The Post-Oedipal Desire for the Superhero Narrative in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable

Article excerpt

"Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you're here."--Elijah Price in Unbreakable

Superhero stories constitute an elaborate contemporary mythos in American society. From the conflicted optimism of Superman in the Golden Age of comics to the violent angst of the later Dark Knight franchise, the superhero narrative combines occidental mythology with the best science fiction tropes to map lessons on morality, scientific innovation, and cultural diversity. Although historically marginalized to the speculative genre of comic books, and thus to a subculture of collectors who passionately defend their preferred variations on the mythos, the superhero has become an icon of pop culture. Through television and film adaptations of bestselling DC and Marvel comics, complete with CGI-rendered superhuman abilities and big-budget action sequences, mainstream audiences now recognize these archetypes and have come to expect certain qualities and conventions in the superhero narrative itself. And most representations of the superhero oblige these audiences, merely replicating the moral binary of the original comics without reflecting on the appeal of the mythos itself or why it endures even today in an age of cynicism and technological distraction. Indeed, any attempt to do so meets resistance, as M. Night Shyamalan discovered with the lukewarm reception of his dark superhero fantasy, Unbreakable.

Although garnering praise from some critics as a welcome dramatic departure within the superhero film genre, Unbreakable was nonetheless considered by many to be a box office failure. (1) The film tells the subtle story of David Dunn, a man estranged from his family and purposeless in his life whose apparently indestructible body portends the radical possibility of a real superhero among us. Yet this superhero narrative does not fit the conventions of the standard blockbuster film. In keeping with Shyamalan's brand of magical realism, Unbreakable leaves out the CGI effects, high action, bright colors, and clean resolutions of the average superhero movie. Indeed, as Aldo Regalado has noted, Shyamalan "largely strip[s] the genre of spandex, capes, death rays, over-the-top action scenes, and the rest of its more flamboyant conventions" (116). Instead the film is introspective, slow, and moody, reading more as a psychological study of the superhero than a moral adventure. Such a stark break from convention likely led to its tepid reception. Shyamalan's superhero may have been seen as too subtle or understated, and thus did not measure up to audience expectations. (2)

Forgoing such conventions, however, is essential to the thematic preoccupation of Shyamalan's film. Unbreakable is less concerned with David's superhuman nature than with how the characters--and by extension, the audience--grapple with the superhero narrative itself not as an action-packed adventure but as a deeply personal mythos that helps to structure their lives. Indeed, Unbreakable differs significantly from other superhero films by explicitly working through the superhero narrative on two levels juxtaposed against one another simultaneously. On the one hand, Shyamalan's characters are aware of and self-reflexively discuss the formula behind the comic book genre. Such meta-commentary, according to Aldo Regalado, is precisely what distinguishes Shyamalan's film because the characters themselves negotiate conflicting views about the idea of the superhero and ultimately represent the "societal tensions that exist in the appreciation of superhero comic books" (117). (3) On another level, the diegesis of the film proves to be yet another example of the superhero formula enacted as it reveals the extraordinary gifts of its protagonist much like other hero origin movies. By the end of the film, then, the story told and the story lived by the characters become blurred.

Yet the focus throughout is not on David's extraordinary feats but rather on how the three main characters--David, his son, Joseph, and the antagonist, Elijah Price--discover a sense of purpose and identity they otherwise lack as subjects lost in a society that no longer clearly defines who they are, how they should relate to one another, and what their potential roles are within the larger cultural story. …