special request: HOW'S IT COMPARE TO OTHER SUPERHERO MOVIES
Unbreakable differs from other superhero movies in a number of ways. Let's compare using TIME magazine's top 10 Superhero movies.
In those external honors, Unbreakable doesn't come close. No major awards, or even nominations. A 68% RT score. It grossed half of the The Incredibles PROFIT ($250 box office to $540 million profit).
But we're not comparing that stuff.
So let's get on with the show.
Unbreakable differs from all of these superhero movies in four major fields: originality, scope = villain + disaster to avert, shot selection, and production.
The only two ORIGINAL concepts--i.e. characters whom hadn't existed until the movies were made--are: The Incredibles and Unbreakable.
"But you said Unbreakable DIFFERED from 'all of these superhero movies' then in your first example you say it has something in common with another one!"
I'm glad you're paying such close attention. I don't think it's a negative thing to show Unbreakable has something in common with what is normally considered the BEST superhero movie of all-time. Also, for what it's worth, Unbreakable came out almost 4 years (to the date, actually) before The Incredibles.
(Actually, if you notice, the top three movies on the list, SM, TDK, and TI, all came out after Unbreakable. Which means Unbreakable is, according to TIME magazine, the best superhero movie of all-time prior to the year 2004.)
Original superhero movie concepts, outside of B-movies, are few and far between. If you count Robocop as a superhero, there's RoboCop (1987), Darkman (1990), The Meteor Man (1993) (the most comedic of the "original" superhero movies), Unbreakable (2000), The Incredibles (2004), Sky High (2005), Hancock (2008), and Megamind (2011).
Even amongst this lot, Unbreakable stands out thanks to its unique scope.
Villain + Disaster To Avert = Scope
Darkman has to stop a crime boss or is ruining a city.
Meteor Man stops the gang that is terrorizing his neighborhood.
The Incredibles must defeat Syndrome. Syndrome plans to create a disaster that threatens Metroville and then stop the disaster, thus saving Metroville and becoming the greatest hero ever. But his plan, of course, fails, and he loses control and ALL of Metroville (maybe even the world!) is threatened. The Incredibles have to save Metroville!
In Sky High, Will Stronghold and friends have to stop Royal Pain from destroying the superhero high school and installing in its place a supervillain high school! (and villains are bad for the world!).
Megamind's plot mimics The Incredibles, except he's both The Incredibles and Syndrome. He creates a superhero but the superhero ends up becoming a supervillain that threatens the city (and maybe even the world!), and Megamind has to stop him (and does and becomes the favorite hero of Metro City).
Those are the Original movies. Let's look at the TIME movies.
In Iron Man, Tony Stark isn't trying to stop a specific gang or a specific villain. His fight is against war, against dominion. Really, his fight is against those who want Power and will step on people, wrong people, kill people to get it. In the film, terrorists and Jeff Bridges embody this hunt for Power. The terrorists want weapons and control. Jeff Bridges wants money (money is Power). If the terrorists will pay, he'll sell them weapons. And if he can replicate Tony Stark's Iron Man suit, he'll kill Tony. The State of The World is at stake.
In Watchmen, the plot is to induce a global panic (by destroying major cities) in order to end the Cold War and bring about peace. Evil for the sake of Good.
In Phantasm, Batman has to figure out who is murdering mobsters.
The Rocketeer has to stop not only a gang but also a NAZI spy. It's 1938 and there's a war coming, If the Nazi's get the rocket technology...(THE ENTIRE WORLD IS AT RISK!)
Blade has to stop these odd, zombie-like vampires that are like a virus and could, potentially, THREATEN THE WORLD.
Superman has to defeat General Zod who has taken control of the entire world.
Spider-Man has to prevent Doc Oc from making another attempt at his fusion power experiment that has already failed once and will, in all likelihood, fail again, and if it fails could destroy NYC.
In The Dark Knight Batman has to stop the Joker who has made Gotham a crazy place and killed a bunch of people (the city is threatened but the intriguing twist is that Joker isn't targeting the city, he's targeting Batman and using the city, its citizens, as a tool/tools).
The only two movies that are distinctly different in their Villains and Disaster to Avert are Unbreakable and Hancock.
Hancock's villain is himself, his own dickishness. It's prevented him from happiness, from celebrity (instead he has infamy), and has rendered him alone and a hazard (because he doesn't care about collateral damage (which is, I think, a bit of commentary on superheroes who does these crazy things like destroy city property and don't have to answer for it (which The Incredibles also addresses)). The film, midway through, gives us an external villain who threatens Hancock and the love of Hancock's life. The villain is a reaction to Hancock's jerkiness, driven by revenge, so becomes a comeuppance for Hancock, a reckoning. The climax serves as a reckoning and Hancock is finally able to move beyond his grief and start fresh somewhere new.
And Unbreakable. As with Hancock, Unbreakable is more character investigation than Defeat Villain, Stop Disaster. Bruce Willis is unsatisfied with his life. This existential dilemma has immobilized him, he lacks the momentum to cultivate meaningful relationships, so is sundered from his wife and distant from his son. Whereas Hancock had to deal with his past and move on, Willis has to make peace with his present and future. There's no epic scene. The scope is decidedly small, sticking, most of the time, to internal locations. Many scenes take place in the home. And the climactic moments all are domestic locations (first in an stranger's home, then in Willis's own). No other major superhero movie has kept such a tight focus. All of the movies listed above have PERSONAL conflicts the characters have to deal with (a love interest, self-confidence issues, etc.) but all twine the personal into larger Public conflicts. Hancock doesn't totally avoid this, because Hancock is a public figure. Unbreakable touches on it when Willis shows his son a story in the newspaper about a cloaked man (Willis) who saved a family from a killer. But Willis's personal problem doesn't interface with a Public conflict, he is able to resolve another personal conflict. It's the only wide-release superhero movie that keeps its stakes totally within the private domain.
Superman II, Blade II, Spider-Man 2, The Rocketeer, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight are not stylistic. They're commercial. They're fast paced. They cut often. There are plenty of close-ups on the stars involved.
Yes, Guillermo del Toro made Blade II, yes he made Pan's Labyrinth and it's awesome, but Blade II was his first wide-release film, and while I think it's well-done, I don't think the shot selection is anything special.
And, yeah, Christopher Nolan is good, but the way he cuts fight scenes I can only describe as garbled. There are dramatic shots. But no long takes. Or creative composition of the elements in the frame.
Watchmen and Unbreakable are the only movies on this list that we can describe as "comic book" movies. Yes, all ten films are based on comics. But SII, BII, SM2, TR, IM, and TDK abandon the comic book form. They are, first and foremost, movies. Watchmen and Unbreakable translate the elements of a comic book to film. Snyder used the Watchmen comic book as his storyboard for the film. He recreated images (as he also did for 300). As much as he could, Snyder CONVERTED Watchmen from a comic to a movie.
M. Night went a step above. His movie is an original concept. He had no source material. Instead of converting a comic book into a film, he made a film into a comic book (as much as you can make a film into a comic book). The opening sequence is a great example of how M. Night conjoins the two forms. It's a long take, two minutes, no cuts. And the camera moves to frame the characters involved in a variety of ways, recreating the panel-layout of a comic book.
The long take is a staple of film. The paneling of images a staple of comics. Here, M. Night has combined the two and established the yet-replicated style of Unbreakable.
Notice how in each of these images there are "sides". There's the jeweler's side of the counter and the customer's side. There's the sidewalk and the street. There's the doorway that separates this girls room from the rest of the house. There's the table between David and Elijah.
Notice how these "lines" are crossed. The girl reaches over the counter, the guy leans out the car window and bashes a pedestrian in the head with a bottle, this creepy little punk has entered the girl's room. Elijah stays on his side of table because he's not attempting to physically accost David (David is, it so happens, unbreakable), but is challenging his very notion of "I am David Dunn". It's a mental battle, and Elijah's voice is his weapon.
(Note too, in David's "mind readings", (the three darker pictures) the camera is at the same angle. I don't really have anything to say about this. Just wanted to mention it.)
There's this level of intricacy to Unbreakable I believe the other films lack. Iron Man, Mask of the Phantasm, Rocketeer, Blade II, Superman II, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and The Incredibles are without similar comic book influences. Not to mention symbolic mise-en-scene. Watchmen comes close since Snyder lifted images directly from the graphic novel, but this sort of fidelity, while nice, is, I think, limiting.
All of this is why Unbreakable feels unlike any other superhero movie.