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As superhero movies broke into the mainstream, this slow burn had a very different take on the genre.

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Two movies set the tone for superhero films in the 21st century, defining how audiences well into the 2020s would see and conceive of heroism. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man ask, essentially, the same question: What would it take for a person in the “real world” to become a superhero?

While the two movies differ tonally, they offer similar ideas. A superhero starts off rich, goes through trials and tribulations, conquers his fears stemming from those trials, and fully accepts a new identity. “As a symbol, I can be incorruptible,” Bruce Wayne says. Tony Stark puts it more bluntly: “I am Iron Man.”

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But before Nolan and Favreau, a very different vision of a “real world” superhero emerged. While M. Night Shyamalan’s movie from 2000, Unbreakable, shares a few elements with Batman Begins and Iron Man, what stands out over two decades later are its differences. Rather than working off an existing comic book property, Shyamalan creates his own, making an adaptation of the idea of comic books.

The movie opens with a title card explaining just how obsessive comic book fans can be. It’s important to remember that popular perceptions of the comic industry was very different in 2000 than they are today. Marvel had barely escaped the ‘90s, having filed for bankruptcy and ensnared themselves in a series of lengthy legal fights. The biggest area of growth seemed to be Saturday morning cartoons, which gave comics a childish feel.

While nobody bats an eye these days if a grown adult is emotionally invested in WandaVision or The Batman, Shyamalan uses the movie’s opening text to make a point: People take comic books very, very seriously. The movie jumps to a birth, with a mother wondering if her baby is supposed to be crying that much. He’s not, a doctor tells her, informing her that he actually broke bones during the birthing process.

Not broke? His sense of fashion.

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

The movie then cuts to David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a decidedly anti-Tony Stark. Dunn is not rich; he works as a security guard at a stadium. He’s not a playboy or a loner, but is in a mundane marriage that’s falling apart. He lives in Philadelphia but is up for a job in New York, and he’s taking the train back home when the audience meets him. But then, after an awkward flirtation, the train crashes in spectacularly horrible fashion. Shyamalan wisely doesn’t show the crash, saving the horror for Dunn’s son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) watching on TV.

The crash kills everyone but Dunn, who survives without a scratch. In a wonderful and heartbreaking sequence, Shyamalan shows Dunn walking out of the hospital, past dozens of mourning family members who look at him with a sense of dread and jealousy, and then past a swarm of cameras flashing in his face.

David attempts to get his life and marriage back together, but a note left on his car sticks in his mind: Can he remember the last time he was sick? He can’t, and neither can his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) or his boss. He decides to search for answers and determine who sent the note.

A secret superpower keeps the doctor away.

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

On the other side he finds Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the baby with the broken arms. He’s all grown up and running Limited Edition, a snooty by-appointment comic book store where he refuses to sell to kids. He tells David and Joseph about his life with Type 1 osteogenesis imperfecta, which led to over 50 broken bones and a cruel childhood nickname, Glass. His disease has made him believe he’s on a spectrum. He’s on one side. On the other would be a person whose body can’t be broken.

David is skeptical, to say the least. But he can’t deny the facts about his life, and Elijah encourages him to explore the idea that he’s superhuman. He resists, but Joseph is on board. In a harrowing scene that’s one of the best in Willis’ career, Joseph pulls a gun on David. Joseph, convinced of Elijah’s theories, believes the bullet will bounce right off him. David, desperate to get the gun off his son, covers his disbelief to say that while that may be true, if Joseph pulls the trigger he’ll take the job in New York and leave him forever. It’s a tense tightrope of emotional vulnerability and manipulation that Willis walks perfectly.

There’s more to Elijah than meets the eye, and Shyamalan offers a slow burn as Dunn slowly comes to accept his powers. Unbreakable remains a fascinating exploration of heroism, villainy, and what happens when comic books start to look a lot like the real world.

Unbreakable is streaming on Amazon Prime now.

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