“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.”
Five years before Christopher Nolan popularized the “grounded in reality” superhero movie with his critically acclaimed Batman trilogy, and nearly twenty years before James Mangold’s Logan stripped the superhero back to such an extent that the title character never even donned his iconic costume, M. Night Shyamalan beat the entirety of the superhero movie trend to the punch with Unbreakable. Released in 2000, Shyamalan’s follow up to mind-blowing debut thriller The Sixth Sense came along at a time before Hollywood had really started mining comic books and superhero tales for all they’re worth, introducing the world to a hero and villain of the filmmaker’s own creation: David Dunn and Elijah Price.
Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was so far ahead of its time, in fact, that it was Disney’s insistence to keep the film’s superhero storyline out of the marketing entirely. Rather ironically, given the fact that Disney has been making a killing off superhero movies in recent years, the studio’s executives felt that it would be box office poison to present the film as a superhero origin story. But that is, of course, precisely what Unbreakable is. The twist? As Quentin Tarantino, who lists Unbreakable among his favorite movies, once perfectly described the clever plot: “What if Superman was here on Earth… and didn’t know he was Superman?”
Movies often have a way of making the ordinary seem larger than life and quite extraordinary, but Shyamalan took the complete opposite approach with his superhero movie. Unbreakable, rather boldly at the time, brought a highly extraordinary story down to the most ordinary level possible, centered on a man (Bruce Willis’ David Dunn) who is only just discovering that he’s something more. With the help (moreso than we initially realize) of Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, who suffers from a disorder that makes his bones as weak as glass, Dunn comes to discover that he’s actually, well, a superhero. But not in the cape-wearing, flying around town sort of way. Rather, in such a subtle way that he made it through a good portion of his life thinking that his superpower was merely learned intuition.
Dunn discovers that he has the ability to spot evil-doers and literally see their crimes play out in his mind, and he’s also capable of surviving things that ordinary humans cannot. The main catalyst for Dunn’s life-altering discovery comes when he impossibly survives a train crash that kills everyone else on board, and he soon realizes that yup, he’s got his very own Kryptonite. It’s not a glowing alien mineral, of course, but something much more grounded in the real world: water. (Fittingly, a rain slicker serves as his “superhero costume.”)
Shyamalan plays with all the main superhero tropes in Unbreakable – not unlike Wes Craven did with the horror genre years prior in meta masterpiece New Nightmare – grounding common superhero mythology in such a level of reality that it’s not immediately clear, watching the film for the first time, that it’s even a comic book movie at all. With Unbreakable, Shyamalan imagines a comic book storyline that’s been stripped free of all the colorful, cartoonish commercialization of the artform, leaving only a very human story that damn near makes you believe that superheros can (and perhaps do) exist in our world.
Of course, that’d mean that supervillains do as well, and Shyamalan contrasts David’s origin story with the story of Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price, who is a bit more self-aware about precisely who/what he is. The big twist in the final moments of Unbreakable is that Price, essentially, is Dunn’s main adversary, the man behind not just the train crash but two previous tragedies that took the lives of countless innocent people. Price spent many years, we learn, trying to find a man whose heroism could match his villainy, ultimately finding a reason for his own existence through “creating” Dunn. After all, a villain is nothing without a hero.
But it’s the very mundane, ordinary humanity of Unbreakable that makes it such a great movie, as both David and Elijah are characterized well beyond their “hero” and “villain” trappings. David’s story is that of a man who is unfulfilled but isn’t sure why, his marriage and relationship with his young son crumbling under the weight of an emptiness that he has no idea how to fill. As David notes to Elijah, he has woken up most days of his adult life with a sadness he cannot even explain, and he ultimately comes to realize that it’s the hero inside of him who has been crying to get out. When David finally fulfills his destiny and “comes out” to his son and is even able to make an effort to fix his marriage for the first time in many years, the moments hit with an emotional impact not often found in effects-happy superhero cinema.
As for Elijah, Shyamalan smartly keeps us off the scent of his twist by making Jackson’s character a likable and sympathetic one. Watching the film today, it seems incredibly obvious that Price is the Lex Luthor to Dunn’s Superman – he’s even got his own super-villain name, told to us early on in the movie! – but I’m surely not alone in having been genuinely surprised the first time I saw Unbreakable. That’s a testament to both the script and Jackson’s performance, which come together to present a deeply compelling villain whose motive is crystal clear and almost scarily relatable: he’ll stop at nothing not to hurt people, but to find a sort of polar opposite soulmate who will give meaning to his own existence.
On all fronts, Unbreakable saw M. Night Shyamalan in top form, bringing to the table a brilliant script and clever, inventive direction that at times makes the film feel like a comic book come to life and at others just plain reminds how masterful his early work truly was. At the time, Unbreakable was another home run for Shyamalan in the thriller arena at his second at bat, but one could make an argument that it’s an even better movie today. At a time when superhero cinema is dominating the landscape, with the tropes and mythologies known even to those who never actually picked up a comic book, Unbreakable‘s brilliance somehow seems even more clear. It broke the mold. And arguably created another one.
Whereas a film like Scream came along to deconstruct a sub-genre as its popularity had waned, Unbreakable is perhaps most impressive in that it preceded the Hollywood movement that its sequel, this year’s Glass, now fits comfortably inside of. Unbreakable is the sort of movie you’d expect a clever filmmaker to conjure up in 2019, perhaps, but the truest testament to M. Night Shyamalan’s brilliance is that he did it so long ago.
Nearly 20 years later, Unbreakable remains one of the all-time great superhero movies.