Over the last decade it seems our cinemas have fallen foul of a sort of superhero epidemic. I don’t think I’d be alone though, if I suggested that this deluge of heroics is starting to feel a bit too overly familiar. While there have been some excellent entries in the genre, too many of these ‘average at best’ comic book adaptations seem content to tread the same tired path. But in this sea of mediocrity there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Playing like a Mike Leigh version of the superman legend, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable is an outstanding reminder that, in the right hands, classic material can still feel innovative and fresh. A remarkable, underrated oddity, Unbreakable is not only Shyamalan’s finest film, but may just be the greatest superhero movie ever made.
Set in a cold, bleak vision of Philadelphia, Unbreakable stars Bruce Willis as David Dunn, a security guard going through marital problems, who can’t escape the feeling that maybe his life was meant for something more. But after emerging unscathed, as the only survivor of a devastating train crash, he’s approached by Elijah Price, a comic book obsessive convinced that David has the potential to be a real life superhero. As a sufferer of brittle bone disease, Elijah (played by Samuel L. Jackson) believes that if the natural world could produce someone like him, a man who breaks easily, then surely it could produce a polar opposite, a man who is effectively, unbreakable. Naturally however, David is a little sceptical, but his son Joseph (played by Spencer Treat Clark) is far more willing to believe and along with Elijah, sets out to convince his father of his superhuman credentials. Now admittedly on paper, this may not read like a radical new entry in the comic book genre, but this is far from your standard tale of superhero discovery. In many ways, Unbreakable feels tonally closer to films like Let the Right One In, than it does to its more obvious contemporaries like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman. In fact, Unbreakable could easily pass as a spiritual predecessor to that much celebrated Swedish horror. Preoccupied by themes of alienation and broken families, both films emphasise the human side of the supernatural dilemma. With a similarly meditative pace, due largely to calculated shot construction, creative staging and a restrained approach to editing, the films share a brooding atmosphere that suggests they occupy the same reality. It’s a harsh, unforgiving world that feels as brutally real as a ‘kitchen sink’ drama. Of course, Unbreakable isn’t the first superhero film to try and ground the events of the comic book universe. In fact, it seems that almost every new entry in the genre attempts to mine a darker, earthier side to their characters. And some, like The Dark Knight, have done this very effectively. But for all its gritty realism, Nolan’s benchmark adaptation is still restricted by the fact that the story centres on a man who goes out at night dressed as a bat. Admittedly the new costume is far cooler than Adam West’s 60s spandex; the production team have done a great job updating it. But when the costume is that modern, the addition of bat ears seems slightly irrelevant and will always smooth the edges of the intended realism, no matter how rough the story gets. Unbreakable however, suffers no such problems. It comes at the superhero mythology from a different angle and is all the better for it.
When considering Hollywood’s inability to successfully adapt his work, the graphic novel author Alan Moore once commented that “There is something about the quality of comics that makes things possible that you couldn't do in any other medium". And maybe he’s onto something. Though a graphic novel may look like a readymade storyboard, film is a far more literal medium and the two should not be confused. In reality, the movies and comics are as separate as painting and sculpture, so what’s acceptable in one, may not work in the other. The idea of superheroes jumping around in brightly coloured jumpsuits seems to be almost universally accepted in comic books, but when you convert that image to film it starts to look a little bit ridiculous, even if you do manage to update the costume. Because no matter how much they disguise or remodel their origins, a film based on a graphic novel is inherently bound and subsequently hindered by the laws of that comic book world. But as a comic book film, not based on a specific comic book, Unbreakable has a significant advantage over even the most successful conversions. Free from the constraints of adaptation, Shyamalan is not restricted by obligations to source material and diehard fans. And as a result, he’s able craft a superhero fable that feels authentic within a real world setting. Unbreakable takes the ideas and themes of comic books, but shapes them specifically for the movies, thus avoiding any awkward stylistic translations. It wipes the slate clean and builds a film friendly superhero from the ground up. An approach that ultimately, and somewhat ironically, feels truer to the spirit of the comic book world than most straight adaptations. Unbreakable may not look or even feel like a superhero film, but that doesn’t mean it shuns the traditions of the genre; quite the opposite in fact. Beneath the surface it hits all the same narrative beats. It’s got everything you’d want from a good comic book film: a reluctant hero, a climactic confrontation and most importantly, a really good super villain.
|Shot from a high angle, David's visions are reminiscent of a security camera |
POV, reinforcing the idea that he's a protector sent here to watch over us.
|Suited and booted, Elijah assumes his secret identity |
as super villain Mr Glass.