Unbreakable at 20: the film that finally took superheroes seriously

M Night Shyamalan’s 2000 fantasy drama showed that superhero narratives can be told with patience and a straight face which changed the genre forever

If they gave awards for the dumbest expository title cards to open or conclude motion pictures – a lively ceremony, to be sure – 2000’s undisputed winner would have been Unbreakable. M Night Shyamalan’s superhero thriller begins with some fun facts about comic books, a then-70-year-old medium treated like a phenomenon as new and foreign to its time as internet porn.

“There are 35 pages and 124 illustrations in the average comic book. A single issue ranges in price from $1 to over $140,000. 172,000 comics are sold in the US every day. Over 62,780,000 each year. The average comic collector owns 3,312 comics and will spend approximately 1 year of his or her life reading them.” From the bizarre specificity of these questionably sourced statistics to the niggling incongruity that puts cents on one dollar amount and not the other to the impromptu multiplication lesson, it’s a precious gem of bad writing.

That said, it’s not hard to see where Shyamalan was coming from with this clumsy preamble. He released Unbreakable into a market not yet dominated by the capes-and-tights set, one with memories of Batman’s most recent 1990s iteration as a campy embarrassment, and that previous summer’s X-Men as a lucrative yet unsophisticated toy set. The writer-director had something to prove, angling to establish the superhero sub-genre as a legitimate strain of cinema to still-dubious audiences. He was successful in this pursuit; Unbreakable hit big with a $248m take, roundly positive critical notices, and an instant fanbase still beating the drum for the film today. History would diverge in the direction of Marvel and DC, however, and left Shyamalan’s take on the grown-up comic book picture a suggestion of an alternate timeline that never was.

The story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the Philadelphian security guard who finds he’s impervious to harm, announces itself early on as a grown-up take on what was then considered kid stuff. The first scene depicts eventual villain Elijah “Mr Glass” Price (Samuel L Jackson) as an infant born with brittle bones, an origin to match the one that comes right after, when David gets in the train crash that will leave him the lone survivor. Both scenes employ a distinctive formal trick, the former using mirrors to distort perception and the latter panning left and right to simulate a shot-reverse shot conversation obscured by train seats. Both techniques declare that all is not what it seems, that we’re not getting all the information in the right context. Moreover, these conspicuous flourishes let Shyamalan telegraph that he’s bringing a honed artistry to superheroics. He shrugged off the hyperkineticism and the candy-palette of primary colors associated with Superman and his cohort, going instead for something subdued and mature in slightly closer proximity to realism.

There’s no CGI-spectacle set piece to speak of here, no crumbling skyscrapers or civilians screaming their way through incineration. The largest act of mass destruction, the train crash, is elided with a simple edit and left off screen. The most dramatic fight takes place between David and a killer not introduced until that point – some guy, basically. The film offers a grounded, human-scaled narrative about a man slowly realizing he’s more than human, free of quips and derring-do. Its script insists on the maturity of comic-book lore, with Elijah as its mouthpiece. He runs an art gallery called Limited Edition, where Stan Lee prints hang on the walls like Van Goghs and buyers looking to purchase for their kids get chewed out for being philistines. In typically Shyamalanian fashion, it’s not subtle. If we take superhero stories seriously, they’ll rise to the occasion and be the great texts we want them to be.

Hollywood eventually caught up to Shyamalan’s ambitions for a darker breed of spandex cinema, as Christopher Nolan brought more durable philosophizing and elaborate action to his trilogy with the Caped Crusader. Like David and Elijah, Nolan’s Batman and Joker occupied opposite sides of a primal yin-yang, equal forces bringing balance to a chaotic universe. But from there, Unbreakable’s example started to fade, as DC’s output kept growing bigger and more blandly grim while the ascendant Marvel Cinematic Universe went for a lighter tone and shinier plastic aesthetic. In either case, they’re utterly divorced from the reined-in, intimate portraiture of uncomprehending David as he accepts his destiny. A mandate for the bloated sense of manufactured momentousness that turns $200m movies into billion-dollar paydays has left humbler methods behind, though Shyamalan’s $75m shooting budget would only be something to sneeze at by today’s inflated standard.

Even as Unbreakable went franchise with sequels Split and Glass in the late ‘10s, its creator held fast to the winning smallness of the original. (He made Split for a mere $9m, and Glass for $20m.) These films broke a cold streak for Shyamalan, getting him back in the public’s good graces with his twisty writing of contained proportions. They seem to come to us from another dimension, where the stakes don’t always have to be the fate of all existence. The private agonies and yearnings of a few select people has been more than enough.


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

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