Superhero characters and stories first evolved in comic books, for example Superman in Action Comics in 1938. Some became television series’ in the 1940s and subsequently films, which more recently have made millions of dollars each in the Box Office and with merchandise. The superhero film genre has several typical conventions; every superhero has a nemesis, such as the Green Goblin for Spiderman. Most have costumes or motifs related to their character and the hero always has some special powers or abilities which make him or her “super”.
Another common feature is the superhero’s weaknesses, often exploited by their enemy.
Almost every superhero film involves a battle between good and evil, in which good triumphs and saves the day. The main character tends to have a secret identity; to the world they are one person, such as Clark Kent, but inside they are a superhero, like Superman. The superheroes always have strong morals and fight tirelessly against the forces of evil.
Generally, they will try to save as many people as they can from the evil acts of their nemesis. When the film ‘Unbreakable’, starring Bruce Willis, was released in the year 2000, many of its critics described it as a superhero film. The purpose of this essay is to investigate to what degree the film conforms to the conventions described above.
In most superhero films, the main character has a particular enemy or nemesis. An example of this is Spiderman and the Green Goblin. The villain is often a friend or acquaintance of the hero, for instance Peter Parker and Norman Osborn.
He is often also the opposite of the hero, such as Osborn is rich whilst Parker is from a poorer family. He is also often shown out of proportion, with a particularly large head. They often have a particular name, such as the Green Goblin.
In ‘Unbreakable’ the main villain is Elijah Price. Dunn and Price are friends at first, but at the end of the film, when they shake hands, Dunn discovers that Elijah caused the deaths of hundreds in order to find him. Price is the opposite of David Dunn in that his bones break at the merest touch, but contrastingly Dunn can survive a major train crash completely unscathed, without even a bruise or scratch. During childhood, Price was known as “Mr Glass” due to his fragile bones.
‘Unbreakable’ certainly conforms to this convention. All of the key features of it are present and clearly shown. There can be no doubt that Price is the villain for Dunn’s superhero. The reasonably tight clothes worn by Price during the film help to make his head appear out of proportion, as is normally the case with other villains, whether in comic books or on screen. His large ‘Afro’ hairdo also contributes to this effect. In addition to Price there is the minor ‘soldier villain’ – the orange suited maintenance man. This is also typical of superhero films, as there are regularly two villains – one who fights with his hands, in this case the maintenance man, and one who fights with his mind, such as Elijah Price. The name ‘Mr Glass’ is also representative of a film villain as it sounds evil and secretive.
A second convention is that the superhero has a secret identity. This is shown in almost all superhero films, for example Superman is Clark Kent to most of the world, and only Superman when he needs to be.
David Dunn has an alliterative name, which is common to many characters, such as Peter Parker or Clark Kent. Furthermore, he keeps his family at a distance, which is another common feature of the genre. This may be to protect the ones he loves, as they are often at risk; in Dunn’s case it may also be because he is simply not happy and wakes up “with sadness inside”. Right at the end of the film, when showing his son Joseph the picture of him in his grey security cape, he tells Joseph not to tell Audrey. This is the closest he gets to possessing a secret identity, and it seems that if the film were longer, this would develop into the usual “two characters” – David Dunn and the “Caped Crusader” sketched in the newspaper.
‘Unbreakable’ seems to fit this convention to a certain extent. It seems probable that if the story was continued, Dunn would definitely have a secret identity, hidden from the entire world except his son Joseph, who believed in him all along. However, where the film stops, Dunn only has the beginnings of a concealed persona.
Every superhero in existence has powers that make him “super”. Spiderman is able to shoot webs from his wrists from which he can swing. Superman can fly and has X-ray vision. He also often has a weakness, which is exploited by the villain during the film. When Superman is exposed to Kryptonite, a substance from his home planet, he is immobilised and suffers pain. If the exposure is too long, he would die.
Dunn’s powers are made obvious from the very beginning of the film; he is incredibly strong and resilient. This is demonstrated when he lifts 350 pounds on a weight bench whilst testing this with his son Joseph. He does not get injured and is also not susceptible to illness. Partway through the film, the viewer discovers that he faked an injury in the car crash to end his football career with no questions asked, in order that he could be with his wife Audrey. He also has a “second sight” which allows him to see the immoral things people have done or will do upon physical contact with them. This is how he discovers the maintenance man and the hostages in the house. He also has a weakness: when he was a child, he nearly drowned in a swimming pool – he was under water for five minutes – and therefore his weakness is water. The man in the orange boiler suit pushes him into a pool and he is only saved at the last minute by the two children he previously released.
Dunn unquestionably has the powers and weakness which would categorise him as a superhero. ‘Unbreakable’ fully conforms to this convention of the genre. This characteristic is the main point of the film, from which the title is drawn, and therefore needed to be clearly emphasised, which was done successfully by the director using basic “stunts” and Dunn’s near drowning in the house. This is also a major part of the genre and if this is not covered adequately then this would particularly affect the film’s potential to be classified as a superhero film.
In most superhero films we see the character gaining or discovering and coming to terms with his powers. Spiderman, for example, gains his powers after a spider bite, whilst Rogue (X-Men) is horrified to discover her power whilst kissing her boyfriend and almost killing him.
In ‘Unbreakable’ it is shown that Dunn has had his powers since he was born. He has never been injured, except in his near-drowning. In the film, he has his ability explained to him by Elijah. He refuses to believe that it is possible. However, over the course of the film, he begins to believe. Finding out that he has never taken a sick day from work begins to convince him that maybe Elijah is right. As the film continues, he eventually accepts his powers and uses them against evil, in the fight against the man in the orange boiler suit. This shows that ‘Unbreakable’ conforms to yet another important convention of the genre. Dunn accepts his powers, as all of the X-Men have had to do, and comes to terms with utilising and applying them.
Superheroes always perform heroic deeds during the course of the film. Spiderman saves a cable car full of children when the Green Goblin leaves them plummeting to their deaths.
In ‘Unbreakable’ David Dunn follows the maintenance man into a house, where he releases two tied up children. He then fights the maintenance man to save their mother, who is unfortunately already dead. He also saves Audrey from the car crash in which she may otherwise have died. The heroic deeds portrayed in ‘Unbreakable’ show David Dunn as a fairly archetypal superhero; he saves people from otherwise painful experiences, which may have ended in death without him. The film clearly conforms to this convention of the genre; if it were judged simply on this feature there would be no doubt that the film could be classified easily as a superhero film. In addition to this, Dunn’s job in security also shows him as heroic. This highlights an underlying natural tendency towards helping and protecting other people. He could just have easily gone into any other career after he left football, so this clearly emphasizes the overall heroism of the character and the way his moral code is portrayed in the film.
In conclusion, I believe that ‘Unbreakable’ can be called a superhero film. It conforms fully to the five conventions I have examined in detail. Although at first glance, it seems a very slow-paced and perhaps unexciting film, with closer scrutiny more subtle characteristics are present, such as the constant referral by Elijah to common comic-book features of villains, many of which he displays. Features such as this add depth to the characters and a touch of realism to the story. Whilst some of the more generic features are missing, such as the brightly coloured and unrealistic costume, or the use of CGI and blue-screens for impressive stunts, the underlying plot and use of characters is that of a superhero film.