Want to know how much the world of pop culture has changed in the last 19 years? Just watch Unbreakable.
Before a single frame of the film unspools, writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan begins things with a wordy title card about the world of comic books. It rattles off a series of facts about how many pages they contain, how much they cost, and how many are sold in the United States each day:
At least some of the numbers Shymalan touts here are wrong — the average comic book runs 20-22 pages, and if “illustrations” means panels, then the average is almost certainly a lot lower than 124 per comic. Accurate or not, it really doesn’t matter; these data points play almost no role in the film that follows, which is less about comic books than about the archetypes they traffic in. What’s important about the title card — what’s telling, even if all the information is incorrect — is that Shyamalan felt he needed to explain the concepts of comics and comics fandom to a movie audience.
It is unfathomable that a filmmaker might believe the same thing in 2019. Shyamalan clearly doesn’t. His new movie Glass is a sequel to Unbreakable, continuing the story of its two main characters some 20 years later. It opens with exactly zero comic factoid-spewing title cards.
Today, comic book heroes, like Unbreakable’s invulnerable David Dunn (Bruce Willis), have stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. That’s the other thing that’s remarkable about Unbreakable in 2019. What once looked like a fairly rudimentary thriller now feels like a prophetic glimpse into the cinematic future. Shyamalan predicted not just the rise of superheroes in our society, but the rise of the comic book community’s gatekeepers, who defend the medium so fiercely they’re easy to mistake for real-world supervillains.
That’s the figure represented in Unbreakable by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), an obsessive fan who owns a by-appointment-only gallery that traffics in original comic book art. Elijah, who also suffers from a rare (but real) disorder that makes his bones extremely brittle, comes to believe that David Dunn may in fact be a superhero. David is the only survivor of a catastrophic train crash — and not only was he the only passenger to survive, he is miraculously unharmed by the ordeal. Elijah seeks David out, and then explains his theory in this scene.
Elijah’s true role in David’s life is only revealed in the third act (this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, after all), but the first indication that his motives may not be entirely pure comes in this next sequence, when a man tries to buy a piece in Elijah’s gallery, and he is incensed at the notion that he might give it to a child. “This is an art gallery,” he insists, “and this is a piece of art!”
The notion of comics as a “form of history” is ludicrous, but believing comics are an essential art form rather than a trash medium for children is not — and versions of Elijah’s beliefs have gone from the margins to the mainstream in the last two decades. When Shyamalan made Unbreakable, a man owning an art gallery devoted solely to comics looked absurd; it was meant to cast Elijah as an eccentric outsider. Now one only needs to Google “original comics art” to see just how lucrative and widespread that industry has become.
While Elijah’s introduced as a sympathetic figure — he’s suffered his entire life, appears to have no friends, and cares only about comic books — he is ultimately revealed as (and this is a SPOILER for Unbreakable, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you care) the film’s secret, scheming villain. That revelation is poignant in context — like Elijah, David has been searching for answers, and now he learns that finding them has come with a terrible price — and in hindsight it makes Elijah the fictional embodiment of the angsty online fandom that has blossomed in Unbreakable’s wake, as superheroes have become increasingly popular and hardcore fans have grown increasingly territorial about newcomers latching onto their beloved pastime. The symbolism is almost too on the nose. Who better to represent emotionally fragile fanboys than a man who is literally so fragile a strong shove could crack his bones in half?
Beyond its pleasantly clairvoyant qualities, what impressed me most upon revisiting Unbreakable was how thoroughly every aspect of the film — cinematography, sound, music, performance — tie into its ideas about power, loneliness, and belief in one’s self. Shyamalan made the film as his follow-up to The Sixth Sense, his 1999 mystery that became a surprise blockbuster and launched his career. Unbreakable is undeniably showy; you can tell with that Shyamalan was flush with confidence after that massive success. But every visual flourish is rooted in a thematic element in its story.
For example, David is introduced in a long take that spies at him from between some train seats. The camera tracks back and forth, peering at him on either side of a seatback, as he awkwardly flirts with a woman who sits next to him. After the train crashes and David survives, his doctor (a pre-House of Cards Michael Kelly) questions him in another long take.
Most of Unbreakable — and almost all of the David scenes — are filmed in this style. It’s flashy, and also meaningful, since these shots, like the man they feature, are unbroken takes.
Both the train and the doctor’s interview put Willis’ character into confined spaces with a wider frame; on the train, he’s cramped between the seat and the window. At the hospital, two curtains are closed on either side. That’s a motif that Shyamalan uses throughout the film, both with David and Elijah, as in this sequence, where the two talk about David’s possible powers at the football stadium where he works as security guard:
Framing these men into boxes within boxes reinforces the idea that they are trapped in their unhappy lives, and have been waiting for someone or something to help them break free from their self-made prisons. Part of what makes the final twist so satisfying is that one of the two men is now headed to an actual prison and apparently happy about it, because he has found the answers he was looking for in the process.
19 years later, the scale of Unbreakable may turn off some first-time viewers who’ve been raised on a diet of Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters. There’s something very refreshing, though, about a superhero movie that doesn’t feature a beam of light bursting through the Manhattan skyline, or a post-credits scene where Samuel L. Jackson shows up to recruit someone into the Avengers. (In fairness, SLJ is already in a lot of the pre-credits scenes.) The film could stand a bit more tension in its climactic action sequence — it does sort of come out of nowhere, in part because Shyamalan scrapped his original plan for the film, which was to pit Dunn against another super-powered individual known as the Horde, who wound up getting cut from Unbreakable and then debuted in Split instead.
Then Shyamalan combined Unbreakable and Split into Glass. While the new film left me very cold, at least it got me to rewatch Unbreakable for the first time in well over a decade. To my pleasant surprise, it holds up extremely well, even in a film culture dominated by superheroes. Crummy though Glass may be, if it encourages more people to watch Unbreakable, that’s not a terrible outcome for all involved.
Gallery — Great Movies That Became Bad Franchises: