It's a Miracle! How Unbreakable explores identity and comic books
We live in a veritable deluge of movies based on comic books, specifically superheroes, but there are still only a few films about comics books as a medium. Most of them are documentaries or biopics about comics creators (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, American Splendor), with the occasional fantasy film with comics creators at their center (Monkeybone, Chasing Amy). And other films have attempted to translate comic book stylings to the screen (Ang Lee’s Hulk, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). But Unbreakable remains a singular film that is about comics’ most famous export–superheroes–while also being a love letter to comic books themselves.
Shyamalan manages to tell a story that deconstructs the superhero genre long before the movie-going audience was familiar with it (For reference, Unbreakable came out in 2000, the same year as the first X-Men film. The most recent hits in the genre were 1997’s Batman & Robin and Blade in 1998. Mystery Men flopped so badly in 1999 that Disney kept the entire superhero angle out of the marketing). But the film works just as well as a mystery, with David Dunn (Bruce Willis) working through a personal crisis that happens to parallel the journey of a comic book hero. Let’s look at a few ways that this film accomplishes those goals.
The first one is right in the name for its hero: David Dunn. With its alliteration, it follows the Marvel-style of superhero alter ego names (Peter Parker, Reed Richards, Matt Murdock, Bruce Banner). This is a very sly signal, so subtle that I didn’t catch it at all on my initial viewings. Same with the way Shyamalan uses windows, door frames, and other camera setups to emulate the way that grids look on a comic page. The writer/director is not known for being subtle, but I love these little flourishes.
If there is someone like me in the world, and I'm at one end of the spectrum...Couldn't there be someone the opposite of me, at the other end? A person who can't be hurt like the rest of us. A kind of person they were talking about in those stories. A person they believed was put here to protect the rest of us. Guard us.
In the film, Samuel L. Jackson’s “Mr. Glass” is trying to find some meaning behind his suffering. His love of comic books has led him to a twisted place. Price espouses the idea that comic books are tied to our continued need as humans to retell our mythology. These stories are typically “classic good versus evil” in a way that some may find simplistic, but hold a bedrock truth for Glass. Unbreakable is about the search for identity, one’s place in the world, using the formula of a superhero origin story to explore it, as even superheroes suffering existential crises will still return to their creator-given purpose in the next story. Glass needs this to be true more than David does, because he has already cast himself the villain in the story. So he searches for a hero.
Another flourish I have always loved in the film is the use of color theory. In comics, heroes tend to wear primary colors (Superman is literally blue, red, and yellow, Spider-Man is blue and red, the Fantastic Four wear blue) and villains secondary colors (The Joker and Lex Luthor often wear purple, Doctor Doom and the Green Goblin are green). In Unbreakable, Mr. Glass is closely associated with purple, signifying him as the villain. However, David Dunn’s “superhero costume”–his security poncho–is green. I have to think that is because his weakness is water, and they needed some other color that would fit with the overall muted palette of the film.
All of these subtle nods and use of comic book tropes as a means to an identity is just one of the reasons Unbreakable works. Of all the other superhero films in the years since, it is most similar to Nolan’s Batman Begins, as both filmmakers start with the premise “what would a superhero look like in our world?” Both Shyamalan and Nolan bend the idea of superheroes to our reality, rather then bending our reality to create a world that makes superheroes necessary. The latter approach yields something closer to the Burton/Schumacher Batman films. There’s no way the gothic deco of that Gotham City can exist without giving rise to Batman and the Joker. The current wave of superhero films ride the line in between these extremes, hand-waving enough of the strangeness as science/magic and not overreacting or explaining how this strangeness came to exist in these worlds. Only this year, with Captain Marvel and long effect time travel likely debuting in the MCU, will the “reality” question of “Why didn’t superheroes prevent 9/11?” come into play in these films.
But Shyamalan gets to have it both ways, thanks to Mr. Glass. While I think comic books themselves are still a wrongly stigmatized medium, I agree with comic book writer Grant Morrison (if you like this article, you should read his book, Supergods) that children are better at imagination than adults because they don’t try to make fiction conform to the rules of our reality. Comic books should employ realism only as far as they are useful to tell a story that feels consistent, but not as a way to avoid silliness. Often silliness increases as the maximum amount of seriousness is reached, which is why both Unbreakable and The Dark Knight feel like miracles, and why people hate on The Dark Knight Rises (a film I love more and more as time goes by).
Because Mr. Glass is the one taking comics so seriously, and he is the villain, it allows some remove of this perspective, allowing Shyamalan to also comment on the bad parts of comic book fandom (and fandom in general). Embracing of the ridiculousness of the genre, is beyond people like Price, who have wrapped up their personal identity in superhero comic books. Like when Price reprimands a customer buying original comic art for a 4 year old:
Do you see any Teletubbies in here? Do you see a slender plastic tag clipped to my shirt with my name printed on it? Do you see a little Asian child with a blank expression on his face sitting outside on a mechanical helicopter that shakes when you put quarters in it? No? Well, that's what you see at a toy store. And you must think you're in a toy store, because you're here shopping for an infant named Jeb.
This is an art gallery, my friend, and this is a piece of art.
While I agree with every word he says while also knowing that he is overreacting, it is mostly because I think buying a four year old any kind of framed art is a stupid decision. But it points to something we’ve seen move from marginal to the mainstream in the years since Unbreakable: the toxic male fanboy. Last year was a tough year for fandom. Unbreakable clearly draws a line in the sand. Holding onto the media and pop culture you love so hard that you strangle it and attack others for not appreciating something you love in some other way than the exact way you appreciate it is a heinous crime against art and other people.
There are many ways to define one’s identity, and over the course of the film, David struggles as a security guard, a father, and a husband, and later as a potential hero. Unbreakable teaches us that this struggle is valid, but wrapping ourselves in the bold panache of superheroes in order to escape one’s struggle is not the trait of a hero, but that of a villain who puts establishing his own identity not only above reality, but above human lives.