Review: Unbreakable

My own Unbreakable Origins Story began one Saturday Afternoon, circa 2012, when I was listening to Jonathan Ross’ BBC Radio 2 show, as I was in the habit of doing at this time. Ross, a keen collector of comic books, mentioned a new book by the well-known comic book writer Grant Morrison. The book was called SUPERGODS, and was essentially a history of the Superhero genre in comics and film, from the so-called Golden Age of the nineteen thirties to the present day, as well as an exploration of the way that the classic Superhero God-like archetypes – Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the Hulk, Thor et al have come to serve as fictional replacements for actual Gods within our secular, post-religious society.

At this time, I was attempting to write (an as yet still unfinished) novel on the theme of Chaos Magic(k). The fact that Ross mentioned that Morrison, in common with his fellow superstar comic writer Alan Moore, was himself a dedicated practitioner of Chaos Magic was an added incentive for me to go out and purchase a copy of SUPERGODS as quickly as possible.

I devoured Morrison’s book quickly and still highly recommend to it to anyone with an interest in the subject.

At this point in my life, I was what might be called a lapsed, collector of comics. As a child, I have fond memories of being taken to a particular shop in Grimsby (the name of which I’ve forgotten) once a week to pick up a selection of the latest Marvel and DC editions, though later I would ‘progress’ to football comics like Scorcher and Score and its offshoot Roy of the Rovers. Since then, I had mostly confined myself to watching the Big Screen adaptations, such as the nineteen seventies Superman movies starring the ill-fated Christopher Reeves , Tim Burton’s Gothic tyle series of Batman movies (I’d enjoyed the camp Adam West version in the sixties), the more recent and more serious Dark Knight trilogy, and the various and not entirely successful attempts to bring the likes of the Hulk, Spiderman and the Famous Five to life on the big screen.

One thing SUPEGODS did, as well as to deepen my interest in Chaos Magic(k), was to introduce me to the Graphic Novel as an artform in and of itself. For instance, to Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, a beautifully conceived, written and illustrated postmodern exercise in world-building, a world where Superheroes are real and suffer the same human foibles as the rest of us (a book which Zak Snyder would, against Moore’s protestations, make a fair-fist at adapting for film).  This book is now so highly regarded critically that is not only often cited as the greatest Graphic Novels of all time, regarded as not only generally regarded as the greatest Graphic Novel of all time, but is also frequently listed by critics amongst the top ten or twenty greatest books ever, full stop. I also read Moore’s follow up to Watchmen, From Hell, his excellent take on the Jack the Ripper murders, with its marvelous black and white recreation of Victorian London, plus some of Morrison’s heavily Chaos Magic(k) influenced series The Invisibles, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the best book I’ve ever read on the Holocaust, and Red Son, a reimagination of the Superman story, where the infant, alien, proto-Superhero crash lands in a small town in the Soviet Union rather than in Smallville, Kansas, USA, and thus grows up fighting for International Communism rather than ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way.’

SUPERGODS concentrates mostly on the literary development of the Superhero genre, but Morrison also, perhaps unavoidably, touches upon the movie and T.V. spin-off’s,, from the now laughably bad attempts to adapt Superman for American T.V. in the nineteen fifties (starring the equally ill-fated George Reeves (no relation), to our modern Marvel and DC cinematic blockbusters.

 It was of some surprise to me that Morrison mentioned the movie Unbreakable, directed by M. Night Shyamala and starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, as being his favourite Superhero movie of all time.

Although by this time the film, having been made in 2000, was already over a decade old, and I was a regular user of the Love Film DVD postal service (remember that?), as well as a fan of both Willis and Jackson, it was a film of which I was completely was unaware.

I sought to rectify this immediately, my first viewing being, if I remember correctly, via Amazon Prime.

The first thing to be said, and this is also stressed by Morrison, is that, whilst it deals with the familiar Superhero trope of Good Vs Evil, Unbreakable is far from being a conventional Superhero film. There is no ostentatious Superhero costume, although as we shall see, there is subtle uniform of sorts. The super-powers’ of our hero’, Willis’ professional security guard David Dunn, though real enough, do not emerge suddenly, full formed through, to use a long over-used cliché, a sudden exposure to radiation, but are allowed to become apparent slowly, and again subtly, and to the initial disbelief of the hero himself, as the film progresses.

As a black disabled man, our Super-villain, Elijah Price, AKA Mr. Glass, is not quite your typical Superhero arch nemesis either. Perhaps we are fortunate that the movie was made when it was, at the turn of the millennium, as the fact that Glass is black is simply that, an incidental fact, not a weapon to beat us over the head with for our Original Sin of Whiteness. Elijah’s disability on the other hand, is intrinsic to his character and to the development of the plot, and is not used as a device for highlighting the horrors of being ‘differently abled’ in world built for the benefit of those fortunate enough to be born able in body and mind.

The action begins with the derailment of the train Eastrail 117. It is a horrific event from which David Dunn is the only survivor. This is set up nicely, with Dunn surreptitiously removing his wedding ring so as to hit upon the attractive lady seated beside him, thus showing that this hero is no Superman/Spiderman type goody-two-shoes. In any case, his sexual advance is spurned and the lady in question turns out to be the last of the passengers to die, as Dunn, with hardly a scratch to show for the ordeal, anxiously awaits news in the hospital.  

I don’t wish to spoil too much of the plot, but Dunn’s survival is our first indication of his special nature as a human being who literally, aside from through his own, earthly, mundane equivalent of Superman’s Kryptonite, plain old water as it turns out, cannot die, become seriously ill or even be seriously injured.

Soon, we are introduced to Dunn’s polar opposite, Elijah. We first see Elijah as a child, a child who suffers from a rare condition, osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease, which means that even the slightest injury, a broken bone for instance, could prove fatal. It is this condition that leads Elijah, brilliantly played by Jackson, to acquire the nickname Glass from the typically cruel children of his locality.

Coddled at home by his loving, protective mother Cassy in a small but pivotal role brilliantly performed by Charlayne Woodard, Glass, unable to leave the safe bubble of his house, begins to obsessively read and collect comics, and it is this theme that gives the movie its pleasingly meta-aspect, making it as much a commentary on the geeky sub-culture of the comic book collector as a straight Super-hero v Super-villain battle between good and evil.

 Indeed, the film itself begins with plain text upon screen, informing us of the price range of the average comic, and the amount of time and amount of money the average comic book reader spends in pursuit of his hobby/passion.

The next time we see Elijah, he is the curator of an exhibition of original comic book art, pointedly refusing to sell a ‘priceless’ example of such art to a patron with more money than aesthetic sense, who wishes to buy it for his four-year-old son. This is a scene that reminded me strongly of the scene in the film High Fidelity, where the independent record shop owners show their indignation towards a middle-aged man who asks to buy a copy of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ for his fourteen year old daughter.

As mentioned, Dunn’s realisation that he is not as other men, builds slowly, culminating in a brilliant scene where he continues to lift weights in his home gym, observed and egged on by his awestruck young son Joseph, until he reaches levels well beyond human possibility. Later, this son, convinced of his father’s superhero status much more quickly than the father himself (but then aren’t all fathers’ Superheroes to their sons?), has to be talked down from shooting his dad at point blank range, by Dunn and his wife, in order to prove his hunch correct.  

David’s growing realisation is aided by his various meeting with Glass, meetings that at first sight seem accidental, but are actually manufactured by Glass himself, to the point that the two almost seem to become friends.

It should be mentioned that as part of the back-story, and as a part of the build-up to Dunn’s moment of self-understanding, the filmmakers throw us a delightful red herring with the idea that Daniel can indeed be hurt, and that this was in fact proven by the College football injury that ended his highly promising Football (of the American variety) career. In reality, we later, this was in fact a feigned injury, designed for reasons I won’t go into here, in order to retain the love of the woman who would eventually become his wife.

During the meetings between Dunn and Glass, Elijah does his best to convince Dunn of his destiny, and of his need to realise that destiny: ‘Do you ever wake up with a feeling of sadness, without knowing why?’ He asks, before pointing out, when Dunn replies in the affirmative, that it is because he is not doing what he is meant to be doing. ‘Is it an accident you work in places where people may need your help’, he says in reference to David’s job as a security guard at big stadium football matches and concerts. He also says ‘These are mediocre times. It’s hard for people to realise there are amazing powers, inside themselves, as well as inside others.’

Unbreakable is a movie of many such memorable sayings, mostly from Elijah/Glass

Incidentally, it is David’s hooded security man uniform that does, given certain cinematic lighting and vantage points, at times resemble a Superhero costume, as is mentioned in the Grant Morrison book.

The only notable weak point of the film is the montage of footage of David doing what Superheroes do, after he finally accepts his true nature and his mission in life. For me, these Superhero exploits were never quite Superhero enough to fully illustrate the importance of Dunn’s transformation.

It is through the meetings between David and Glass that the central theme of Unbreakable is revealed.

Essentially, the movie is a meditation on the mutual dependency between good and evil, Light and dark, the Superhero and the Super-villain., on how one cannot exist without the other, by each necessary to the definition of its opposite, Rather in the manner that many Theologians attempt to explain away the Problem of Evil in monotheistic religions.

Again, I don’t want to give away too many plot points, the macabre truth is that, since he had became aware of his fragile physical nature, and especially since his discovery of the Comic Book as a means not only of escapism, but as a guide to living, Glass has spent much of his life scouring through reports of accidents that resulted in mass fatalities, searching for those that had one single survivor. Through this means, he hoped to find his opposite, the super-strong, seemingly invincible hero against which he, the weakling turned self-invented Criminal Mastermind, can test his Dark Genius.

‘The scariest thing is to not know your place in the world, to not know who you are,’ he says.

Elijah is the Joker looking for his Batman, Lex Luther seeking out Superman.

As the film finally reaches the inevitable showdown, he exclaims ‘I am not a mistake…I am the complete opposite of the hero,’ and by implication every bit as necessary, the one who fights the hero, in the word of his mother Cassy, purely with his intellect.

It is at this point, as the showdown reaches its final, bloody culmination, that Elijah, the sad, sick boy whose only view of the world was through a window and the panels of a comic book, fully embraces the nickname given to him by his childhood tormentors:

‘They called me Mr. Glass.’

So, there it stood. I watched Unbreakable perhaps twice, and thoroughly enjoyed it both times, as a fascinating and unusual stand-alone take on the Superhero genre. Then, in 2016, I heard about a new film called Split, again directed by Shyamalan, and starring James McAvoy as Kevin who, through a rare dissociative disorder, has acquired twenty-three alter egos who battle for supremacy within him. The film was marketed as the second part of a trilogy, sometimes called the Eastlrail 117 trilogy, of which Unbreakable would now form the belated opening salvo.

This trilogy was finally completed by the movie Glass in 2019.

I won’t say too much about these latter two films here.  Split has only a tangential link to Unbreakable, the Bruce Willis/David Dunn character making an appearance only at the very end, where he refers briefly, whilst watching news of Kevin’s murderous rampage in a bar, and it has to be said rather gratuitously, to Glass, and the fact that he has now spent almost two decades in an institute for the criminally insane.

The film Glass itself, brilliantly brings together Dunn, Kevin, and the returning Jackson as the eponymous anti-hero in one of the great comic book/superhero showdowns of all time.

Unbreakable can still be enjoyed as a movie in its own right. But it now works best as the opening part of a cinematic trilogy that deserves to be regarded as one of the very best.

Reviewed by Anthony C Green, March 2022 

Unbreakable (film series) – Wikipedia


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