Superhero movies are everywhere today. Everyone wants in on the action. Incredibles 2 has just graced theaters nationwide. DC rebirthed the genre with the Dark Knight trilogy and then seemed to lose track of what they were doing when they tried to duplicate Marvel's success. (I'm in the minority that liked Batman v. Superman, but I didn't even make it halfway through Suicide Squad.) Marvel's done it best, putting out two or three movies a year and continuing to bust blocks with no sign of their popularity waning.
We've had superhero movies for decades, and starting in 2000 with the first X-Men, they've grown to be a staple of cinematic fare. But another superhero movie came out that year - a standalone film, not part of a franchise. A brand-new, original mythology began. Unbreakable starred Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robin Wright (Penn). It had barely any special effects, barely any stunts, and barely any fighting. Doesn't sound like much of a superhero flick, does it? It wasn't an action movie, but a drama. Unbreakable wasn't concerned with dazzling audiences with feats of strength, mighty gladiators, or the wanton destruction of city blocks. There were no mutants, no aliens, no fancy tech or cool costumes. It was concerned with three things that, while present in today's blockbusters, often are shoehorned in to support all the glamour:
Characters, story, and painstaking camera work.
You see, Unbreakable is a superhero movie that's really about the restoration of a marriage. I didn't catch this the first few times I saw it. I was swept along with M Night Shyamalan's unique storytelling techniques, the theme of comic books being a form of pictorial history, and trying to determine whether Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Jackson) was really right about David Dunn (Willis) being a real-life superhero. But the real theme of the movie is that a true hero is cursed. David has a destiny, and David has a love (Wright). If he follows his fate, he will lose his love, and vice versa.
We meet David as a man from Philadelphia who has just come from a job interview in New York. He's looking for work there because he and his wife are at the beginning of a separation. Their marriage is broken, and David hits on an attractive woman who sits next to him on the train, after slipping his wedding ring from his hand. But the bit of banter between David and the woman on the train isn't just there to show he'd be willing to cheat on his wife. He tells the woman that he's not interested in football. Taken on its own, this isn't crucial information and it's easily forgotten. But David works as a security guard at a football stadium, and we learn that when he was in college, he was a star athlete. He has a folder full of newspaper clippings about his success on the gridiron. He is most definitely interested in football, but he keeps it a secret. He doesn't even admit it to a stranger.
From the opening scene, David is portrayed as a weak, tired, and morally questionable man. Then there is an accident. He awakens in the hospital and is told that he is the sole survivor of a terrible train crash. What's more, "You don't have a scratch on you." We then see David with his wife Audrey (Wright) for the first time, along with their son Joseph (played by Spencer Treat Clark, by far the most delightful thing about the movie). He's just survived this terrible tragedy, and the room is full of people who have lost loved ones, yet David and Audrey can barely hold hands for more than a few seconds.
David meets Elijah Price, who has osteogenesis imperfecta. As a child he was teased and called Mr. Glass because of how easily his bones broke. We are introduced to Elijah at three points in his life: as a baby born in a department store, as a child with a broken arm, and as a man running an art gallery who uses a cane made of glass. Each time we are introduced to Elijah, we see him first in a reflection on glass: in a mirror, in a television screen, and in the frame of a piece of art. Elijah believes comic books are a modern form of pictorial history, and that the stories are a modern version of mythology. He believes that if he is completely breakable, there must be someone out there who is his opposite, who is completely unbreakable. He believes this person is David. David quickly dismisses the notion because his son points out that he was injured in college, in a car accident that almost killed his then-girlfriend Audrey and that prevented him from ever playing football again.
But David was never injured in college. The night of the accident, he ripped the door from the upside-down car and pulled Audrey to safety. He was scared and frightened, not just because the woman he loved was in danger but because he didn't understand why he was completely unharmed. Audrey loves David but could never be with him long-term because she detests the violence that football represents to her. So David lies. He says he was injured. He walks away from his dream of being an invincible athlete and follows his heart instead. (Shameless plug - this conflict is also central to my book Joe.) He cannot have both.
As a result, David's marriage crumbles because he is a shell of the person he could be. He chooses to work as a security guard at a football stadium - literally watching other people live out his dream. He becomes weak, empty, driftless, and his choice to sacrifice his dream has now also become the sacrifice of his love.
Every move in the story toward David finally embracing his destiny is mirrored by an event that strengthens his marriage. After the train accident, Audrey decides they need to give their relationship another try. When their son is convinced that his father is unbreakable and tries to prove it by shooting David with a gun, Audrey is further moved by the fear of losing him. Audrey doesn't know David is unbreakable, and she can't know. If she did, he could lose her.
David dons his SECURITY poncho and, in the shadows, saves two girls who have been kidnapped in their own home and whose parents are now dead at the hands of a man who has taken over their house. David becomes the superhero he was always meant to be. However, to me the climax of the movie is not when he saves the girls. It's later that night, when he gently lifts Audrey up out of the guest-room bed where she was sleeping, carries her up the stairs, and lays her down in their bed.
The next morning at the breakfast table, when he slides a newspaper to his son with a headline about a mysterious hero, with pain in his face he puts his finger to his lips. Audrey must never know.
This is the true curse of the hero. The hero must do the right thing without consideration for how it will affect him. This means that often the hero must lie. He must hide. Even those closest to him can never really know him.
David can only save his marriage by restoring himself, and he can only restore himself by lying to Audrey.
This is the superhero movie that cuts out all the sugar and serves up the protein. If you haven't seen it, see it. If you haven't seen it in a while, see it again. And if you haven't seen Split, well...
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P.S. Another fantastic treat about this movie is that so many of the times we see David, he is framed by something in the scene - seats on a train, doorways, etc. It makes him look like he's in a panel of a comic book.