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Friday, November 21, 2008 

"Breaking" Paradigms

For comic book collectors, past and present, 2008 has been an outstanding year of onscreen adaptations. This summer will be remembered as the one that gave us the first legitimate blockbuster of the season in IRON MAN (with Robert Downey, Jr. in the titular role), followed by the second highest grossing movie of all time in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT. I’ve watched Guillermo Del Toro’s beautiful and entertaining HELLBOY II countless times since the DVD hit shelves and who would have ever thought we’d see Edward Norton as THE INCREDIBLE HULK? Even better, we still have WATCHMEN to look forward to in March of next year.

The question all fans tend to raise again and again is, however, in the pantheon of truly great superhero movies, how do these recent releases stack up? Where do they place alongside the universally accepted standards like the first SPIDERMAN or X-MEN 2, for example? And for every time I hear a case made for fare like SUPERMAN RETURNS or BLADE there is always one comic book/superhero movie that tends to get overlooked.

“Real life doesn’t fit inside little boxes that were drawn for it.”

As more and more adaptations find success by grounding themselves in gritty reality, M. Night Shyamalan’s (The Sixth Sense) UNBREAKABLE (2000) remains the most realistic depiction of what it might be like if a regular human being was suddenly imbued with very irregular superhuman powers. Not only that but it may also be Shyamalan’s personal best.

UNBREAKABLE’s characters, security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and comic book art dealer Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) lives intersect when a train on which David is a passenger derails and he emerges unscathed, the only survivor. Elijah hears about this miraculous incident and takes a special interest in David, who he sees as his opposite, since he himself suffers from an affliction known as osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that renders his bones very brittle and easily breakable. Suffering in this way feeds his insatiable interest in the fantasy world of comic books and the escape they provide but it might also be responsible for his certainly eccentric and perhaps mentally disturbed nature. His mostly depressing childhood is detailed in a series of painful and heartbreaking flashbacks (In fact, the opening alone would be considered horrifying if it were placed as the introduction to any other movie. In a Philadelphia department store, a young black woman gives birth to a baby boy. A doctor (Eamonn Walker) enters the room to have a look at the still-crying newborn before the ambulance arrives. The mask of disbelief that suddenly covers his face tells the whole story. ”What happened during the delivery? Did you drop this baby?” ) while David’s past is shrouded in mystery and slowly unravels as UNBREAKABLE creeps to its conclusion.

David and Elijah are indeed connected and are very much opposites. While David has believed all his life that his frighteningly real gifts have just been a coincidence, it’s Elijah’s deranged notions and infatuation with comic books that, by coincidence, turn out to be real. When UNBREAKABLE finally reaches its legitimately shocking and heart-pounding denouement, David has found out who he truly is but he also finds out who Elijah is and despite his fragile nature, he isn’t quite as helpless or friendly as he appears.

In UNBREAKABLE we find M. Night using a few familiar devices and revisiting themes that would come to permeate nearly all of his future works (and I don’t mean the “twist” ending, either): young children in central roles (here it is Spencer Treat Clark as the son who believes his father is somehow special) and unexplained martial problems (Robin Wright Penn plays Willis' estranged wife). Throughout his career, Shyamalan, early on at least, was hailed as a young genius and has often drawn comparisons to the late, great Alfred Hitchcock. While I would personally never go that far, I will say that he has similar success at building suspense. He also has a great gift in that, while writers like Tarantino, Mamet, Smith and others write characters who supposedly talk like we talk, Shyamalan creates people who act like we act. He knows when to be “still” and let a character’s silence or being in thought, their movement and their actions be the only exposition the audience needs or will get. Night also makes interesting choices with his camera, often times choosing to shoot intimate conversations from a distance as if we were eavesdropping on the participants or shooting his characters’ individual perspectives from decidedly different angles. He also makes great use of color to differentiate between the worlds of Dunn and Price.

UNBREAKABLE is, without a doubt, what the world would look like if superheroes actually walked among us. NBC’s Heroes this ain’t. To quote Frank Miller, a person need not fly to be "heroic." If this were a comic book, it would be an origin story; a journey where someone finding something exceptional within themselves, a hero answering “the call” and it all plays out very realistically. The characters are your average, “everyday” people and, as Shyamalan himself says, exist in a world where the hero is “flawed” and the villain is “endearing.” In the end, we learn a simple truth: good cannot exist without evil. That every protagonist needs an antagonist and when one takes up his mantle, then so can the other. “Now that we know who you are, I know who I am,” Elijah says tearfully in one of his final bittersweet lines. It is a proud moment for him and after witnessing all of his life’s hardships, it would be a rewarding and uplifting experience for the audience as well...if it weren’t also so simultaneously unnerving and discomforting.