Here I thought I was going to be a lone voice, but a bit of searching showed me otherwise – recently, people have been coming out of the closet to admit they think Unbreakable is a freaking excellent superhero film.
It’s even in Time Magazine. So I guess I’m showing up to the party rather than ranting on the corner.
Anyone reading this already knows that this film followed M. Night Shyamalan’s box-office hit and fan favorite The Sixth Sense, and that it didn’t do as well at the time although not panned. But in today’s haze of MCU and whatnot, it might be good to remind you, once well into the 1990s, “it’s a comic!” wasn’t a common marketing or reviewer phrase. U.S. movies were mining comics constantly, as usual, but promotion and reception about the source material was weird.
What follows isn’t film fanwank! (1) I was consulting for filmmakers during this time, for actual money, so had some inside scoop on economic and production details like rolling breakpoints; (2) I’m listing these for historical context to talk about the post topic and admission of bias (the confessions), so please don’t provide your standard rant on any of them, and please stay within the time-frame.
- Some were released with little mention and no mainstream promotion of the comics origin: The Mask (1994), Men in Black (1997), Mystery Men (1999).
- Confession: No surprise, I like all of these a lot, like most people I know (at least for the first two).
- The Batman films in this period, including Returns, Forever, and & Robin, were aimed at making big bucks on opening weekend and nothing else; they aren’t even comics films but rather franchise spectacle and to a great extent sneered at the comics source material.
- Confession: I hate these, and I’m not even a Batman purist – they really are crap films.
- Some were obvious genre-ghetto productions like The Meteor Man (1993), Tank Girl (1995), Barb Wire (1996), Steel (1997), and Spawn (1997), promoted to “those comics people” and expected to make their money in international video release. Blankman (1994), TimeCop (1994), and the two Tales from the Crypt films (Demon Knight 1995, Bordello of Blood 1996) were similar but with a little more expected commercial return due to the comedy, action, and horror categories respectively.
- Confession: I like three of these without reservation, like one of them but feel quite filthy in doing so, regard one of them as not too bad, dislike one of them very much, and haven’t seen three of them.
- I suspect that The Shadow (1994), Judge Dredd (1995), The Phantom (1996), and The Saint (1997) all suffered from being promoted as “comics” before release, meaning, during production, they were modeled on the Batman strategy and received B-team writer treatment.
- Confession: I am fond one of these mostly due to its charm if not anything great, and find the other three boring and very badly scripted.
- The Crow (1994) is too confounded by its production circumstances to categorize, but it sort of goes in this zone, perhaps unintentionally, and might have gone in the first.
- Blade (1998) took a little while to be recognized as the “comics, say it loud and say it proud” breakout.
Obviously comics had broken into Hollywood in a big way but were writhing in the throes of second-class status at all levels of production, promotion, and reception. My point is that Unbreakable wasn’t promoted or spoken of as a “movie doing comics” at all. Ebert’s review glances that way, recoils in horror, and then spends all its verbiage trying to tapdance away from it.
And that’s my topic: the difference between a comics movie vs. a movie about comics. Maybe my “vs.” is misplaced, in that they may not be exclusive, but I do think one or the other must take priority.
What am I claiming? Let’s approach it from the negative. Take a look at Kirby’s Captain America’s and Leifeld’s too. Say what you like about either as “real” or “the rightful” artist on the character, but to non-comics people all such talk is baffling, because both images are indisputably comics content, period. And a movie with that in there is a comics movie, right?
Whereas a comics-person may pony up tickets on that basis, but will also get a little deeper in the long run, focusing on more fundamental characterization and conflict-content, when and if they ever think about it. The costumes and slam-bang aren’t enough on their own, and, I think, really don’t have to be all that extreme for the “that’s comics!” category to apply.
In the very same year, X-Men came out, full of perfectly enjoyable scenes like this one ’cause – in non-comics discourse – that’s a “comics movie” for sure. I’m saying Unbreakable is too. Even with lines in it like this:
It’s all right to be afraid, David, ’cause this part won’t be like a comic book. Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.
Well, life doesn’t fit into movies either, set into frames that were shot for it. Plenty of comics, even superhero ones, include lines like “this isn’t a comic book,” to indicate that they won’t be including certain idiomatic tropes, and that doesn’t stop them from being excellent superhero comics concerning all the other idiomatic tropes, and more importantly, the appropriate characterizations and conflicts.
I want to talk more about that, a lot. But now I need to dispose of two distractions. In doing so, please stud “Ron thinks” and “in his vewing” throughout the next bits.
Distraction 1: It doesn’t “deconstruct” comics, it’s simply very good. Young academics had found as of this very historical moment that they could talk about comics and about films that weren’t directed by Coppola or Hitchcock as long as they claimed they were deconstructing them – even when their analyses used standard methodology. You can read a lot of film critique that’s straightforward Gerald Mast or Roland Barthes but waves the Deconstructionism flag high, because otherwise that Ph.D. candidate could never have gotten away with watching Star Wars 82 times for his degree. Therefore “deconstructs,” when describing a director or text, often masks “hey this film is pretty great” and nothing more.
The plot structure is simple: this happens, then this happens, and finally, this is what we know now. Nothing about any of the “this-es” is unusual, reversed/skewed, or in any way critical of how they’re typically done in superhero comics.
Distraction 2: It’s not a ‘twist’ movie, thus obviating any debriefing about whether it was a “good” twist, or whether you “saw it coming”/”guessed,” or didn’t. “The twist!” became a reviewer-favorite concept in the 1990s, then graduated to a marketing term, so for some time, it has become over-applied to mean any film in which information is explicitly stated to a protagonist after the halfway-mark. Perhaps Shyalaman even did himself in with The Sixth Sense, so that forever more, people watching his films will shout “twist! twist!” whenever something happens which the protagonist didn’t fully understand until that point. Granted, he didn’t help much with this line:
This one has a surprise ending.
But a surprise for the protagonist isn’t the same as a twist for the viewers. If you experienced Price’s disclosure near the end as a surprise for yourself as well as for Dunn, that’s fine, I’m not saying you’re dumb or anything, but I also don’t think it changes anything about what the viewer already saw. It adds causality and tightens up the relationship between hero and villain, but it doesn’t revise prior events ‘ established causality or turn the hero’s decisions into different decisions from how they were presented. I experienced it as addition and clarity, not reversal.
Please let’s move completely past the distractions and talk about the movie entirely without first-viewing, first-weekend-review perspective. So, comics movie vs. movie about comics … I think it’s a comics movie with about-comics material inside it, reinforcing the primary content rather than overtaking it.
About the hero: there’s never a real question whether David Dunn will get into superheroing. It takes a lot of steps, most of which are small, and tone is in a minor key, but it does happen steadily. Much more important is the procedural anatomy: to be a great superhero, you need three flaws: first, the physical or social one that’s overcome and effectively eliminated by becoming a hero; second (and optional), the vulnerability or limitation that keeps you from being untouchable; and third, the moral one inherent to how one became a hero, which cannot be removed.
Captain America is a great example, because the first and third are split over such diverse introductions. In the first (1941), all he’s got is the first flaw: becoming a superhero overcomes his initial physical frailty. In the second (1965), he gains the moral flaw: he’s a modern-day hero now, but framed in the death of Bucky and its corresponding lack of closure. The latter isn’t merely a co-occurrence; the event which killed Bucky is the same which resulted in his being preserved.
Dunn’s initial flaw is his emotional disconnectedness, especially to his family, apparent in his behavior toward his seatmate in the first scene, and implied strongly in the immediate backstory. Awakening (acknowledging? realizing?) his powers directly aids him to put his personal life together again, mainly due to his son’s belief in him. It’s so incremental that one may wonder halfway through whether it’ll succeed, but in retrospect, it absolutely does.
Then he confronts his vulnerability, which means (i) he must suffer, agonizingly, desperately, for altogether too long; and (2) he doesn’t succumb – and check those swelling chords when he makes it out of the pool. There’s a lotta Marvel in this part of the film, including the genuine fear that he won’t make it despite all reason to the contrary, and how the affirmation that someone cares plays its role in his victory.
What remains is the moral flaw that’s intrinsic to his becoming a hero, and that’s clinched at the end when he discovers his own powers-origin, or access/realization thereof, is inextricably tied to three instances of mass murder. He will have to pay for that – every life he saves can be thought of as such payment, and yet, no matter how many, ten times as many as those who died at Price’s hand, it won’t be enough. No more than for Bucky, Uncle Ben, Battlin’ Murdock, you know the list. Again, that’s why I don’t think it’s a twist, but a completion.
In this case, that’s tied to the origin of the villain too, which is common in film adaptations, not so much in the actual comics although it’s not unknown. As usual, it overshadows the hero’s origin by a considerable margin. The whole story even begins with Elijah Price’s agonizing birth, and wince-inducing contact with a life defined by physical and social pain. In terms of back-story, Dunn has been in denial about his powers for a long time because he refuses to be set apart from humanity, but eventually, in becoming superhuman, finds himself more connected to humanity. Whereas Price begins utterly set apart, appallingly so, and who can even begin to question why he’d commit atrocities in order to make his life into a story – if he can’t be a person, then he’ll be meaningful to people.
It’s a gorgeous blend of Marvel and DC, combining the vulnerability and psychology of the former with the plot/puzzle context of the latter, nicely in one feature, specifically that the hero cannot beat him simply by hitting him.
All live-action superhero films obsess way too much on powers-origin, but in this case, the whole story is the origin rather than shoehorning it into a rushed version of a later story. THe climax is really getting the complete origin story – in a big way, the hero’s “real” series is yet to begin.
Elijah Price is now in an institution for the criminally insane.
Yeah, if you think that’s the end of the story, you haven’t been paying attention. But not the way you might think. I’d almost be happiest – imagining “Unbreakable the ongoing comic” – if he stayed in there as the unresolvable “original sin” of the hero, just as I tend to think that the worst possible thing that happened to Batman and Spider-man, conceptually, was to see the respective killers embedded in their origins return to the pages. I want to see what Dunn does next with other villains, with the knowledge and guilt obtained from this one never absent from his mind, and no closure remotely possible.
Okay! Now for the content about comics inside it. First, there’s the Dark Side of romanticizing or idealizing comics. Price is a really interesting example of fandom. He’s not really a collector, for whom the old mint issue is strictly an investment; he cares greatly about its contents. But on the other hand, he’s not a share-the-love idealist about the stories either. He doesn’t want a kid to have a piece of genuine comics history, and I think he wouldn’t have been thrilled to see it go to a fourteen-year-old any more than to a four-year-old. It’s as if his comics-reading experience in childhood were the Ancient Days, now forever gone; to him, the contents are to be revered and brought to fruition in reality, not to be experienced in an innocent way any more, ever. I suspect more than one comics fan out there recognizes this profile.
Second, the absolutely real ambiguity of the ostensibly heroic, brave content of comics. Think about what Stan Lee has said many times in many books: the villain is brave, the villain is not stupid, the villain feels pain, the villain is the hero of his or her own story. Price gets good advice from his mom as a kid – and he takes it, which is all the more horrifying. He finds his ideals – and he sets his goal – and he’s brave as hell in making it happen. The boy she’s so proud of, who survives a deadly physical condition and becomes a professional success, is the same one who plots and conducts mass murder – it’s totally not a case of split personality or denial. Both happen because he took her advice, focusing on the text they used together to clinch it, and he expresses it here:
I believe comics are a form of history. That someone, somewhere, felt or experienced.
Which, dear reader, is the same reason why I write this blog and why you read it. We believe that too.
Third, the film presents about the bluntest portrait of white and black super-identities possible, much more so than any comic I can think of. It’s either uncompromising or insensitive to tap into the “villainous black killer” meme like that, especially with Dunn as the quintessential ordinary, rather stodgy, service-class sector white ex-jock. I think of it as simply admitting that the issue has been central and trenchant in superhero comics since the mid-1960s if not before, and choosing to go all-the-way with it rather than trying to massage or manage it. To lay it out without softening, Price is black because the demographic is already semi-dehumanized according to the majority culture, so when other black kids in your neighborhood dehumanize you from them, you are no longer only Outsider, you are truly Other. It removes the accusation “he could have chosen otherwise” from accepting himself as inhuman. For my part, I find myself empathetic with Price enough to be entertainingly disturbed by it, which makes it hard for me to take seriously the notion that casting Sam Jackson, or rather, any black actor into the part is ipso facto racist, but I don’t claim to have solved or explained away the issue on that one-viewer-only basis.
Fourth, Price’s theory about comics and culture – if a bit ahistorical – is almost picture-perfect text-obsessed Superman fandom: that the comics superhero originated as deeply-felt, culturally-embedded New Myth, then was transformed into colorful, charming trash. In this context Dunn’s power-set makes a lot of sense, being so minimal, evocative of the early-early Superman rather than the cosmic library o’powers one. His most important one isn’t even his physical durability, but his empathetic “sin-sense,” which could easily have been included in my post Sense, coincidence, nonsense, and consequence.
Fifth, and this is a little weird and perhaps just my viewer’s projection, but it struck me in the theater that some, even the majority of the imagery and culture is very 70s – the kid’s haircut, many of the clothes, even the glimpse of the back-story which pitches his high school as a kind of sports-heaven idyll. Not everything: Price’s birth is set in 1961, positioning the story as contemporary with its release; Willis’ gleaming dome distracts from it; there’s also the walls o’bagged comics store, and a couple other things like the woman’s belly-tattoo and Price’s mobile chair. But still, a lot of it evokes my pre-teen and early teen period with less compromise than one might expect. That makes Price’s insistence that comics are, too, important! more pointed, as no one around him even begins to understand.
Whew! To quote my favorite movie incarnation of a certain villain, “For once, I’m left without a punchline.” Tell me what you think.
Reading: Adilifu Nama’s Super Black provides great compare-and-contrast material for all the comics, film, and TV of the larger history.
Next comics: Sword of God (November 8); One Plus One (November 10)
Next column: Spider-Schlep (November 13)
Posted on November 6, 2016, in Filmtalk, The 90s me and tagged Captain America, David Dunn, Elijah Price, M. Night Shyamalan, Mr. Glass, Superman, Unbreakable 2000 film. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.