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Why Unbreakable Is Still One of the Best Superhero Movies Made

Image from the sci-fi movie Unbreakable

I’m not holding my breath waiting for a better superhero movie than Unbreakable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about this golden age of superhero cinema that we’re in. Despite having seen some total disasters since Unbreakable was released in 2000 (I’m talking about you, Thor, Spider-man 3, and Catwoman), and a whole lot of movies that qualify as mediocre mainly thanks to Hulk-sized budgets and CGI wizardry, I still happily look forward to the next one. You never know which movie might be the next Watchmen or Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy.

If we’re talking strictly about entertainment, then sure, I can agree that pretty much all the superhero movies of late get the job done. After all, we don’t go into a movie like Suicide Squad or The Avengers expecting to be gifted with inspiring dialogue or beautiful cinematography. If we get those, we might like the film better for them, but they aren’t what we came to see – we came to see cool costumes, witty banter, and knock-down, drag-out action.

To the degree that film is art, though, very few superhero-themed movies hold a candle to M. Knight Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. With its incredibly long, tracking camera shots that create a sense of comic-book-page continuity and its subtle but clever use of color as a story-telling device, the film is both visually beautiful and cerebrally captivating. If it’s our inner children that have us flocking to the Cineplex to see the latest Spider-Man flick, then it’s fair to say that Unbreakable is not a superhero movie for kids.

Shyamalan is Masterful at Making You Wonder

We all know that Superman and Batman are embodiments of hyperbole. We all know that Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are totally unbelievable (although I’m almost surprised there’s been no real-life Punisher to date). If abilities like theirs existed, we would know – how couldn’t we? And yet, with Unbreakable, Shyamalan sparks a child-like curiosity about what is truly possible.

Could people like Bruce Willis’s character David Dunn be real, with a super-power so subtle that even he never knew about it? Could we even be those people, and not know it? It does seem as if Dunn could have lived his whole life unaware, if not for the intrusion of his self-proclaimed nemesis Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson).

Price, – who even gets a villainous nickname, Mister Glass – is nearly as cold-hearted as any other antagonist of the big screen, but comes across as wholly more realistic. It might seem natural for a character like Guardians’ Ronan or The Dark Knight‘s Joker to express their inner evil with an off-hand decapitation or, you know, genocide. People in the real world, though – of which Elijah Price very much seems one – don’t get those kind of opportunities on a regular basis. In the film, Price’s evil is often of a more subtle, everyday type, which somehow chills in a way that even the Joker’s manic lunacy just doesn’t.

In the context of The Fly, If you were bitten by a radioactive spider today, what do you think would happen? Well, probably one of two things, right? Either you’d die a slow and painful death, or you’d become a real-life Spider-Man. As sensational, spectacular, and amazing as the latter would likely be, let’s face it – the former is much more likely. I’ll give you that “realistic” isn’t exactly a rallying cry among sci-fi fans, and yet, without strong ties to our real experiences in [Click here to read more…]

Unbreakable is intensely gripping.

All of Shyamalan’s films have that quality at one point or another, but it’s easy to see why this one is his favorite from among the movies he’s made so far. In what is probably my favorite scene, Dunn’s young son sets out to shoot him with a handgun, testing the limits of the invincibility that he perceives his dad to have. Unbreakable is full of edge-of-your-seat moments like these, and manages to be just as intense as any action-driven superhero movie made since, but in a unique way that allows for a feeling of immersion in the story instead of just a front-row seat to a boxing match.

It’s also a movie about meaning. I’ll grant you that Joss Whedon put a masterful touch on Avengers: Age of Ultron with Vision’s line about the grace in humanity’s failings and the fact that “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts”. Outside of that, though, I can’t think of a more memorable line on the topic since Samuel L. Jackson said to Bruce Willis in Unbreakable,

“You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world…to not know why you’re here. That’s just an awful feeling.”

Now, I can think of some other things that are pretty scary, but I’ll agree that searching blindly for meaning from atop a whirling dust speck in the middle of an unthinkably vast cosmic expanse while awaiting imminent non-existence is up there on the list. Most superhero movies give us the kind of meaning we want to believe in – meaning that is painfully clear; meaning that refuses to be overwritten by defeat or even death.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, reality rarely affords us meaning that is so steady and inalienable, something that Unbreakable doesn’t try to cover up. In the film, in fact, it’s Elijah Price’s search for meaning that leads him down a path of destruction and violence. To Price, meaning is absolute – something he will sacrifice everything for. To Dunn, it’s a matter of making your own meaning. We understand this when we see him choose to believe that surviving a train wreck is a sign that he should try to save his marriage.

Unbreakable isn’t a  perfect film, but it’s a good one. Whether or not you’re a fan of superhero plots, or of Shyamalan’s movies, this one is worth checking out.

Featured Image: Buena Vista Pictures / Disney

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