In some respects, the year 2000 offered much foreshadowing toward the future of superheroes in cinema. Bryan Singer’s X-MEN proved that such characters could be faithfully adapted and Christopher Nolan became an indie star with MEMENTO. However, public perception of the subgenre resulted in many people missing a rather obscure title: M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE.

UNBREAKABLE
David Dunn, Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

Part of the reason behind that lack of publicity is that, at first glance, UNBREAKABLE didn’t resemble a superhero film. It doesn’t so much tell a hero origin story as it convinces a man that he might be a superhero. There’s no fancy superpowers, world domination plans or CGI battles involving giant skybeams. To a 2018 audience drowning in the oversaturation of shared superhero film and television universes, that concept seems downright absurd.

After all, a complaint about modern superhero movies is that we are way too familiar with the established formula. Audiences know the story beats of these origin stories, be they SPIDER-MAN, BATMAN BEGINS or anything post-IRON MAN. UNBREAKABLE, however, is detached from that narrative, since it was released long before the superhero boom took off. Instead, it utilizes comic book themes within a “realistic” world to make viewers question the nature of its narrative.

Opposites Attract

The appeal of superheroes is their ability to offer a hopeful power fantasy to those wishing to solve bigger problems. UNBREAKABLE offers this, but not to the protagonist. Instead, the one who views the world through a comic book lens is Elijah Price, a man with Osteogenesis imperfecta. This bone disease made it impossible for Elijah to enjoy a normal life, instead of taking solace in comic books. Elijah identified with the hero’s idealistic ability to protect the innocent and unfortunate, a rather DC-based perception of life.

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If Price’s worldview reflects DC comics, however, David Dunn is representative of Marvel heroes. His arc is not only defined by personal human flaws, but David also possesses a Marvel-like alliterative name. With a failing marriage and disappointed son, its no wonder David’s introductory scene involves him flirting with a younger woman. He’s not exactly what you would call an idealistic man living an optimistic life.

UNBREAKABLE
David Dunn, Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

Shortly afterward, however, the train David is on mysteriously crashes. In a fatal accident that kills 131 people, David is not only the sole survivor but sustains absolutely no injuries. Despite not knowing why this happened, David still views the accident in a human manner: he’s happy to be alive. Someone else, however, has a much more radical theory about what transpired.

Opposite Ends of the Spectrum

That someone is an adult Elijah Price, who believes David Dunn to be a superhero. His rationale behind this: the comic book logic of individuals with opposing features. Whether it’s Superman vs. Lex Luthor, Batman vs. Joker or Batman vs. Superman, comic books traditionally portray the hero as an antithesis to something. This opposing dynamic makes the character “super,” since he is above the limits of what a normal person can do.

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Therefore, if Elijah is so fragile that his bones break easily, someone must exist on the spectrum’s opposite end. If he is breakable, the other man must be “unbreakable:” a super strong man who has never suffered an injury. David, in his eyes, is that man, as evident by him withstanding the train crash without even a bruise. Ultimately, this unbelievably far-fetched theory suggests that both of their fates are locked together.

UNBREAKABLE
Elijah Price, Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

That is the defining theme of UNBREAKABLE: two men discovering meaning in what was a previously banal existence. Elijah’s physical weakness, formally a burden, has led to what he believes is the origin of a superhero. In his mind, these circumstances happened for a reason, suggesting that the universe has a greater purpose for them both.

This suggestion gives David Dunn a purpose, albeit one he finds difficult to believe. After discovering he can bench press more than expected (350 lbs.), David’s son Joseph begins to see his dad as a superhero. He’s Superman masquerading as a mild-mannered Philadelphia security guard who, by his very career path, works to protect people. Yet David still sees himself as Clark Kent and refuses to seek this preordained destiny Elijah has crafted.

Powers: Real or Fantasy?

UNBREAKABLE
David Dunn and Elijah Price, Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

At first, the film never really confirms that David’s “abilities” are real. We as an audience can only assume that he might be, given that the world he lives in is much like ours. This isn’t like THE DARK KNIGHT or MAN OF STEEL where the director cites “realism” to influence the hero’s believability. In Quentin Tarantino’s words, the film simply asks “What if Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?”

Of course, as David comes to gradually believe in his powers, so too does the audience. Alongside strength, he develops ESP and a “sixth sense” that lets him sense others who have done bad things. Furthermore, a traumatic childhood incident of him almost drowning suggests that David has a personal weakness: water. Even if his fear is the result of simple PTSD, the film nevertheless frames it as something akin to kryptonite.

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It’s only until David bumps into the nameless Orange Man that his powers stop being theoretical. A janitor who killed a man and is currently keeping his family hostage, the Orange Man is UNBREAKABLE’s stand-in for a third act antagonist. Modern superhero films portray these characters as a (mostly) central part of the narrative, usually involving a flashy CGI battle. Yet David’s relationship with the killer involves stopping a man he literally just bumped into on a train station.

Unbreakable: Day One

UNBREAKABLE
The Orange Man, Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

In fact, UNBREAKABLE’s “final battle” feels relatively small-scale compared to the action climaxes of modern day superhero films. There’s no master plan to rule the world or even Pennsylvania- David just wants to save a hostage family. More importantly, however, this is the chance to prove that he can use his abilities like a real superhero. It’s the moment where David decides his life should have a purpose.

Thus, while David’s fight with the Orange Man is mundane, its thematic subtext is reminiscent of comic book battles. David’s costume consists of little more than a green poncho that successfully conceals his identity from the killer. He is temporarily incapacitated when thrown into the house pool, an act that mirrors the kryptonite scene in Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN. Even their outfit colors (green vs. orange) resemble the contrasting iconography of superheroes and villains fighting one another.

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David ultimately triumphs over the Orange Man, with the local papers calling him a hero for his anonymous actions. His heroics have not only given this man purpose in life but his son’s admiration as well. More importantly, his son is aware of these heroics and feels proud of his father for making a difference. At this moment, not only is David a superhero, but he has also successfully made amends with his family.

They Called Me Mr. Glass

This happiness is sadly underscored by Shyamalan’s shocking, and rather absurd, plot twist. When confronting Elijah at a comic book art exhibition, the two shake hands to commemorate their bond. In the process, David’s powers show all the terrorist acts that Elijah committed, including the train accident he miraculously survived. Elijah’s rationale for this: it was all done to find that one unbreakable man.

UNBREAKABLE
Elijah Price, Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures

See, if David is the superhero, then, by Elijah’s own rational, he must be the supervillain. After all, comic book logic always specifies a character as the villain for being “the exact opposite of the hero.” Superman uses his alien abilities to save lives, while Lex Luthor uses his genius intellect to commit crimes. Batman is a brooding figure of order, while Joker is a maniacal agent of chaos. And Elijah, or Mr. Glass as he was once called, sees himself as the villain to oppose David’s heroics.

In other words, Elijah willfully abandoned personal happiness in favor of a comic-based destiny where he’s the bad guy. Being the perpetrator of so many deaths matters little to him, so long as he knows they died for a reason. And, now that David has embraced his new path, Mr. Glass has found purpose in his life.

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Destined For Greatness?

That’s the biggest melancholic twist of UNBREAKABLE: two men finding purpose through death and tragedy. It’s a theme all too common in the superhero genre- just look at Batman’s relationship with his parents’ death. But here the trope is not so much subverted as it is purposely exacerbated to change perceptions of the character. What is currently seen as spectacle becomes grotesque for exploiting the consequences of being a superhero in the “real world.”

And that disturbing approach to realism is what makes UNBREAKABLE stand out eighteen years later. It lacks the framework expected in other superhero movies, making it an anomaly compared to your standard MCU release. The result is something neither escapist nor gritty, yet still tied to the narrative of a superhero origin story. It’s superhero realism told from the perspective of our world, rather than the world of a comic book.

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  1. […] UNBREAKABLE: Subverting “Realism” In Superhero Cinema […]

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