Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
At this point, maybe you're wondering two things:
1. What exacty is a moment of superheroic pathos?
2. How exactly does Shyamalan "smuggle" comic book imagery in through the back door? Isn't the movie already about a fucking superhero?
Answer to 1: The moment of superheroic pathos is when the hero realizes, "I can't save everyone."
Answer to 2: As with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan carefully keeps his overall color scheme drab and gray, all while craftily deploying bright, primary colors to carry clues and dramatic payload. In Sense, the color red indicated the supernatural. In Unbreakable — and once again I'm kicking myself in the ass for not picking up on this immediately — bright, primary colors mean evil. Again, the chief color palette of the comics of yore outfit this movie's bad guys. The short-con jewel thief? She wears a bright red dress. The date-raper? He wears a bright yellow flannel. Also in the train station, David encounters the third-act villain — a bulky sociopath who holds a family captive and wears bright orange.
So why am I kicking myself in the ass? Because Shyamalan ends his movie with another of his mega-twists: he reveals that Samuel L. Jackson's character, seemingly a mentor the whole movie, actually orchestrated a series of disasters in a mad quest to find a superhero (remember that Willis' character emerges unscathed from a huge train wreck to open the movie). It's Shyamalan's second-worst twist (only The Village had a less-satisfying resolution), but after watching the movie a few more times, I was even more pissed I didn't catch onto it.
Why? Jackson's character wears purple. He's the only other fucking character in the movie who wears a solid, bright color, and I didn't catch on that he was the bad guy. Ah, well — no Nobel prize for me!
Back to the pathos: David follows the orange-clad freak back to an upper-middle-class home, where David discovers the entire family bound and gagged. After a tough fight, David kills the bad guy, saves two helpless children — only to find that their parents are dead. Indeed, right after his battle with the psycho, David unbinds the hands of the mother, and her body flumps onto the floor. And he simply stands there for a moment. Shyamalan doesn't show us any triumphant scene with the kids hugging David. Hell, the kids help David out of a jam (the orange villain knocks him into a pool, subjecting David to his personal Kryptonite — water), but after David climbs out of the pool, the kids stand there in stunned, blank, David Lynch tableaus.
Again: David Dunne inhabits our world, and if someone in our world discovered a family being held captive by a serial killer weeks into their captivity, one or more of them would be dead. Kudos to Shyamalan for making the right call; not only by sacrificing two members of the family that David saves, but also by once again underplaying David's reaction. Far be it from me to bring up Donner's magnificent Superman again, but I love the ongoing contrast between the aforementioned moment of joyous discovery and again here, with the moment of superheroic pathos. Again, in Superman, it's all Greek excess. Clark Kent fails to save Lois Lane, and his wail shatters the heavens. David Dunne fails to save both parents of a family, and he simply mourns.
But I have more to praise in Unbreakable. I've yet to address trope number one: The origin. Shyamalan doesn't show us the origin of David Dunne's powers — presumably he's a freak of nature like Marvel's mutants — but Shyamalan does show us the origin of his character. Midway through the movie, we flash back to see Dunne in a car crash. He's unhurt, of course, but when the police and ambulance arrive and ask him if he's injured, he says his knee is hurt. Shyamalan also gives us the strong impression that Dunne does this so he can stop playing football. The movie also opens with David hitting on a sports agent while riding the about-to-derail train, who asks him if he likes football. David says, "Not really." Later in the film, David's son asks him to join in a game of touch football against an actual college football player — the same player that the doomed sports agent had been traveling to scout. (Damn, that's kind of twisted.)
As always, I am going to read way more into this than any non-insane person would.
I can't help but think that Shyamalan had the Superman myth on his mind when he crafted Dunne — Dunne, who pretends to be infirm so he can avoid playing football, and I like to think that Shyamalan — as our generation's self-appointed geeky heir to Hitchcock — has aligned himself resolutely on the nerd side of the jock-nerd split in American society. He does it by making genre pictures that masquerade as high art, and in Unbreakable, he specifically does it by giving us the spectral opposite of Clark Kent. Kent can't wait to show off his powers. David Dunne, by contrast, subconsciously hides his powers and only acknowledges them in a hushed whisper in his basement with his son.
With his son.
I repeat that Shyamalan likes to repair fractured families, and he does it in vintage Joss Whedon fashion: by subjecting his families to fantastic adversity. The supernatural brings Cole Sear closer to his mother in The Sixth Sense. An alien invasion reminds the family in Signs how much they love each other (and returns faith in the almighty to Mel Gibson's former priest character).
And in Unbreakable, David Dunne discovers that he's a superhero, and it brings him closer to his son and his wife. Not only does David share his burgeoning super strength with his son, but he also talks his frantic son out of shooting him. In an awesome scene, David's son, convinced that his father is invulnerable, is going to shoot him. Bruce Willis, who whispers most of his lines in the movie, shouts at his son and tells him that if he doesn't put down the gun, he'll leave the family.
Please don't think I'm saying that yelling at your kid is the way to be a good father. I am saying this: When the chips were down, David delivered, and he delivered as a father.
Looking back at this movie again, though, I find myself smiling. After his first outing as an actual hero — capped by an iconic image: David returning his raincoat/superhero disguise to its closet in superheroic slow-mo — David tells his son that his son was right. And I guess that means that if his son had shot him, the damn bullet would have bounced off.
But Shyamalan knows that such an overt demonstration of David's superpowers would undermine his story as much as it would undermine David's efforts to reconnect with his family. The gun scene is the emotional climax of Unbreakable, even if the final resolution, reconciliation and reveal between David and his son doesn't come until the end.
If you found this movie disappointing the first time around, I encourage you to give it another chance, because it's just as interesting to watch David Dunne figure out how to be a husband and a father as it is to watch him figure out how to be a superhero.
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.