The Fragility of Unbreakable

Originally appeared in Crooked Marquee.

The year was 2000. The Sixth Sense, an original psychological thriller by a then 28-year old M. Night Shyamalan, was the second-highest grosser the previous year, only to be surpassed by the fourth entry in one of the biggest film franchises of all time, Star Wars. Shyamalan – hailed as the next-Spielberg following  the thumping critical and commercial success of The Sixth Sense – arrived with Unbreakable, opening a day before ThanksgivingHowever, neither the audience nor the studio could precisely categorize Unbreakable, owing to the restrained action, which held it back from promoted as an action spectacle, and sparse horror, which refrained it from being the film the audience expected to see – a confluence of horror and psychological facets, akin to The Sixth Sense. In its true sense, Unbreakable is a superhero film, but not many knew it at the time of its release.

In an interview with the Rotten Tomatoes, while promoting Glass in 2019, Shayamalan recalled that comic books and superheroes were considered niche in 2000, restricting the appeal to a cult that celebrated them, and consequently prompting the studio to market the film as a psychological thriller to capitalize on the success of The Sixth Sense. Labeling the superhero genre niche and superhero fans a sect now seems far from accurate, but Tim Burton’s Batman, the zenith of the superhero genre at the box-office,was 11 years in the past. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was two  years away from hitting screens, and two films that would eventually catapult the genre to box office glory – The Dark Knight and Iron Man – were eight summers away.

Unbreakable, although not based on one, is a comic book movie by every sense. It’s profoundly meta, and its beauty emanates from the very fact that the story weaves character motivation and perspectives using comic books, and doesn’t desist from ostentatiously expressing its love for them. The film respects comic books, like Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who strongly believes them to be  an extension of historical documentation. As a film, too, from its color palate to symbolism, the film simultaneously abides by and breaks its comic nature and superhero conception. For instance, the main characters – David Dunn and Elijah Price – are distinguished using green and purple, respectively.

Continue reading in Crooked Marquee.

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