Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Marvel’s prospective summer tentpole Iron Man 3 has us thinking back on more unusual superhero movies.
Few modern filmmakers have experienced a reputation nosedive as dramatic as M. Night Shyamalan. His Unbreakable, released a year after The Sixth Sense to lukewarm reviews and hostile audience reactions, marked the first step in this steep and steady decline. But here’s the truth, worthy of the twist-loving director himself: Unbreakable looks today like his finest effort—a melancholic and strikingly idiosyncratic spin on comic-book mythos.
Shyamalan’s then-novel conceit was to devote an entire film to the prologue portion of a superhero origin story, zeroing in on the pre-crime-fighting days of a Philadelphia security guard (Bruce Willis, in one of his most effectively understated performances) who walks away unfazed from a devastating train derailment. Is he an indestructible demigod, as posited by Samuel L. Jackson’s bug-eyed, osteo-impaired eccentric? Willis can only resist that theory for so long, before his powers—including the ability to bench-press an endless amount of weight and intuitively sense malicious intentions—begin to manifest themselves inconveniently.
It’s easy to see why many viewers felt hoodwinked by Unbreakable: (Mis)marketed as a thriller, it’s more of a moody character drama about a family man whose failure to find purpose in his life has alienated him from his wife (Robin Wright Penn) and son (Spencer Treat Clark). Yet as excessively morose as the film occasionally gets, there’s something deeply endearing about its Spielbergian attempt to invest an adolescent power fantasy with adult weariness. (James Newton Howard’s stirring score hammers home the sentiment.) Unbreakable also boasts some of Shyamalan’s most inventive compositions, with the director paying tribute to comic-book storytelling without resorting to the multi-panel gimmickry of Ang Lee’s Hulk. Even the movie’s last-minute twist—lamented at the time as an attempt to reproduce the wow factor of The Sixth Sense—has improved with age. Just don’t go hunting for surprise pleasures in Lady In The Water or The Happening. Those have been dead the whole time.
Availability: DVD and Blu-ray from Touchstone; rental and purchase from major digital providers; and disc rental from Netflix.