Eight years before Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and Marvel's Iron Man, there was Unbreakable. At the time, superhero movies were not the instant money makers they are today with the MCU, DCEU and X-Men universe constantly churning out new films. The risk paid off then and continues to do so with M. Night Shyamalan's recent film Split and the upcoming Glass which will act as a sequel to both Unbreakable and Split. Beyond the sequels, it is important — amidst the endless streams of modern superhero franchises — to examine what today's superhero films can learn from their daring predecessor Unbreakable.
1. Gradual, Unromanticized Realization Of Superpowers
Whether you realize you're a mutant, get bit by a radioactive spider or build a powerful suit of armor, all superheroes have an ability which makes them special. The process tends to follow a trope of realizing the ability via an accident or tragedy, swiftly moving into a call to action which places them on the path of superheroism. #Unbreakable defies this trope through the process by which David Dunn (Bruce Willis) becomes a superhero. Tragedy strikes early on when he emerges unscathed as the sole survivor of a train crash. The difference here is that the tragedy doesn't spring David into action, suddenly saving people left and right, confident of his abilities. Understanding and embracing his powers is a gradual process. It isn't until close to the end of the movie that he fully realizes and accepts his powers, making the decision to use them to help others in need.
Many of the most important moments that get David to this point occur within the mundanity of everyday life, from his security job at the stadium, to speaking with a teacher after his son gets in trouble at school. It turns out he's had these powers all his life and while a tragedy first brings them to the surface, it's still a slow process of becoming anything akin to a superhero.
The scene in which he fully embraces his powers and then follows up by trailing the sadistic janitor isn't a glorious or epic show of heroic power. The visions he receives from the people that bump into him are each more disturbing than the last, and the following confrontation with the janitor is only resolved through raw, brutal violence. Realistically, being a superhero and stopping "bad guys" would be a slow and unromantic process. This is the kind of realism and inner struggle modern superhero movies can strive to emulate, going beyond just a superhero who broods and struggles with whether or not to use their powers.
2. A Brilliant, Yet Vulnerable Villain
From Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, audiences are loving the portrayals of their favorite superheroes. The same cannot be said across the board for villains in the superhero genre, many of whom are received poorly. In the #MCU, fans have even dubbed the phenomenon "Marvel's Villain Problem." Many villains in these movies are considered to be forgettable and bland with thinly developed motives.
Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah Price/Mr. Glass is the exact opposite of this, as he is both brilliant and vulnerable. His brilliance is not only demonstrated by the revelation of numerous acts of destruction orchestrated to identify and expose unbreakables like David. Throughout the film, he deftly manipulates David into experimenting with and embracing his powers until David becomes the man Elijah wants him to become. David's family is psychologically manipulated by Elijah as well, in order to push David into becoming this person.
Just as important, though, is Elijah's vulnerability. The very first scene of the movie depicts this vulnerability by showing him as a baby with broken limbs, continuing into a childhood where he's afraid to go outside and be around other kids because of how easily his bones break and being mocked as "Mr. Glass." As an adult, that vulnerability is still there as he walks with a limp and later becomes wheelchair-bound.
Through his brilliance and vulnerability, Elijah is a villain audiences admire and empathize with, unsure of his next move. This is the makings of a villain few modern superhero movies have managed to create. One #Marvel villain most fans love and don't have a problem with is Loki. He succeeds as a villain not just because of charm, but for many of the reasons Elijah succeeds as a villain in Unbreakable. Loki's brilliance is exemplified through his ability to deceive and conquer. Fans also experience his vulnerability between his jealousy of Thor, the scorn Odin feels toward him and the utter devastation he feels at Frigga's death. Modern superhero movies should thus look to both Elijah Price and #Loki as templates for formidable villains who achieve that perfect blend of brilliance and vulnerability.
3. A Suspenseful Confrontation Instead Of A CGI Boss Battle
In the third act, most superhero films feature what I like to call CGI Boss Battles. TV Tropes Wiki defines a boss battle in a video game as
"contain[ing] a climactic confrontation with a unique, stronger than average, and often monstrous enemy creature known colloquially as a 'boss'. They have several important features, depending on the genre of game in which they are found."
In superhero films, the protagonist(s) usually battle the antagonist in an excessive display of CGI. Sometimes these confrontations are done well, such as in Logan where the showdown against X-24 serves to culminate Logan's battle with his inner demons. Too often the CGI Boss Battles are bloated and contrived, such as the final clash between Superman and General Zod in Man of Steel.
Instead of furthering the trope that is so prevalent now, Unbreakable builds to a suspenseful confrontation between David Dunn and Elijah Price that relies on strong acting, cinematography and music. These elements create a tense, powerful ending without a single punch being thrown. The protagonist and antagonist still face off and justice is served in a way that is befitting of their respective character development. Such feats are achieved without an onslaught of CGI and explosive violence. The reveal is not necessarily shocking but it feels earned and beautifully tragic through the film's intricate buildup.
It's difficult to say whether modern audiences can be satisfied by the kind of confrontation David and Elijah had. One of the few criticisms of Wonder Woman that fans have latched onto is that the battle between Diana and Ares is the epitome of a CGI Boss Battle. On the other hand, one of the few criticisms of Spider-Man: Homecoming that fans have latched onto is that the final showdown between Spider-Man and the Vulture is underwhelming. Upcoming movies like Justice League and Avengers: Infinity War obviously aren't going to throw away their ending battles against Steppenwolf and Thanos for an Unbreakable-esque ending, but it would be refreshing to see a superhero film strive to create a quieter, yet more powerful ending confrontation rather than yet another CGI Boss Battle.
A movie that tries to follow all three of these lessons will likely struggle, perhaps only amounting to a cheap imitation of Unbreakable, but a superhero movie that dares to be original and finds a way to smartly incorporate at least one of these lessons could be an incredible hit that reshapes the genre.
Which of these lessons do you want to see used in upcoming superhero films? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
[Sources: TV Tropes Wiki]