not quite sold on it. It seems a little arbitrary, as if Shyamalan plucked it out of the air and tried to make it fit. To be sure, there are hints along the way about the direction the story may take,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert in his middling review. The hangover of The Sixth Sense was a major peril, especially the reveal. And the hints, unlike The Sixth Sense, are in your face, preparing the viewers for deceit. The viewer should have paid close attention when Elijah’s mother tells him “this one has a surprise ending,” early in the film. Perhaps that’s what made Unbreakable stick out like a sore thumb, neither in the zone of The Sixth Sense nor Die Hard With a Vengeance, which also starred Willis and Jackson. However, it scores high on cinematic merit, because it’s more of a film with its own voice and distinct style, as opposed to a by-the-book superhero movie.
With its classic three-act structure composing a conspicuous character drive that ends with the protagonist David Dunn taking his superhero identity, the film is an origin story. Contrarily, by acknowledging the presence of comic books, the films act as a critique of the influence of comics, creating an antithesis of the superhero genre.
In a way, Elijah is the protagonist of the film. The film opens with his mother, learning that her new-born son suffers from Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a genetic disorder that makes bones frangible. Elijah is frail as glass, an epithet that children of his age use to torment him. Alluding to his sobriquet, Elijah – both young and adult – are introduced as reflections on the glass.
His mother devises a method to ameliorate a lack of social life by placing a comic book in the play-area. She assures Elijah that he will be rewarded with a comic book every time he comes out of the house. Comic books become his doorway to the world, literally and figuratively.
The fantastical stories illuminate his mundane reality, and this facet is seamlessly stressed by the cinematography. When Elijah sees the comic book for the first time, it is upended. As he overturns it, the camera, too, upturns, foreshadowing that his life is about to dramatically change. Something similar happens when David’s son Joseph discovers that the train his father is supposedly traveling in met with a catastrophic accident on the television – a defining moment in his life. Here, the TV takes the spot of a comic book, alluding that his life is about to turn down-side up. Similarly, when Elijah follows a man David suspects of carrying a gun, he trips over the stairs of a subway, inverting his view, once again. As he finds that David’s suspicion is true, confirming his extrasensory power to percept possible danger, the shot alludes that his world is now back to the upside-down, having found his arch-nemesis, although neither the audience nor David knows this at that point.
By the same token, the film reverses the entire notion associated with superheroes and supervillains by making David, the physically undaunted hero, mentally brittle. His marriage is breaking, and his career isn’t thriving either; these are the two things he deliberately chose after quitting football, a sport he excelled at, to win his then-girlfriend. As a result, his morale is gradually depleting. When Joseph asks him to play football with his friends to prove that his reputation precedes him, David hesitantly draws back, indicating a lack of self-assurance. Until Elijah meets David, the latter’s life is as wearisome as Elijah’s before he took up comic-reading.
In contrast, Elijah’s cognitive abilities give him an edge over the psychologically feeble David. In an interaction, Elijah’s mother explains to David why the mentally stronger person is a bigger threat than a physically superior menace. Although Elijah is in the center of the frame during this conversation, he is out of focus – David’s perception of him is still cloudy, although he is omnipresent in David’s life. The first time we see David, he is leaning over the glass in the train; when he figures the train is heading for a disaster, the camera pans to show the view through the glass window, but what it’s exactly showing is not the external view, but the glass itself; when the two main characters meet, their interaction is filmed through a glass. Glasses, both reflective and refractive, are ubiquitous throughout the film.
The ending, too, is astonishingly simple. After David dons his superhero avatar, one would expect the film to reach crescendo with a massive showdown between good and evil. Instead, what we get is a long, quiet, haunted-house-esque stretch built on consternation as David tries to save a family held captive by a psychotic janitor. But the offender isn’t the villain, and owing to his insignificance, we neither know his name nor register his face. The real confrontation is reserved for the last, and it cannot be simpler: the superhero and supervillain indulging in a tête-à-tête in a comic art gallery.
These cues – both visual and verbal – are drawn from comics, but the conflict is perpetually grounded in the vulnerability of the human psyche, a rarity in modern day superhero movies. Unbreakable is, perhaps, the most comic-book-esque a comic book movie can ever get. Few superhero films in the past 20 years have reached the acme it set, and fewer will.