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We live in a time of comic book-inspired cake and pie. And we are all getting cavities. In the current state of entertainment, fans receive pretty much anything they ask for. That ease of pop culture excess has left us with a ubiquitous amount of comic book movies. And I love most of them as much as you do.
I used to dream about a filmmaker getting the comic book movie formula correct onscreen. I wanted to see The Fantastic Four punch Hulk in the face, but I wanted it to be tasteful. At the time, comic book films were limited to campiness for the most part. That changed entirely in 2000.
M. Night Shyamalan released his pulpy-thriller, Unbreakable. This love letter to comic books took the genre seriously and unwittingly opened the door to the surge of comic book adaptations we see today, taking pieces from the cores of heroes like Daredevil, Spider-Man and Superman and blending it with Shyamalan’s still-emerging style.
Unbreakable revolves around depressed everyman, David Dunn (Bruce Willis). When Dunn manages to miraculously survive a brutal train derailment, he begins a path of self-discovery to become a “hero”. This comes with the assistance of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) who suffers from a disease that causes his brittle bones to break like glass.
The polar opposites wind up bringing the hero and villain out of both characters. Dunn, is the telepathic, indestructible superman, while Price is the villain who uses his cunning to do battle. Much like The Joker and Batman, one cannot exist without the other.
But while Elijah Price is the bad guy, he is also the audience’s guide. Shyamalan wrote entire monologues for Price that are both an inside and outside baseball points of view when it comes to the world of comic books and collecting.
One of film’s best scenes comes when Elijah’s mother, desperate to have her son go outside and live a normal life, encourages him to visit a park across the street. A box wrapped in shiny purple paper waits propped on a bench. Young Elijah’s world is changed when he unwraps an issue of “Active Comics” featuring a cover illustrating a Superman-inspired hero battling a beastly figure named Jaguaro.
The carefully constructed scene perfectly gives you an idea of how important comic books were to Shyamalan. He does a great job of almost freezing that introduction in place for the remainder of the film. What I didn’t realize back in 2000 was how this moment, which makes a fanatical collector out of Elijah Price, also speaks volumes about audiences’ introductions to comic book films in general. Unbreakable translates what an avid comic book reader sees within those panels, and it was one of the first to take that approach. Even before the opening scene, you are hit with onscreen statistics about comics:
“There are 35 pages and 124 illustrations in the average comic book. A single issue ranges in price from $1 to over $140,000. 172,000 comics are sold in the U.S. every day. The average collector owns 3,312 comics and will spend approximately 1 year of his or her life reading them.”
I’m not entirely sure where those stats came from, but I can look back and appreciate the “M. Night Guide To Comics,” approach. As the story progresses, audiences are hit with fan-centric monologues about character dualities and even given a glimpse into collectors culture.
In a post Marvel world, would Unbreakable have been seen as anything unique? The answer is probably no. The over-saturation of comic book films has audiences more concerned with the largest scale stories that can be contained onscreen. I’m not sure audiences would have made their way to the movies to see a hero that isn’t somehow attached to the bigger guys like The Avengers or The X-Men.
It doesn’t change the fact that Unbreakable existed in a special little bubble that is near impossible to get back to. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny its importance in ushering in the 2000’s and what was to be the golden era of comic book movies.