'Unbreakable' Predicted the Rise of Toxic Fandom
M. Night Shyamalan’s superhero story, getting a sequel 19 years later, featured a villain with a familiar obsession.
Images courtesy of Touchstone Pictures
My love for M.Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable—a superhero thriller from the pre-MCU era (2000)—starts with an origin story. Unnaturally brittle, suburban villain-to-be, Elijah Prince (Samuel L. Jackson), is having an exchange with his mother. She’s desperate to have her son go outside and experience a normal life (he can’t because his bones break easily), and encourages him to visit the park across the street. As an incentive for our young Elijah, she leaves a box encased in glossy purple paper waiting for him on an outside bench. When Elijah ventures outdoors and removes the gift wrap, his world is changed as he discovers a issue of “Active Comics”—the beginning of an obsession.
There’s something deeply personal and familiar about this scene. Here was this kid who spent much of his life in a hospital bed, barred from regular social norms, left to find his own normal through the fiction he loved: comic strips. It’s really not all that different from the many of us who grow up awkward, often confusing our own closeted obsessions for permits of ownership. It’s the same kinda stuff that gives this tragic villain-to-be origin story about a fanatical collector the relevancy it needs to confront modern-day “toxic” fandom. And with Glass on the way—sequel to Unbreakable and standalone successor Split (2016)—we’ll be 19 years into a slow-burning superhero franchise. That’s highly unusual, and there’s no way I could resist looking at this cult classic.
You’d be forgiven of course if you don’t remember Unbreakable, which did make nearly $250 million at the box office but failed to have the same cultural impact that Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense did the previous year. While it did receive an average critical reception—69% on Rotten Tomatoes, it was muted by unfair comparisons to M.Night’s sophomore horror effort.
But as far as superhero films go, it was several years ahead of its time for deconstructing the excess of cinematic comic-book adaptations. From the grounded Batman Begins to the more stylized visions of Zack Snyder's DC universe, Unbreakable was among the first to explore superheroism and blend it perfectly with the believable. You had this suburban avenger-in-waiting dude David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who was developing a detachment from his wife. He also happened to be a father who struggled to be a nurturing parent to his son. And all the while, he was discovering his purpose as the super durable, super strength-like hero.
Make no mistake, Unbreakable wasn’t a misplaced oddity because it was reality-based (it wasn’t the first) or super serious. It was a misplaced movie because it was a difficult sell to audiences. “David Dunn” wasn't exactly bankable in the same way that a “Batman” or “Superman” was. As a result, it was destined to be lost in a primordial stew of indestructible villains tossing indestructible heroes through bricked walls. And that’s because it gave more than two shits about the relatability of its own hero vs villain mythology. This couldn’t be more clear than with handling of our main baddie, Elijah Prince.
The beautiful thing about Elijah’s character is how it worked off Shyamalan’s talent for misdirection. I still remember how much I was made to feel for Samuel L. Jackson’s desire to find his place in the world. As mentioned before, his character was born with severely brittle bones, placing him in an extremely fragile state. This limited his ability to make friends like everyone else, form relationships like everyone else, leaving him to find meaning through comic books. Elijah than starts adopt a toxic possessiveness over the medium he most values. The descent starts with him owning a comic-book art gallery, which later escalates to him scolding those not deserving enough to value his passion. From there, we see a man trying hard to turn his devotions into a reality of his own making—the perfect hero vs. villain storyline.
That’s the sort of love that rests at the heart of fandoms that tread on obsession. I’ve documented my own issues with socializing, and it’s put me in a position of self-identifying with the very things I write about (film/TV) like my guy Elijah. Though I’ve never got so wrapped up in it all that I’ve started angrilly tweeting at directors for ruining my childhood. For many fan bases— Star Wars and Rick and Morty fans come to mind—any change to what they identified with can feel like a direct attack. New ideas like representation can feel like a hostile criticism of once beloved concepts. We’ve seen the examples in the treatment of The Last Jedi’s Kelly Marie Tran and Teen Titans’ star Anna Diop. With the bridged gap between content creators and viewers (via Twitter, FB), we've seen these toxic fandoms become even more emboldened over the last 10 years.
Elijah, unlike the average gun-ho bad dude, is driven in much the same way. He’d kill the masses to satisfy his inferiority complex—that if he was as breakable as he is, surely, there would be a polar opposite who could justify his reason for existing (even if that meant becoming the antithesis to a good). Nothing could/would get in the way of that worldview. And it’s scary when you consider how observant M.Night was to the everyday driving forces behind toxic fandoms.
We’re heading into 2019 folks. Regardless of how well the follow up movie to Unbreakable and the sequel Split will be in Glass, it’s important to consider what this year will look like in popular culture. We're talking final chapter galore, with long running franchises coming to an end. They're called Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Avengers and [insert next Disney movie], that all carry strong fandoms. We shouldn't be surprised to face far more Elijahs in spirit and obsession this time around. And if there’s any compliment Unbreakable can hold above all others, it’s the acknowledgement to how far the shitty fandom hole can really go.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.
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