2019 Film Essays

‘Unbreakable’ and the Horror of Superheroes

The human body is a source of terror. Time and time again, our bodies disprove the belief that we are our own masters, in the form of everything from the common cold to autoimmune conditions and degenerative diseases. Even more eerie than our bodies betraying us are the mysteries still unanswered about the mind and its potential. There are numerous physical acts and mental achievements that seem borderline impossible for the average person to achieve, and others beyond those that still qualify as a part of the supernatural. There is horror in being out of control of your own body, of being fragile and vulnerable, just as there is a kind of horror in discovering you’re abnormal, even if that abnormality helps rather than hinders you. Then there is the horror of ennui, an existential feeling that your path in life has strayed, has stalled, or that you otherwise haven’t reached your full potential. It is these horrors that M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 classic, Unbreakable, taps into, allowing the film to resonate not just decades later but influence a slew of other films in the superhero genre.

On the surface, horror and superheroes seem to be an odd mixture, but that particular blend has existed since the birth of the latter genre. The earliest superhero comics grew out of pulp fiction, adapting dark, noir-ish crimefighter types like The Shadow and wild sci-fi swashbucklers like Buck Rogers into superheroes Batman and Superman. Marvel Comics, which started in earnest in the early 60s, used then-popular B-movies and TV shows as additional sources of inspiration, resulting in a lot of radiation-created superheroes, characters whose origins weren’t far removed from the Atomic Age monsters that had invaded the big screen for the last decade. A lot of these Marvel characters had internal, relatable issues as well, lending them a good deal of pathos, from Spider-Man’s angst at his responsibility to The Incredible Hulk’s fear at losing control and becoming a giant monster. Some even make reference to a fear of the unknown in their very name, like the “Uncanny X-Men,” for example.

With a few small tonal tweaks, these characters could be horror characters, and it’s due to the context of their genre that they’re not. There’s a reason why the most prominent real world comic books that can be seen in Unbreakable are Marvel Comics. 

When Unbreakable was made, the superhero film was still in its relative infancy, yet had been well established enough by prior movies (as well as by the decades of superhero comic books which popularized the genre) that Shyamalan was able to subvert and exploit its tropes to tell a story that to this day could still claim to be the most grounded of all superhero films. Its hero, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), and its villain, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), are both flawed, unassuming characters, two men who blend into the film’s drab, muted cityscape of Philadelphia. However, the powers inherent within both of them eventually fill their world and the film with more and more color, as they become the archetypes they perhaps were destined to be. This is all by design on Shyamalan’s part — in the “Behind the Scenes” featurette on the blu-ray, the writer-director explains how he set out to “make an entire movie of the first act,” referring to the usual structure of an “origin story” superhero film. In those movies, act one typically follows an unassuming, relatable character as they discover superpowers through various means, act two sees them using these powers in earnest and act three features a large scale battle with a major villain as well as a city or world-ending threat. By focusing on just the “first act,” Shyamalan automatically makes Unbreakable the most relatable superhero tale.

Just paring the expected story structure down isn’t all Shyamalan does, of course — through his craft, he aligns the audience with the characters’ emotional perspectives, particularly Dunn’s, and those perspectives tend to be ones of apprehension and fear. The film begins with a flashback to Elijah’s birth in the back of a department store, a scene that quickly turns tragic when a doctor reveals that the baby’s arms and legs have been broken while in the womb. In the very next scene, David is introduced, only to be involved in a horrifically tragic train accident, of which he’s revealed to be the only survivor. The characters carry these traumas with them for the whole film, which become their entire driving force. Elijah is hellbent on proving comic book archetypes and structure are based in reality, going so far as to claim comics are a modern version of hieroglyphics (which, in reality, some past scholars thought contained secret and mystical knowledge). David, meanwhile, is appalled at Elijah’s suggestion (as well as his son Joseph’s belief) that he is a superhero with invulnerability and super strength, a feeling born out of his survivor’s guilt as well as his already unstable personal life, the most prominent element of which is his failing marriage to Audrey (Robin Wright). Contrasting with that is David’s depression, which Elijah suggests stems from not doing what he’s meant to do, that is, to use his powers to help people. Shyamalan and his cinematographer, Eduardo Serra, keep all these feelings at the forefront by shooting the entire film in either static shots or deliberate camera moves that only occur in instances of emotional change. This subjective approach to the movie makes Elijah and David’s feelings of unease that much more apparent and immediate, which results in a unique emotional experience for a superhero movie, while simultaneously being a rather common one for a horror film. 

One of the largest indicators of Shyamalan’s horror approach to the superhero genre is Unbreakable’s closest cinematic precedents. When The Sixth Sense (1999) became a phenomenon, Shyamalan was compared numerous times to Steven Spielberg. That comparison wasn’t erroneous, especially when regarding Spielberg’s early work of the 70s and 80s. While Jaws (1975) is his undisputed horror masterpiece (that is also a genre blend, marrying animal terror to an adventure film), Spielberg was a master at awe and tension, creating scenes that read as horrific to his characters and the audience before context either explains the situation or dispels the threat. The alien abduction in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the invasion of a childhood home by government forces in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the supernatural ceremonies of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) are all centerpiece horror sequences nestled within non-horror films. Similarly, the backstory and Dunn’s pursuit of the Orange Suit Man (Chance Kelly) in Unbreakable is grisly and creepy, and could easily fit inside an out-and-out serial killer thriller a la Seven (1995). Along that line, Unbreakable’s overall plot structure shares a lot in common with Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), especially upon a rewatch. To wit: an unfairly overlooked member of some form of law enforcement realizes their full potential as they pursue an odious serial killer, all as they’re being manipulated by a genteel, crafty mastermind of a villain. Perhaps the best analog to Unbreakable’s style of horror is Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which Shyamalan cites in several interviews as a big influence on his career. That show, despite covering a wide range of disparate genres, is largely thought of as a horror series, chiefly due to its tonal approach to the unknown.

Unbreakable wasn’t a box office smash like The Sixth Sense, which is ironic given its influence can still be felt to this day. It’s the precursor to many superhero movies that seek to be as grounded and realistic as possible, films like James Gunn’s Super and Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (both 2010). Its DNA can be most clearly seen in other superhero movies that emphasize horror elements, like Josh Trank’s found footage film Chronicle (2012) and the upcoming “evil Superman” movie from David Yarovesky, Brightburn (2019). Unbreakable’s most preeminent successor, however, happens to be a milestone in superhero cinema itself:  Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005). That film takes the gothic, noir elements of the Batman character and accentuates them, tonally and visually reinforcing the movie’s theme of fear as a weapon. At the same time, the character and his world are grounded and made realistic at every opportunity, resulting in a blend similar to Shyamalan’s film. Nolan’s style continues to resonate throughout superhero cinema with good reason, but Shyamalan got there first. 

Unbreakable is such a successful blend of superhero tale and thriller that it can be hard to know how to classify it, but anyone doubting its horror roots need look no farther than its secret sequel, Split (2017). That film was marketed as a full-throated horror movie, allowing Shyamalan to do his signature sleight-of-hand trick once again, and reveal it to be a supervillain’s origin story, set within the world of Unbreakable. The final chapter of the trilogy, Glass (2019), is yet another pivot, but one that’s still grounded in horror — after all, the major portion of it takes place inside an insane asylum, a classic setting for a horror tale if there ever was one. Shyamalan’s multi-genre take on the superhero archetype with Unbreakable, despite these sequels and many imitators and successors, is still unique, as all truly groundbreaking movies tend to be. He may or may not ever make another film quite like it, but someone will, especially as both horror movies and superhero movies continue to enjoy rampant popularity. As a recurring visual motif in Unbreakable illustrates, sometimes all it takes to do something new is by turning things upside down and gaining a different perspective.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City. 

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