I can’t believe I hadn’t seen this already, because it’s so completely up my alley. I love moody, melancholy psychological thrillers, I love superhero films that play around with the genre’s conventions, and I love Samuel L. Jackson. The whole M. Night Shyamalan craze was before my time, but I’m fascinated by how apparently people really saw as the next Kubrick or Spielberg after “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”, and his films released more in my time, like “After Earth” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. Watching this, I get why he was such a sensation back at the time.
Most superhero films follow a very conventional three-act structure. First act, the hero’s situation is established, their flaws and troubles examined, then they gain superpowers and slowly realise just what they can do. Second act, they use their powers in increasingly dramatic scenarios. Third act, they face off with the supervillain, save the day, and resolve the issues established in the first act. A few successful superhero films shake up the structure but essentially stick to the essence of it (”Batman Begins”, “Man of Steel”), but rarely does a non-sequel, first superhero film neglect it entirely.
“Unbreakable” doesn’t exactly outright subvert it or neglect it, but what it does is take the first act, and make it the entire film. There is no “becomes increasingly proficient with powers” second act, nor a “faces off with supervillain” third act. The entire film is the “examining the character’s flaws, as well as having them gain or come to the realisation they have superpowers” first act. Often I find that section the most thrilling and interesting of superhero movies, as it is the most concentrated both on character development and the wonder of the world, and the least concentrated on action.
Indeed, “Unbreakable” has barely any action, and makes deliberate use of anticlimax. It is a character piece in many ways, with Bruce Willis in one of his rare actually-giving-a-shit performances (he really is very good in this), and Samuel L. Jackson in one of his greatest performances. There’s no shouting, brash Jackson here, but the rage he does so well is still present – it’s just simmering deep below the surface, only very occasionally bubbling up and letting you glimpse what’s driving the character. The ending in particular is such a powerful character moment for the leads, so much more satisfying than a regular brawl or what-have-you would have been.
The focus on character rather than the spectacle or action that superheroics allow a narrative to delve into is the film’s greatest strength, and the themes of self-acceptance and finding one’s place in the world are explored with depth and pathos through the characters.
I haven’t even talked about the visuals yet, but they’re very fine work, particularly the careful use of colour. I love how the film is mostly desaturated except for occasional key elements and figures with striking hues, because that’s exactly what comics do! There’s go gimmicky Ang Lee’s “Hulk” style mimicry of the superficial elements of comic visuals. Instead, the actual theory behind the art direction of comics is used, with colour and framing being the main focuses.
These days, especially since “The Dark Knight” in 2008, superhero films have tried to chase the “realism” train, going for grittiness and cynicism in an attempt to find depth. Occasionally, this actually works (Nolan’s trilogy is widely accepted as such, and I maintain that Snyder’s DC work excels in that area as well), but a lot of the time it just ends up an ugly, cynical mess (like ”Suicide Squad” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”). Many superhero films sidestep the problem entirely by resorting to superficial quip-heavy veneers that rarely try to go for depth at all (the enormously successful Marvel movies generally operate on this level). “Unbreakable” was an earnest attempt to find depth in the story of a superhero, while playing around with the genre’s conventions all along the way. Hell, it subverts the biggest convention of all – it isn’t even based on a comic book! But the superhero genre convention I’m happiest it broke was that of a shallow story heavy on spectacle and light on heart, because “Unbreakable” absolutely succeeded in finding meaning in the genre. I give it four and a half cans of paint, and a raincoat.