This Friday marks the release of Glass, the final chapter of M. Night Shyamalan's Eastrail 177 trilogy, which began in 2000 with Unbreakable. While Shyamalan's filmography is filled with various misses over the last decade and a half, there's no question that he made quite the splash during his early years in Hollywood. The Sixth Sense put him on the map, and while it wasn't met with the quite the same level of critical acclaim, Unbreakable is nonetheless among his most well-received movies. In fact, even if you look at Unbreakable as a completely standalone movie (which it was for 17 years), it works even better than when it first came out, because now much more of the general public can appreciate its superhero tropes and themes.
Although superhero stories have been told for decades in comic books, it wasn't until around 2000 that the genre finally started gaining popularity on the big screen. Before then, Batman and Superman were the cinematic heavy hitters, and the scattering of superhero movies that came out not centered on the Caped Crusader or the Man of Steel were rarely good. 1998's Blade helped change the tide, but it was 2000's X-Men and 2002's Spider-Man that ushered in a new era for the comic book genre. Now we live in a time where certain studios are releasing multiple comic book movies per year and cinematic universes have heroes and villains living in the same continuity rather than being self-contained, just like in the comics. Not all moviegoers are necessarily major fans of these superhero movies, but considering how much money these blockbusters make, clearly folks are being entertained if they keep paying to see them.
But it's not just about more superhero movies being released or the size of these franchises; it's also about such movies being taken more seriously. Sometimes this is taken literally, such as with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Logan, but more often than not it just refers to the filmmakers and creative minds honoring the source material. Yes, all these movies are ultimately made so that the studios can collect money, but if you're making a cash grab, it might as well be a cash grab that respects the tales that came before, be it directly or in spirit. For a long time superhero stories were looked as simply as children's entertainment, but the last decade alone has proved that wrong.
Looking back at Unbreakable, it was very much ahead of its time in terms of taking the standard superhero story formula seriously. The movie came out on November 22, 2000, four months after X-Men. M. Night Shyamalan was a fan of comic book movies, so it's understandable why he'd want to put his own spin on a superhero origin story. Not that Disney wanted to advertise it as such. Because the superhero movie genre still wasn't popular overall, and because The Sixth Sense had done so well, the Mouse House decided it was better to market Unbreakable as a thriller.
Unbreakable definitely has thriller elements, but more than that, it's a mature, introspective look at how a superhero's rise would go down in a real world setting. David Dunn never puts on a costume or saves the world, but after initially scoffing at the idea that he's more extraordinary than the average human, he eventually embraces his gifts and puts them to good use, making his official debut as a hero (wearing a poncho in place of a cape) when he fights a janitor holding a family hostage. And, in the classic superhero mold, David also learns he has a weakness: water.
With all the superhero origin stories people seen unfold on the big screen over the last two decades, watching David Dunn's heroic journey becomes more enjoyable once you recognize all the classic tropes. And that's not even taking into account David's son, Joseph, who wants his father to be the superhero he sees him as, going so far as to pull a gun on David to try and prove he can't be injured, resulting in one of Unbreakable's tensest scenes.
It's not just about following along with the hero either; there's also the villain of Unbreakable, Elijah Price, even if we don't learn he's an antagonist until the very end. Without Elijah, who has studied comic books and superhero stories for most of his life, providing the necessary exposition of how David Dunn's journey mirrors a superhero journey, who's to say how many people truly welcomed that Unbreakable was intended to reflect what happens in a comic book when it first came out. It was obvious to comic book readers obviously, but now that the general public has become inundated with superhero movies, they too can easily follow the beats Elijah explains in-depth and appreciate their importance.
And while Unbreakable's ending was polarizing, at least it paints Elijah Price's villainous nature in a sympathetic light while simultaneously taking advantage of the trope where the villain is the opposite of the hero, which we've seen in movies like Iron Man and Black Panther. Elijah killed hundreds of people to see if his theory that someone the exact opposite of him existed, and once David Dunn proved himself to be that opposite, Elijah finally believed that he wasn't a mistake, thus transitioning into Mr. Glass. Keeping that in mind, Unbreakable also serves as a villain's origin story in a way, and considering how difficult it is for comic book movies to deliver compelling villains, it's more impressive that Unbreakable was able to pull off a feat, and in classic Shyamalan twist format to boot.
Fast-forward to now, over 18 years after Unbreakable's release and two years after it was revealed at the end of Split that Kevin Wendell Crumn, a.k.a. The Horde, lived in the same world as David Dunn and Elijah Price, Glass is wrapping up this trilogy. Admittedly, the reviews have been mixed to negative, indicating Shyamalan didn't stick the landing for the saga's conclusion. Nevertheless, Unbreakable is still an excellent watch on its own, and if you ever find yourself growing tired of the typical superhero fare that hits the silver screen regularly, give Unbreakable another watch to remember what an origin story with an auteur vision looks like and how we got this masterpiece before the superhero boom began.
Let us know what you think about Unbreakable is in the comments below, and you can judge Glass for yourself when it's released this Friday, January 18.
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Connoisseur of Marvel, DC, Star Wars, John Wick, MonsterVerse and Doctor Who lore. He's aware he looks like Harry Potter and Clark Kent.