5 reasons why Unbreakable is one of the most important superhero movies ever

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Jan 23, 2017

With M. Night Shyamalan's latest, Split, in theaters, and superhero movies' popularity seemingly without apex, now feels like the right time to look back on Night's take on the superhero genre: Unbreakable (2000). 

How important is Unbreakable to superhero movies and to storytelling in general? It turns out ... pretty important. Here are five aspects of Night's superhero story that remain vitally relevant in 2017.

Setting the stage for the Modern Comic Book Movie

Before 2000, the only superhero characters that had found popularity in film were Superman and Batman. Both franchises weren't exactly meant to reflect the real world very much. Superman's story by way of Christopher Reeve was less about a man to identify with and more a messianic figure to strive to be more like. Both Burton and Schumacher's takes on Batman, meanwhile, were an almost impossibly over-the-top combination of dark shadows and garish color. Gotham City doesn't feel like a real place -- it feels like a nightmare circus without the big top. 

Whether you love or hate the Superman and Batman movie franchises  pre-2000, what's relevant is that they don't exactly have the biggest influence on 21st-century superhero movies. Even the current Superman and Batman don't remotely resemble the portrayals that precede them.

Unbreakable's focus on the more real-world application of super powers, meanwhile, acts as a natural precursor for modern superhero filmmaking. Night's hero, David Dunn, is (super powers aside) a very normal guy whose motivations and challenges revolve around struggling to keep his family together and finding the motivation to believe in his own self-worth. Peter Parker, Steve Rogers and even cocky heroes like Stephen Strange and Tony Stark all have these common, real-world issues at the heart of their stories.

And then there's the deconstruction of comic book tropes vis a vie Elijah aka Mr. Glass (an avid comic book fan himself). Glass' analysis of David throughout the course of Unbreakable is an exploration of the nature of the hero. Through Elijah we see how David is a hero by nature who, even before knowing he has powers, cares for people through the mundane job of a security officer. David has a superhero costume born of the cape-like slicker that's part of David's ordinary uniform. Even the concept of a hero's deadly weakness is explored through something as common as a childhood trauma.

So not only does Unbreakable set the stage for what would become the formula of 21st century superhero movies, it also managed to pick apart and analyze the tropes before they became tropes.

Visual Storytelling

Unbreakable is, in every way, a comic book movie. It's constantly taking cues from its source material, not only in its narrative but in its visual storytelling.

Whether it's the constant use of green to represent the drabness of David's life or purple as a code for supervillain before we know that Elijah is the bad guy, Night's comic book style storytelling in cinema is perfect. Mr. Glass is often seen in reflections of mirrors or other glass surfaces, and many shots begin with framed, panel-like objects in the foreground to portray the idea of comic book panels.

Frighteningly Honest Portrayal of Racial Violence

Unbreakable has one of the most powerful openings of any movie ever, and I don't mean the train sequence (although that scene is very cool). When Elijah was born, segregation is still the law in America. And as a black doctor is brought into the back of a department store to check on a black mother and her child, what's so striking is how afraid the doctor is of the white people in the room. The doctor tries to smile as he discovers that Elijah's arms and legs are broken. "Did you drop this baby?" He smiles, probably because he is terrified that these white women immediately abused this baby the moment he was born because of the color of his skin. He is trying to pacify, to cope with a world he knows is capable of hurting a baby on purpose.

We lie to ourselves and say the world is different in the 21st century, but it isn't. The fear that doctor and Elijah's mother experience in 1961 is the same fear people of color fear from America's police and many of our political leaders. Systemic bigotry is still something that superhero movies that deal with the real world ought to be always confronting. 

Juxtaposition and Subversion of Heroes and Villains

Elijah is introduced as a baby whose body is broken at birth. Elijah's first moment on screen is the very definition of a person at their most innocent. You don't get more innocent than a baby in danger. That's our villain, our criminal mastermind capable of justifying the murder of untold thousands.

Meanwhile, our first glimpse of David Dunn is him slipping off his wedding ring to hit on a younger woman. We meet David at a moment in which he is sinning. Whatever happens afterward, our introduction to our hero isn't very heroic. There are certain things we identify as absolute wrongs without even thinking -- infidelity is one of those things.

Unbreakable's story begins with Elijah and David in the opposite positions you would expect them to start, and their journeys are like two ships passing in the night. We see Elijah trying to understand David's abilities and, as he does, slowing crossing the line more and more into unethical behavior, while we see David slowing taking more furtive steps towards embracing heroism even as he struggles with his own flaws and fears. Only when we finally reach the moment when David and Elijah shake hands are the roles of hero and villain truly locked in. 

Sympathetic Antagonist

It's hard to hate Elijah. He is a brilliant man trapped inside his own broken body, desperately seeking some kind of meaning both for himself and for the world. And that need for the world to be better is what makes Elijah such a sympathetic antagonist and the kind of villain that modern superhero movies should learn from.

Mr. Glass is a bad guy. He killed thousands of people. But we can see how his brain justified his actions. Elijah spends his whole life needing to believe that there is someone out there who is his equal and opposite number, someone who can not be broken, someone whose will and morality can be tempered into steel. The world can feel like an amoral and ugly place, one whose populace is only looking out for number one. 

How do you change the world and make it into something vibrant? For Elijah the solution is to find a true super-hero, one that people can look to for inspiration. Which is a noble idea, except for the part where Elijah kills a ton of people in order to find someone with super powers. There could have been no one with super powers. That is the most likely outcome.

But as someone who was born with a broken body and born into a systemically broken and racist system, there is an empathy we can feel with Elijah. And that's critical in understanding the complexity of the world and how important it is that we think of what defines a hero not just through acts of goodness, but through acts of evil, too.

Unbreakable walks a tightrope between defining people through acts of absolute good and evil and the ambiguity of a world that stymies our ability to see things in such absolute terms. Whether it's through strong visuals or complex character beats, in 2000 Unbreakable set the benchmark for what superhero movies could be. Even now, over 15 years later, Unbreakable's influence can be seen in almost every superhero movie that comes out. And insofar as absolutes can exist, the fact that Unbreakable is still so influential and that Night as a storyteller is still playing with the ideas he introduced in this film is absolutely a good thing.

Want more Unbreakable? Check out our The Visit interview with M. Night Shyamalan, in which he talks about his vision for Unbreakable 2: