With San Diego Comic Con only days away, it’s somewhat obligatory to discuss the comic book movie genre. For nearly two decades now, the genre has graced the big screen for what now feels like every month of the year. Whether it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Extended Universe, and the X-Men series, there’s so much market saturation of these films that they overshadow other classics that shape the genre in a different light.
I’ve grown a lot fatigued of these movies. The devoted fans of the aforementioned franchises can have their cake and eat it too, but there’s one specific series in the comic book genre that stands out as something both special and fresh. Interestingly enough, it’s one whose origins predated the vast craze. The series I’m referring to is the Eastrail 177 trilogy, created by none other than M. Night Shyamalan.
Inspired by distinct artistic traits and mythology featured in comic books, Shyamalan sought to inject these aspects into a gritty, real-world setting where a character has superhuman abilities and tries to figure out the meaning of how they’re supposed to utilize them. The journey began in 2000 with the release of Unbreakable, which came hot off the heels of Shyamalan’s breakout hit, The Sixth Sense.
The movie centers on David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a Philadelphia football stadium security guard that’s the lone survivor of a deadly train crash (Eastrail 177). The doctors are shocked that he’s alive, but even more for the fact that he didn’t break any bones nor have a single scratch on his body. After being released from the hospital, David returns to his mundane life that is no pun intended, fractured. His marriage to his wife (Robin Wright) is continuing to crumble, and he struggles to form a close bond with his son (Spencer Treat Clark). They all try to comprehend how to handle the miracle and find any potential meaning for how it can collectively improve their estranged lives.
David’s search for an answer takes a turn when he’s contacted by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book art dealer that was born with Type 1 osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that renders a person’s bones extremely fragile and prone to easily fracture. Having spent nearly a third of his life in a hospital bed due to the disorder, his mother helped him through the pain by introducing him to comic books, which essentially became his form of therapy. He’s so consumed by them to the point where he develops a theory that people with superhuman abilities might exist in the real world. Elijah incessantly urges David to confront the possibility of his theory ringing true, which might ultimately help them both find their meaning in the world.
In the present day, spectacle is often considered to be the most paramount characteristic for comic book movies. Normally it’s used to describe the thrills of a grand, colorful action sequence where the hero(es) duke it out with the villain. Shyamalan however puts forth a different take on the term. His form of spectacle is driven through visual storytelling, but in the opposite of how it’s primarily used today.
One of the main forms of this style is Shyamalan shooting a majority of the movie with fluid, precisely framed long shots that mimic both the artwork and angles of a comic book page. It is perfectly set up in the movie’s opening sequence that shows the birth of Elijah and subsequent early diagnosis of his disorder. The camera acts as the fly on the wall, tucked away at the end corner of the room facing a door in the distance, when in actuality it’s looking at a mirror and the people that were thought to be in the far background are actually mere feet away. With numerous pans from one character to another, it covers all the action as it would likely appear in comic book form.
Shyamalan’s comic book visual style is heightened through his use of color, something that is crucial in comics themselves in how they distinguish the heroes, the villains, and even the settings. For example, dark and dreary forms of gray and blue reflect the dreariness of David and Elijah’s daily lives. However there are two colors in particular that stick out the most, which are green and purple. Green is commonly a symbol of life, which is what David has been seeking for several years. His everyday shirts are in a light shades of green, while his security attire has skews darker. The latter being so important because it factors in the buildup of him embracing his superhuman abilities, and then deciding his purpose on how they can be applied. Elijah on the other hand is defined by purple, which is reflected in his wardrobe, the envelope containing his letter to David, and the cover of the first comic book he receives as a kid. Reportedly this contrast of Elijah’s purple to David’s green was Samuel L. Jackson’s own idea.
Jackson’s performance as Elijah Price is in my opinion the best of his career. Although his more colorful roles are talked about the most, notably his multiple Quentin Tarantino collaborations, his approach to Elijah is an excellent mix of toned down urgency and heartfelt emotion.
Willis is also terrific and it seems that over the past nearly two decades, no director other than Shyamalan has been the best at bringing out the best of the actor’s range outside his niche action roles. Because of David’s reclusive relationship with both his family and world in general, Willis is powerfully subdued and delivers the best physical acting of his career since 12 Monkeys. Even without dialogue, you can always clearly tell how his character feels in a certain situation.
Outside of the supreme talent of Shyamalan and his actors, James Newton Howard’s compelling score deserves just as much if not more recognition. It’s rightly emotive and consistently matches the tone of every scene where it’s featured. The composition titled “Visions,” is undoubtedly the best in the soundtrack. It brilliantly complements David’s transformation from having a meaningless life to one of defined purpose.
When reflecting back on the film’s theatrical release in 2000, it came out at a turning point in the comic book movie industry. The first X-Men movie came out a few months before, which set the template for both its future franchise and the vast opportunities of other comic book adaptations to find success on the big screen. Two years later, the first Spider-Man launched the genre into a mega craze that has still continued to grow to this day. Now because of the recent release of Split, Unbreakable finally has its own trilogy, which will culminate in the upcoming third and presumably final installment, Glass. If you’re attending San Diego Comic Con, you should mark on your Friday schedule to attend the Universal Pictures panel which will have a panel for the movie. Be sure to arrive early morning or camp out the night before to endure that hellacious line for Hall H though.
Unbreakable is still to this day the tentpole for gritty, realistic comic book movies. It may not have been highly successful during its theater run, but its cult following is growing stronger by the years. By watching this masterpiece, you’ll realize that not all movies of this genre need to be driven mostly by action spectacle and one-liners. As long as you craft some great, well-rounded characters, smartly develop them through an intricate journey, and also maintain a consistent tone that matches both their personalities and story, you know you’ve made something special that stands out on its own for the better. A toast to you, M. Night, for creating a universe that’s wholly original and emotionally engaging. Can’t wait for January 18th of next year to see how it will end!