Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Shyamalan's underrated second film is not only another effective family drama, but also a worthy addition to the pantheon of superhero movies
So bungling and mishandled was the ad campaign for Unbreakable that it took me half the goddamn movie to figure out that I was watching a superhero story. I remember the trailer well. We had all been waiting for it, this follow-up to The Sixth Sense (a movie so perfect not even the suits wanted a rewrite). And then there was the trailer for Unbreakable, shot in muted tones, showing the movie's hero (Bruce Willis) sitting on an emergency room gurney talking to a doctor as a mysterious figure slowly bleeds to death in the foreground. We find out that Willis' character is the sole survivor of a massive train wreck, right? And the doctor is clearly freaked out at Willis' lack of injury.
"There's not a scratch on you," the doctor says, laying to rest our fears that Shyamalan would forget to use that hoary cliche.
Wow. Nice fucking job, ad campaign crafters. True, it was a fascinating teaser trailer. No doubt. I sure wanted to see the movie after seeing that trailer — but by showing one of Shyamalan's trademark long, creepy shots and invoking the usual "it's a miracle" slack-jawed reaction, the ad campaign idiots fooled us into thinking that we were going to see some kind of thriller about — oh, I don't know — a guy who has incredible luck but at great cost, like that X-Files episode with the guy who has incredible luck but at great cost.
Understandably, the movie sort of tanked because no one was sure what to make of it — and it's pretty slow. Slow isn't necessarily bad, but when your audience is already disoriented by the story, making it a plodding exercise in realism may not be the best way to keep them on board.
Unless they're fucking maniac geeks like me.
Let me stress this: I deeply and thoroughly enjoyed slowly realizing that I was watching a superhero movie, and again — I'm a moron for not figuring it out it sooner. I had seen the trailer, I knew the title, and the movie fucking begins with a flashback to the birth of the Samuel L. Jackson character, whose bones are so brittle they break under the slightest stress — and whose mother induces him to venture outside to get a reward of comic books.
Shyamalan's approach to this material, in hindsight, is brilliant. One reviewer called the movie's pace "glacial." That reviewer is right, yes, but I think Shyamalan may have had no choice. He chose to take one of the goofiest topics imaginable — comic book superheroes — and place them in our world. Now, let me be clear: Shyamalan did more than simply portray superheroes in a realistic way — Superman, Batman Begins and all four X-Men and Spider-Man movies portrayed their characters with emotional realism and integrity. No, Shyamalan placed a superhero squarely in the world that you and I exist in and tried to imagine what it would be like.
In doing this, Shyamalan quietly and stealthily touches upon all of the classic images and moments from the canon of superhero mythology, but to these moments he adds devastating truth and intimacy. These moments are:
1. The origin.
2. The joyous discovery.
3. The superheroic pathos.
OK, lest anyone accuse me of overpraising Shyamalan, let me concede that he's not the first or the only filmmaker or writer to put a new twist on these three key moments. The joyous discovery, for example, receives wonderful treatment in Richard Donner's classic original Superman, where we join Smallville High senior Clark Kent long after he's discovered his powers, but of course, he can't use them. No, in Superman, the moment of joyous discovery comes in Kent's first public use of his powers: his sky-scraping rescue of Lois Lane out of and from a plummeting helicopter. Christopher Reeve — to say the least — deserves untold hosannas to be sung in his honor for his performance, but I'll especially mention the big-ass smile on his face during the whole ordeal, along with his classic one-liners:
"Don't worry, miss. I've got you."
"I hope this little incident hasn't put you off flying. Statistically speaking, it's still the safest way to travel."
Watch closely after that second line, when Kent turns back to the camera — he's about to start laughing his ass off. For Kent, his moment of joyous discovery was blunted, downplayed and delayed (rightfully) by his upstanding parents; he instead gets to share his true moment of discovery with all of Metropolis. To be sure, I'm not saying that Kent "discovers" he has powers in this scene, but in the Smallville scenes, Donner shows us that Kent never gets to show off, and I submit that showing off, that a public display of his powers is integral to Kent's moment of joyous discovery. I submit that doing tall-building leaps through the Kansas corn (or racing a speeding train) wouldn't satisfy Kent unless he had an audience cheering him on. So when he gets his chance to use his powers in the context of the worthy "reason" his father spoke of — in aid of others — he does it while wearing the craziest getup he could concoct. He doesn't just catch a falling helicopter, he does it while wearing a cape and his underwear outside his clothes — both of 'em bright red! Superman's costume — along with superhero costumes in general — get a lot of ridicule for their gaudiness, but Donner and his creative team make Kent's costume part of his personal celebration, part of his ongoing moment of joyous discovery.
Because of this great choice, I personally put Donner's justification of Kent's costume into a grand pantheon of comic book justification. It's a small pantheon, with only three members (one of which isn't even in a movie). Admission into this elite order requires an artist to justfiy a goofy comic book trope in such a way that doesn't just justify it, that doesn't just make it seem cool, but justifies it in such a way that we couldn't possibly imagine it any other way. I've already mentioned Kent's joyous discovery and how it justifies his crazy costume. Here are the others:
1. From Frank Miller's legendary The Dark Knight Returns: While battling foes on a highwire suspended between two Gotham City skyscrapers, Batman takes a shotgun blast to the chest. In a following panel, we see him falling, his bright yellow bat-symbol blown away to reveal body armor underneath. Via internal narrative, Batman tells us, "The armor held. And people wonder why I wear a target on my chest." Clearly, this is a close cousin to Kent's joyous discovery, but I include it nonetheless because it retroactively justifies Bob Kane's imitation of what was the craze for superheroes at the time: chest symbols.
(Side note: One of these days I'll get the clout to make TDKR as a full-fledged, kickass HBO miniseries, with an aging Kurt Russell as Batman and Hal Holbrook as Comissioner Gordon (if he's still alive). I would also cast Bruce Campbell as the Man of Steel — and sit on his performance. I would pull Jim-Carrey-in-Eternal-Sunshine understatement out of him — and you better believe he'd get the "and" in the opening credits, as in:
2. In X-Men 2: Arch-antagonist Magneto meets Pyro, who's riding the cusp between light and dark. Magneto asks the pyrokinetic newbie his name.
"John," he says.
And Magneto says, "What's your real name, John?"
Once again, Bryan Singer and his creative team take the goofiness of superhero (and supervillain) nicknames and lend them an air of tragic legitimacy. Furthermore, the brilliant Ian McKellen asks the question — "What's your real name?" — with quiet confrontation and empathy. True, this choice and idea wouldn't work in the DC universe, where most of the heroes still acquire their powers through various industrial mishaps, but it soars in the Marvel universe, where the march of evolution has taken a bizarre turn, and where genetic chance has made gods of harmless, confused children. In a world where rebellious youth have always taken nicknames — from the jaunty handles of 1950s greasers to the jagged codenames of street gangs and gangsta rappers — X-Men 2 reminds us that outcasts assume a nickname because they don't identify with their own.
But let's get back to Unbreakable and its moment of joyous discovery. Remember the movie's glacial pace? Well, it's in full-force here, as we watch Willis' character, David Dunne — gotta love Shyamalan using an alliterative name for his hero — lifting weights in his basement as his growingly awe-struck son watches. Keep in mind that earlier in the movie, David and his son had met Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah Price charatcer — the brittle-boned Professor-X-gone-wrong — who had told David that he had superpowers.
Back in the weight room, David asks his son to remove some weight from his bench press bar. Secretly, his son adds weight — and David lifts it. It's more than he's ever lifted.
And get this: David, who had downplayed any idea of his powers — who had been his own Ma and Pa Kent his whole life — whispers to his son, "How much more can we put on?"
Understand this: Shyamalan is an almighty pro at packing love into the smallest of moments. This moment, when David actually decides to indulge his superpowers, happens in the spectral opposite place and under the spectral opposite circumstances of Clark Kent's joyous moment of discovery — but it's the same moment, done in Chekov-style understatement, as opposed to the soaring Greek excess of Kent's.
(Side note: Another great example of a love-packed Shyamalan moment: In Signs, an Army recruiter asks Joaquin Phoenix's character (a failed big-league baseballer), "Didn't you hold three minor-league batting records?"
And Phoenix, pouring all the love he can into this one syllable, says, "Five.")
But it's not until the moment of superheroic pathos that Shyamalan really finds the center and focus of his narrative, and he does it by smuggling classic comic book imagery in through the back door and grouping it with his favorite theme: the healing of fractured families.
Slowly, Dunne comes to realize that he does have superpowers, including a Dead-Zone-esque ability to sense the wrongdoing of others through touch. He tests his power by hanging out in a train station and holding his arms loosely at his sides. As people brush past him, his super-sense registers that a passing woman is a short-con jewel thief, but we really start to delve the depths of David Dunne's superheroic pathos when he brushes against a harmless-looking college student — and sees him date-rape a passed-out girl in his mind's eye. And then? After he finds out that this kid is a rapist? What does he do?
Not a fucking thing, because he sees this harmless-looking kid hug his parents, who are there to drive him home.
What could he do? Beat the kid up? Kill him?
Shyamalan knows he can't do a damn thing, and simply shows us the grief on David's face.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.