Like Peter Parker’s spider, arch villain Elijah Price is the catalyst that creates a hero in Shyamalan’s Unbreakable.
What is Unbreakable about?
David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is sole survivor of a train crash that kills hundreds of people. It seems miraculous – until comic book seller Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) proposes that David can’t get hurt. Is Dunn the superhero a troubled world has been waiting for?
Are heroes born, made or found?
Each of Unbreakable’s characters is heavily invested in David Dunn’s hero transformation.
Like many kids, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) sees his father as a heroic and even godlike character. Joseph wants this so badly to be true that its almost hard to watch. Unlike many other kids, he gets his wish.
Wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) is more ambivalent. The implication is that she smothers Dunn’s heroism. He could have been a football star – the quintessential all-American hero – if it weren’t for her views about the sport’s violence.
Dunn, like Audrey, shies away from the heroic. He lives a lesser version of his life – arguably the coward’s way out. He’s a security guard because his natural affinity is to protect people. But he’s scared to see how far his strengths go … and so he doesn’t look.
Elijah Price is the catalyst. But he doesn’t want Dunn to become heroic so much as he wants to find a hero, full stop. Proving there’s a spectrum of extremes would mean he’s no longer a freak – another kind of ‘sole survivor’, and a very lonely existence.
At first, he looks for evidence of superheroes by their ability to survive extremes. He’s searching for his opposite: someone whose bones never break, in contrast to his own osteogenesis imperfecta (exceptionally fragile bones).
This eventually confirms Dunn is strong, maybe even superhuman. But he only becomes a hero when he starts taking action to save others.
Ultimately, Dunn is born, found and chosen to be a superhero. And each of the characters play a role in the transformation.
Monsieur Dufayel in French romcom Amélie (2001) has osteogenesis imperfecta. He says others call him “the Glass Man”.
Seeing the world upside down
To change the world, you have to see it in a different way. This is Elijah’s way. His mother explains his skewed perspective – like that of a comic supervillain – comes from his past trauma.
Price has an inverted view of the world. He refuses to limit his beliefs to the laws of physics and genetics. Instead, he imagines a world in which he’s not alone, but merely one end of a spectrum. And ultimately, he finds his exact opposite in David Dunn.
When his mother gifts Elijah a comic book, he sees it upside down. Then the camera – and his perspective – come full circle, almost dizzingly so. This happens again as an adult, just before he realises Dunn’s weakness is his fear of water.
Elijah sees the world the way a child does. He believes in the impossible. Heck, he believes in heroes. And so does Joseph. In fact, Elijah and Joseph are twinned characters.
Joseph also sees the world upside down. The first time we see him, he’s hanging off the sofa watching TV upside down. Elijah later mirrors the pose exactly when he falls on the subway stairs.
Seeing the world upside down each time reveals a hidden truth: Dunn’s train has derailed / Dunn was right about the gun.
We also see Joseph’s upside-down perspective when he helps his dad lift weights in the garage. By refusing the limitations of physics and self-belief, he helps Dunn get a sense of his true potential.
Superhero or saviour?
Superheroes risk their lives to save the weak; sometimes they seem incapable of refusing to help. It’s a story archetype with roots in Biblical stories of Jesus as Messiah. Jesus is both an early example of superhero, and an origin story for the genre which borrows from it.
The archetype features in action hero movies, too. Harry Potter, Neo in The Matrix and Luke Skywalker are ordinary guys who step up to their potential and battle dark forces to save the planet.
Often, they ‘die’ in the pursuit of this goal and, like Jesus, come back to life – literally a super-human feat.
David Dunn does a good impression of an ordinary guy. He goes to extremes to be faceless, nameless and unremarkable in every way. He’s in disguise long before Price transforms him into a caped crusader.
After meeting Price, Dunn accepts his superhero fate. When he stands in the middle of the station with the intention of sensing crime, he lifts his hands in a Jesus-like pose.
But, like the Messiah, the role comes with a terrible burden. Dunn may be a super-man, but he can’t save everyone. He has visions of several crimes, but can only intervene in one, the murder.
The other cost is the carnage Price unleashes on the world. Dunn is a chosen hero – yet thousands die for Price to find him. The emotional trauma of this, of being truly unique in and responsible for the world, sounds very much like the guilt of being a sole survivor all over again.
David Dunn (note the doubled sounds in the name, like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner and Clarke Kent) doesn’t die to save the world, but he comes close. Falling into the pool is like falling into a grave, a disorienting underworld. When he climbs out, he’s unstoppable.
Who’s the bad guy?
As a movie that plays games with perspective, there’s a corresponding plurality about the bad guy(s).
Price claims to be the villain. In Unbreakable’s final scene, he says the villain is always the exact opposite of the hero.
But if Unbreakable is David Dunn’s origin story, Price is the radioactive spider. He helps Dunn find his purpose. At the same time, he finds his own place in the world.
It’s a staggeringly selfish act for many reasons. He sacrifices Dunn for his own ends the same way he sacrifices the passengers he murders.
But in doing something so twisted, he also gives the world a gift: a man who can save us from ourselves. So Price does evil – but his actions may save more people than he’s killed. Meh. It’s complicated.
There’s an element of this conflict in Joseph, too. At times, his relationship with Dunn is more like husband and wife than father and son. Joseph rather than Audrey sleeps in Dunn’s bed. The two also keep secrets from Audrey, which isn’t the healthiest family dynamic.
Like Price, Joseph is [almost] willing to kill to find his hero. Threatening his dad with a gun is a few steps removed from crashing a train to unmask a saviour.
Audrey is more ambiguous, and harder to like. There’s the failed marriage for starters, which we experience from Dunn’s POV. Not only is he the movie’s central character, he’s calm and stoical compared to her emotional unevenness.
She’s also the only woman in a man’s world (the movie and comic book universe), which makes her an outsider by default.
The implication is that Audrey is Dunn’s Kryptonite, the element that robs a superhero of power. Later we learn Dunn chose to end his footballing career – to be with Audrey, though also as a way of side-stepping his potential.
Dads who save the world
In 1970s disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure, a priest (i.e., a father) sacrifices himself to save others. The 2005 remake comes full circle by swapping the priest for a dad. In 2009’s Knowing, Nic Cage saves his son … but can’t save himself.
The Biblical parallels are clear here, too. The Bible tells us God (the father) came to Earth as his alter ego – Jesus – to save the world. Dads, priests, superheroes and Jesus share storytelling roots.
Several Shyamalan movies feature a similar tension between dads and danger, too.
In Unbreakable, Bruce Willis is the dad who doesn’t believe in himself. His choice is about stepping up to save the world, while fighting to keep his family together.
These films are the underside – an inversion – of the typical dad action movie. The genre is stuffed with adulterers, depressives, alcoholics and atheists who nonetheless can ditch their flaws incredibly quickly in true, apocalyptic crisis.
What makes Shyamalan’s dads interesting is they don’t know what they want. And, crucially, they’re not sure they’re the man for the job. We see them facing down their demons – and then the fight for survival really begins.
>> Unbreakable (2000), directed by M. Night Shyamalan
What to read or watch next
- Split, Glass (Shyamalan, The Glass Trilogy)
- Signs (Shyamalan, fathers)
- The Dark Knight, Joker, The Matrix (noir superhero stories)
- Brightburn (inverted superhero stories)
- The Tomorrow War, Greenland (action dads)
Picture credit: Marika Vinkmann