the *best* superhero movie ever

Posted on December 6, 2012

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unbreakable 1

Rather bizarrely it has become the norm for the summer blockbuster to be a superhero flick.
I will be the first to say that this genre doesn’t particularly float my boat. There are some great superhero movies out there, but if it’s a choice between two movies and one is a superhero movie – 9 times out of 10 I’ll probably go for the one that’s not.
Comic book adaptations are to a lesser and lesser degree being targeted towards the younger audience – they are becoming darker and more serious and not really the gleefully uplifting stories that can be found in the many thousands of comics from whence they originate. It also seems like they are more prolific because the ability to realise other worlds and fantastical scenarios can be achieved through special effects which allows directors and writers to pen unhindered stories for our favourite latex wearing saviours. In days of old, if you couldn’t build it – you couldn’t do it! I watched a bit of Christopher Reeve’s Superman this weekend and the sfx are wonderful. I love that you have a real person against an obvious screen lying down pretending to fly – rather than an inhuman creation swinging around, a la Toby Maguire’s Spiderman.

For the purposes of this post I’m sticking firmly to western cinema. The Adventures of Captain Marvel [1941] can be considered the first superhero ‘movie’, though back then movies were shown as serials – rolling over from one week to the next via cliffhangers – guaranteeing the paying public would return for another chance to escape the realities of life, and to see whether our protagonists escaped from the car that we witnessed plunging from a clifftop!
In the 60s, we had the big screen outing for our successful tv caped crusader Batman but it wasn’t until 1978 that Richard Donner’s vision and Christopher Reeve’s stature wowed audiences with the first BIG superhero blockbuster. This opened the door for over a decade of iffy comic book adaptations and tv spinoffs. Not until Tim Burton’s Batman was the superhero movie given a real breath of fresh air.
Alex Proyas amped up the dark ‘superhero comic book character’ to 11 with The Crow, and altered forever our ideas of how a superhero movie could feel. Although Eric Draven is more of an anti-hero, the feel of Proyas’ movie was obviously inspired by the Tim Burton movie.

The thing is, for every wonderful superhero transition to the big screen – there are a pack of dogs sitting in their own vomit in the corner of the room! Those dogs have many names… Elektra, Daredevil, Green Lantern, Supergirl!
One of the best non conformist superhero movies was this year’s Chronicle which I reviewed earlier in the year. There are the obvious other recent great movies such as Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight movies but they all only have so much replay value.
There is one, however, that I have seen innumerable times. One that I think a lot of people have missed. Some people would have passed this one by simply because of the director. Some will simply not have completely taken on board the powerful nature of the story, and some will have had no idea that this was a superhero movie…
The movie I’m referring to, of course, is M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable.
Unbreakable stars Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a security officer at a sports stadium, with a struggling marriage and a young son, he’s obviously emotionally depressed. David is informed that he’s the sole survivor of a terrible train crash that killed every other passenger on board. He is soon contacted by Samuel L Jackson’s Elijah Price. A comicbook art dealer who has a severe form of brittle bone syndrome. “The children called me Mr Glass”. He surmises that if he is at the bottom end of the weakness spectrum then there must be someone at the opposite end who is… unbreakable, and he thinks David is that person.
David’s wife Audrey, the excellent Robin Wright Penn, is wrecked with sadness that her loveless marriage is falling apart.

“You are sad because you are not doing what it is you are meant to be doing.”  Elijah Price

This is a character story about David exploring his past and how he wakes up feeling every single day of his life, and coming to realise that maybe there is something in what this crazy art dealer has to say. It’s a movie about someone realising that they may very well be, when everything about their life is considered… a superhero.
As you would expect from Shyamalan this movie has an unusual feel. It’s intriguing, subtle, moody, emotional and very stylish. It has M Night’s trademark twist and is nothing short of storytelling brilliance. There is never a dull moment – every scene, every line, every silence, every look is completely believable.
Shyamalan stated that he had set out to make a typical superhero movie with his own spin on it, following the usual Act 1: Hero discovers powers, Act 2: Hero showcases powers and Act 3: Hero succeeds in battle with villain. But it was Act 1 that really interested him, so this is where he focussed his story.
It works beautifully.
So while you’re all queuing up to see the latest incarnation of the sometimes overdone and underwhelming comic book super-person movie, I’ll be at home watching the birth of a new hero.

Unbreakable has yet to be beaten as my favourite [infinitely rewatchable] superhero movie.

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