Dissecting the UNBREAKABLE and SPLIT universe
– By Stephen Harper
Prior to the year 2000 the best superhero movies to grace the the silver screen were Tim Burton’s Batman & Batman Returns, Richard Donner’s Superman, The Crow, Blade and Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Sandwiched in between these was an unfortunate tonne of shite and other quirky adaptions that people either love or hate.
It wasn’t until 2002’s Spider-Man from Sam Raimi that there was a sudden shift in gear. Technology played a huge part in this as CGI had become more sophisticated, so the larger film companies had more faith in films finally delivering in spectacle than ever before. The movies I mentioned above were all fantastic for their time as people really believed a man could fly in Donner’s Superman. The effects, although ropey today, were state of the art back then. Burton’s Batman films were unbelievable in set design and not only captured the director’s unique style to a tee, but they presented a psychological look at the superhero that had never been seen before.
For over 17 years now we’ve been inundated with superhero movies. Every one of them investing more money than the last. From reboots to reinventions to the endless sequels, they’ve gone from a possible risk to an automatic box office success regardless of how good they actually are. Audiences lap them up across the world and even people that weren’t comic book fans originally have probably seen at least half a dozen of them. Their pulling power is the A-list actors they’re able to attract, the non stop action, amazing CGI and the building of their universes. Although these films cost millions and bring in billions they’ve unfortunately lost a few key ingredients – story, originality and psychology.
The difficulty I find is there’s obviously a huge majority of people that love these films the way they are and I’ve no problem with that whatsoever, but if you delve into the archives of comic books and the superhero genre you’ll find there’s a lot more going on than just muscle-bound beings in fancy costumes kicking the living shit out of each other. It’s saddened me the last few years, sitting watching some of the recent Marvel and DC adaptations that are quite frankly atrocious. The film companies and directors have basically neglected the intelligence of the actual characters and decided to just go for the spectacular. It’s frankly not good enough. It then makes some people demonstrate that they don’t watch that type of movie because it’s un-intelligent or un-stimulating, which is fair to a degree, but I can safely tell you that some of the best literature in history is found within the pages of comic books, it’s just unfortunately ruined by the time the fat-cats have ripped it to shreds and abused it. It’s not the material it’s the money-men. If you stripped everything back, stop relying solely on money, CGI and drafted in talented filmmakers who’d focus on the actual characters, history and story, I guarantee you’ll get a much better interpretation.
The other difficulty is that there’s been talented filmmakers drafted in previously, but apparently once the big companies lean on them there’s complications, reshoots, controversy, then eventually they buckle. I’m certainly not saying everything’s been a failure. The Russo Brothers have proved you can juggle both spectacular with style, James Gunn did an amazing job with Guardians of the Galaxy and Christopher Nolan pulled off a trick with his first two Batman movies (shame he made a complete hash of his third installment). Overall though it seems films are getting further and further away from their source material and the psychology of its characters.
The year 2000, sandwiched right between the tripe that had gone before and explosion that was about to happen with the new wave of comic book movies, up & coming director M. Night Shyamalan, who had just taken the world by storm with his creepy-kid seeing dead people film The Sixth Sense, released his next movie Unbreakable. The Sixth Sense became such a global phenomenon that when Unbreakable was released cinemas were packed to the rafters in anticipation. Raking in a worldwide profit of $173 million, Unbreakable was a success, not as much as his previous film, but even so Buena Vista Pictures were no doubt delighted. The major difference I felt watching Unbreakable in the cinema with an audience and since speaking to people about the movie is that it wasn’t as highly regarded as The Sixth Sense. I do remember after leaving the cinema watching Unbreakable people were disappointed. It seems because of the era it was released people just didn’t get it or they weren’t ready for it?
Being a comic fanatic and having to endure mostly endless crap adaptions growing up, this was the first time there was an actual comic book superhero movie made for grown-ups. Unbreakable was a slow-burn, grounded origin story of an everyman who discovers he’s actually a superhero. It’s a multi-layered story of family dynamics, relationships, loss and the supernatural. Gone was the spandex costumes, over the top CGI and unnecessary action. It also delved directly into the psychology of good Vs evil and how they’re more interlinked than we believe.
Unbreakable to me is possibly one of the best if not the Best comic book superhero story ever brought to film. It’s an overlooked movie that is so underrated and never really acknowledged when people talk about comic book movies in general. Although I’ve always known it was never intended to be a singular story, but part of an ongoing storyline as Shyamalan has spoken in the past of wanting to make a trilogy, as years have ticked by I honestly believed that ship had sailed….until now.
Very secretly indeed Shyamalan has been plotting behind the scenes, creating a sequel to Unbreakable with his new horror/thriller Split. Starring James McAvoy as Kevin Crumb, a man suffering from D.I.D. – Dissociative Identity Disorder. Kevin abducts three young women and keeps them locked up in a dungeon beneath a Philadelphia Zoo. Kevin’s body has been taken over by multiple personalities that are joining forces to sacrifice and feed the girls to summon an ultimate super-being called The Beast.
On the surface Split is an extremely effective horror/thriller with an unbelievable performance from McAvoy. What’s so compelling about McAvoy’s portrayal is the majority of the movie takes place in two settings, either the dungeon he’s keeping the girls captive or during his sessions with therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), and McAvoy owns every scene. McAvoy is the villain of the piece, but he is a sympathetic character and as the film progresses his relationship with one of his captives Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) raises questions of similarities from abusive childhoods that somehow brings the two together. The entire movie is enthralling before it even gets to its supernatural climax, which is done in a very grounded way. With most Shyamalan films the audience is waiting for that twist ending we’ve come to expect from him. During recent years he somehow deterred from his familiar style into more formal action films such as After Earth and The Last Airbender, after the duds that were Lady in the Water and the utterly silly The Happening. The Last Airbender had its moments and I didn’t rate After Earth whatsoever, but maybe he wanted to try something different in his career for a change and not be pigeonholed? Fair play to him, but his true talents are when he’s fusing reality with the more bizarre or the supernatural, that’s when he truly shines.
Fans of Unbreakable are quite rightly excited by the ending of Split as we get a brief cameo from Bruce Willis reprising his role as David Dunn, sitting in a diner watching with other shocked people as the terror unfolds of Kevin’s crimes on a TV. The news reporters at the crime scene have nicknamed Kevin ‘The Horde’ due to his multiple personalities and Dunn is clearly taking a keen interest. People tend to think this little scene is the only thing that connects the two films together and this is the major twist of Split; it’s not, there’s no actual twist. The only revealing part of the movie is when Kevin actually unleashes The Beast and we see it’s not a figment of his imagination, it’s an actual possession, it is the genuine creature that he foretold. Once The Beast starts climbing the walls and ceiling in front of a gasping Casey, the film eventually exposes its supernatural elements, but it’s certainly no twist.
You see, Split is very open throughout the movie about its connections to Unbreakable, this IS
a direct sequel. During Kevin’s therapy sessions Dr. Fletcher mentions Kevin’s father got on a train and never came home – hence why Kevin lays flowers on the platform later in the movie. Coincidentally, it’s the same train David Dunn got on at the beginning of Unbreakable that later derailed, so both were on the same train at the same time. Although we’re to believe everyone died on the train apart from Dunn, it doesn’t actually state Kevin’s dad is dead.
Later when asked by Dr. Fletcher what The Beast actually looks like, Kevin describes him as a large muscular man with long fingers and a long glorious mane. That’s the exact same image that is on the cover of Mr. Glass/Elijah Price’s comic book that hangs in his gallery. Price goes into great detail describing how beautiful the artwork is of the beast-like creature called Jaguaro, coincidence? I think not.
Eventually during the film’s climatic scenes when Kevin finally unleashes The Beast, he does it on board a train next to a seat that’s identical to where David Dunn was sitting. Kevin’s dungeon is directly beneath a zoo which the camera keeps focusing on, a lion statue sits directly above it. Other little nods such as Kevin’s CD plays Kayne West in reference to his song Unbreakable and the movie poster depicting James McAvoy’s face has a crack across it, which is the same as Unbreakable’s.
Whereas Unbreakable was the origin story of a superhero, Split is the origin story of a super villain. The two go hand in hand.
Shyamalan has carefully constructed a cinematic universe that is far more intelligent and ingenious than anything being currently released by Marvel or DC. He’s not rushed anything, he’s spent time on his characters psychological details and created a world that is not only original, but authentic. His array of characters are taking shape and are complex with more questions left unanswered, which whets the appetite even more so. I do hope we don’t have to wait another 17 years for its third installment, but I have a feeling we won’t.
Both movies are mirror images of one another, so I now hope Unbreakable gets the credit it fully deserves.
What we do have though are two movies that are part of a unique, intellectual comic book cinematic universe for grown-ups. M. Night Shyamalan’s universe….The Nightverse!