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Film / Unbreakable

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"Real life doesn't fit into little boxes that were drawn for it."
"Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you're here. That's... that's just an awful feeling."
Elijah Price

Unbreakable is a 2000 psychological thriller drama film directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan. A deconstruction of the superhero genre, the film stars Bruce Willis as security guard David Dunn and Samuel L. Jackson as comic book art gallery owner Elijah Price.

Unbreakable begins with the birth of Elijah, whose mother discovers that he was born with broken arms and legs due to osteogenesis imperfecta, which makes his bones as fragile as glass. The film then jumps to the present day where David, on his way home to Philadelphia from New York City, ends up in a horrific train crash that kills everyone but him — and David himself is perfectly healthy and unharmed.

Elijah — now a respected owner of a comic book art gallery — contacts David with a letter asking a simple question: "How many days in your life have you been sick?" David is caught off guard and starts thinking back on his entire life, even consulting his wife Audrey, and he cannot remember taking one sick day, having a single headache, or getting bruised. David makes contact with Elijah in return, who offers a very dramatic possible answer. If he, Elijah, is on one end of the spectrum by being so frail and brittle, then the existence of someone who is on the other end of the spectrum, having superhuman durability, must balance the equation — and he believes David to be this person. He bases this conclusion on his love of comic books, and believing that "super" humans exist but are dismissed because of the commercialization of superheroes.

David doubts he's a Real Life superhero, but the possibility leads to some deep self-examination. In addition to being (allegedly) Made of Iron, David also seems to have a subconscious ability to "read" people and know the evil things they have done… or are about to do. He begins to wonder whether it's possible that he's never been hurt in his life or if it's all coincidence and selective memory, and whether his alleged extrasensory powers are all just in his imagination. David starts considering how the theory, if true, could affect his purpose in life and his family's failing happiness, especially after being the lone survivor of a train crash, both of which have already caused him deep depression. After all of that, David has to ask himself the most important question: is it worth the risk he'll take to discover the truth?

A sequel, Glass, was released in 2019, with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson returning as their respective characters.

Unbreakable has one hell of an ending, and it's pretty much the only ending to a Shyamalan film that hasn't received the It Was His Sled treatment. If you haven't seen the movie yet, avert your eyes from the spoilers below.

Unbreakable contains examples of:

  • 555: The film opens with a train crash; the number to call for family members to check on survivors is 800-767-1482. Originally this number went to a recording telling people it was reserved for use as a placeholder number for use in movies and tv shows, but has since become used by a fake survey allegedly offering "free" boat cruises.
  • The '60s: The opening scene shows the birth of Elijah in 1961. There's a woman wearing a distinctly late 1950s dress.
  • The '70s: Elijah's second scene (when he receives a comic book in his teens) is set in 1974.
  • Abusive Parents: David brushes against a woman in the stadium, walking with her son. He hears screams of "No, Mommy, please no!", and is tempted to act, but decides he has more pressing matters at hand. This had DISASTROUS consequences.
  • Achilles' Heel: At first, Elijah is confused to learn that David is capable of drowning just like anyone else, until he remembers that every superhero needs a specific weakness.
  • Affably Evil: Elijah.
  • All Anime Is Naughty Tentacles: Or rather, All Manga Is Hentai. In the comicbook store scene where a despondent Elijah causes a ruckus with his wheelchair, one of the clerk's first lines when he notices that Elijah has been hiding in the back for a while is "You better not be jacking off to the Japanese comics, I swear to God".
  • Alliterative Name: David Dunn, quite fittingly.
  • Alone with the Psycho: David encounters a family that has been helpless in the hands of a psychopath for days when he invaded their home, killed the father, and tyrannized the wife and children.
  • Animation Age Ghetto: In-universe. Elijah refuses to sell a rare piece of comic book art to a father who is only looking for a gift for his four-year-old son, rather than someone who would appreciate the work of art.
  • Appropriated Appellation: Elijah takes his childhood nickname of "Mr. Glass" as his supervillain name. He lampshades this when he reveals it to David.
  • Arc Words: "There was one survivor. He was miraculously unharmed."
  • Artistic License – Medicine: In real life, a person suffering from Osteogenesis imperfecta would almost never grow to be as tall as Elijah is (Samuel L Jackson is about 6'2").
  • Ascended Fanboy: Elijah. He used to read tons of comics in his lonely childhood, and became what is essentially a real-world supervillain.
  • Author Appeal: It was Samuel L. Jackson (himself a major comic book geek) who suggested that purple be the theme color for Elijah. This is because purple is Jackson’s favorite color, and it is a color often associated with famous comic book supervillains (The Joker, Lex Luthor, and the Green Goblin, just to name a few). A rather big clue as to who Elijah really is.
  • Ax-Crazy: The Orange Man is a complete and utter lunatic, who broke into a house, killed the adults and was about to kill the children before David takes him down.
  • Badass Bystander: David rescues the two kids and tells them to stay low and quiet while he checks the rest of the house. After David falls into the pool and tangled up in the tarp, they rescue him by reaching a pole in so he could grab on and pull him to the edge.
  • Badass Cape: Played with. It's a rain poncho, not a cape, but it undeniably makes David look more badass during his first foray into superheroism.
  • Berserk Button: Don’t ever suggest to Elijah that comic books are just for kids.
  • Big Bad Friend: Elijah is the Big Bad of the film, which he reveals only when he and David are starting to become friends near the end. After becoming intrigued by the comics his mother gave him, he becomes obsessed with the hero/villain archetypes presented in the stories. Over the years, he engineers mass disasters that kill hundreds of people to find his antithesis, a real hero. He manipulates David over the course of the film to fill this archetype not to save people, but to find meaning in his own life.
  • Bittersweet Ending: David is a superhero now... but his friend and mentor Elijah is actually his fated arch-enemy and committed to a mental institution. To make it even more bittersweet, Elijah is happy about this outcome, as he finally knows where he belongs in life.
  • Black and Nerdy: Elijah grew up with comic books, because his frailty forced him to find a non-physical hobby.
  • Boring, but Practical: David's method of defeating The Orange Man is just to sneak up behind him and get him in a chokehold, until he's simply dead. No brawl, no fight, just enduring all the trashing and hits while maintaining his own hold.
  • Brick Joke: Upon their first meeting, David accuses Elijah of being a con artist, noting previous incidents where a conversation much like the one they are having ends with the scammer asking for the person's credit card. Elijah later meets up with David again, giving him yet another talk...and asks for his credit card. He's kidding.
  • The Cape: David is very much this type of superhero. He even dons a rain poncho that looks somewhat like a cape. Underlined by a shot near the end of the film, when David comes home after saving the two girls; he hangs his guard’s poncho up and the camera lingers on the word SECURITY on the back.
  • Capepunk: This is a superhero film by way of a Psychological Thriller, showing a very dark view of a 'real-world superhero'. Mr. Glass in particular provides a lot of commentary on the genre's tropes, being the owner of a comic book art gallery obsessed with his comics.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Subverted. David's football career was ended in a car accident, but not by it, as he faked a leg injury because his career was incompatible with his love for Audrey.
  • Central Theme: Everything happens for a reason. However, this film debates whether or not it will be a good thing or not.
  • Cheap Costume: A humble poncho. David still manages to make it look good, though, especially in the newspaper artist's recreation.
  • Clark Kenting:
    • Subverted; David has been unknowingly doing this his entire life, unaware of his true nature as The Hero.
    • Played straight at the end, though; only Elijah and Joseph are aware of his secret as he accepts his destiny.
  • Color Motif: Almost everything associated with David is green and Elijah is purple. This includes everything from their casual wear, how their home is decorated, various props they use and their family members. Red, yellow and orange is used to symbolize those with a negative impact on the characters.
  • Color-Coded Characters: A deliberate addition to the style of the film. Like comic book characters, many of the people David encounters sport a Color Motif. David's is green. Elijah's is purple. The janitor is orange. And, like The Sixth Sense, red has major symbolic importance in the train station. In addition, whenever David senses someone has done or is planning to do something wrong, they are wearing bright colors or some other distinctive clothing that makes them stand out from the crowd. The wardrobe department played to this by having each character dress in more muted-colored versions of their outfits initially, with the colors becoming more vivid as their heroic/villainous aspects became more apparent.
  • Combo Platter Powers: David has superhuman strength and durability, and can also see a person’s evil deeds by touching them.
  • Comes Great Responsibility: Embraced by David, who, after he ended his sports career to be with Audrey, started working as a security guard because he feels an urge to help and protect people.
  • Comic Books Are Real: Elijah believes so, albeit embellished with Artistic License from real people with extraordinary abilities. His attempts to prove that David is one of these real-life comic book heroes drive much of the plot.
  • Conversational Troping:
    • Elijah talks about the Lantern Jaw of Justice and other stylistic traits and conventions.
    • At the end, David and Elijah's mother talk about Villain Tropes at Elijah's art gallery. She says that Elijah believes there are two main types of villains. There's the soldier villain, who fights the hero with his hands, and then there's the brilliant, evil Arch-Enemy, the really dangerous one, who fights the hero with his mind. Elijah is revealed to be the latter.
    • During the scene where Elijah sells one of his comic art pieces, he explains how the character has been made to look like a villain, by giving him dark skin and large eyes, both of which fit Elijah.
  • Create Your Own Hero: Elijah engineers disasters that kill hundreds of people in order to find a real-life super-hero, then convinces him to follow the call.
  • Create Your Own Villain: Elijah, as he strives to locate his antithesis, purposefully creates himself as the super-villain Mr. Glass, by becoming a mass-murdering criminal mastermind who felt the deaths of innocent people was worth it to finally know his role in life.
  • Creator Cameo: M. Night Shyamalan plays a drug dealer.
  • Crisis of Faith: In a Deleted Scene, David has a conversation with a priest who is distraught and doubting his faith in God after losing his nephew in the train crash. This exacerbates David's Survivor Guilt.
  • Date Rape: A man David passes in the train station is shown to have done this to an unconscious woman at a party.
  • Dead Sparks: David and Audrey's marriage.
  • Deconstruction: This shows us a very dark version of the idea of a superhero, and of someone being Genre Savvy.
    • Arguably the film is more of a Reconstruction than a Deconstruction considering David fits the trope of The Cape very well and it isn't portrayed as a bad thing that he is the way he is; rather it shows that him becoming The Cape and the tropes associated with it are for the betterment of him, his family, and the community.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Elijah and his mother spent most of Elijah's life trying to avert this. Elijah's goal to discover a superhero is in order to prove to himself that he's not a 'mistake' and that he was born for a reason. But he'll accept any reason for existing.
  • Detect Evil: David has a variation of this. Whenever he touches someone, he gets a glimpse of the most evil thing this person has done recently.
  • Disappeared Dad: Going by flashback scenes to his childhood, Elijah seems to have one.
  • Divorce Is Temporary: David and Audrey are not divorced, but are sleeping apart, and David is looking to move out. He even removes his wedding band so he can flirt with a woman in the opening scene. David surviving the train crash motivates Audrey to not give up on their relationship, and try starting over.
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength: Inverted. David never had to push his limits, or at least he doesn't remember any instances of doing so, leaving him convinced he's just average guy with average strength. This conviction in turn created a purely psychological barrier for him. When eventually trying his strength he runs out of weights and other objects to lift on his bench, while in a flashback he's shown tearing apart doors of a car, but due to the stress he doesn't even realise what he did.
  • Don't Try This at Home: In the weightlifting scene, David specifically tells his son that what he's about to do is very dangerous and he shouldn't try it.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: And we do mean everything. The revelation that Elijah caused not only the train wreck, but multiple other such disasters to find someone like David, casts everything he says and does in a much more sinister light.
  • Evil Former Friend: It's a plot point, and the last spoken sentences in the film are said evil former friend specifically talking about it as a trope in fiction.
  • Exact Words:
    • When David tells Elijah that Joseph considered trying to shoot him to prove that he cannot be harmed, Elijah points out that he never said he couldn't be killed.
    • Audrey asks David if he's cheated on her since they started having marital problems. He says, honestly, that he hasn't, although certainly not for lack of trying.
  • Flashback: It's mentioned several times that David and Audrey were in a bad car accident in college, which factors into several plot points, including David supposedly receiving a career-ending injury (disproving the "unbreakable" claim) that further allowed his marriage to Audrey, since she did not like the violence of football. Right before the climax, David inspects the wrecked train cars from the beginning of the film and flashes back to his car accident and what really happened.
  • Foil: Explored as a concept. David is nearly invulnerable, while Elijah is exceptionally weak. It turns out that this is because they're really each other's Arch-Enemy.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Most notably, every establishing shot of Elijah through his life being framed in a glass object (mirror, television, picture display panel) and his mother noting, "They say this one has a surprise endin'!" Details like this make the movie equally entertaining during repeat viewings.
    • His mother's remark that whatever God has planned for him will happen seems to portent Elijah’s apparently inescapable destiny as a supervillain.
    • When Elijah is trying to sell a comic picture, his description of a typical supervillain describes himself.
    • The morning after David rescues the family, Audrey mentions that they should make it a family rule that if they see Elijah again, they call the police. David looks hesitant but agrees anyway. The next time David sees him, he discovers Elijah was responsible for a number of mass deaths incidents, and the subtitles indicate David led the police to him.
    • The line Elijah's mother gives about the "soldier villain" who fights the hero with his hands. While this is likely a reference to the janitor that David just took down, with the release of Split, this line doubles as retroactive foreshadowing for the emergence of Kevin Wendell Crumb as The Horde, with The Beast persona in particular becoming the "soldier villain" that fights David in Glass.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Elijah was a perpetually ill boy who wanted superheroes to be real so badly, he decided to become a supervillain.
  • Genius Cripple: Elijah. Which is not a very good thing.
  • Genre-Busting: It's one part Psychological Thriller, one part Family Drama and one part Superhero Origin Story.
  • Genre Deconstruction: This movie Deconstructs the Superhero genre before superhero films even became popular (With X-Men coming out only a few months earlier and Spider-Man two years later) and becoming the first of a sub-genre of 'Real-world Superhero' films.
  • Genre Savvy: Elijah. And his obsession with the hero/villain genres of comic books led him to engineer the deaths of hundreds of people.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: David's awkward flirtation with a girl on his doomed train trip is portrayed as not only inept, but sleazy. Audrey later asks him, with no strings attached, if he has cheated since they've been having problems, and he tells her no. Her emotional reaction to that (and a Deleted Scene) suggests she may have been unfaithful or nearly was as well.
  • Handshake of Doom: The film ends with Elijah shaking David's hand - only for David's crime-detecting touch to alert him to the Awful Truth: Elijah is directly responsible for three major acts of terrorism, including an airplane bombing, a hotel fire, and the train crash at the start of the movie - all for the sake of finding someone with David's superhuman powers.
  • Heroic Bystander: The two kids who David rescues near the end of the film end up saving him from drowning. Definitely a crowner.
  • The Hero's Journey to Villain: Deconstructed. It doesn't help that the villain Elijah knows his mythology and the Campbellian elements well enough to manipulate David into accepting the Call to Adventure.
  • Ideal Illness Immunity: One of the factors that make David realize that he is superhuman is the fact that he's never gotten sick or taken a day off from work.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Elijah feels this way about engineering the deaths of hundreds of people.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: David until he accepts the calling.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Elijah has this bad. Mostly due to his medical condition.
  • I Never Told You My Name: Elijah reveals to his care worker that he knows David by asking, by name, how her husband was injured in a car wreck.
  • Immune to Bullets: Played for Drama when David's son threatens to prove Elijah's theory while pointing a gun at David. Ultimately a Subversion, since David manages to talk him out of it and we never learn what would have happened if David got shot.
  • Indecisive Medium: With references to Comic Book visuals, by positioning the characters in door frames, and such.
  • Improbable Infant Survival:
    • David playfully interacts with a child starring at him while on the train, just before the crash occurs. In a deleted scene, David asks a bishop about the crash, how he can be fine when his watch was crushed as if hit by a sledgehammer. The bishop then averts this trope by revealing angrily that the child on the train in front of David was his grandnephew.
    • Also averted with Elijah, who spends most of his childhood cooped up, since he knows this doesn't apply to him.
  • It's All About Me: While it was important for Elijah to find a Hero, his motivation was not for improving the world, but for the selfish reason of knowing his own place in the world.
  • Jaded Washout: Played with. David was The Ace in his college days and is now holding a humble job and a crumbling family. The movie heavily implies that David's shabby life is because he has been ignorant of his true calling for so long.
  • Kryptonite Factor: Explicitly acknowledged in the film, as every hero has some weakness. Shyamalan uses water as a weakness for the main superhero. In this case, though, it wasn't that he was especially vulnerable to water, but rather he was just as susceptible to drowning as a normal person — though it was theorized that the dense bone and muscle that made him unbreakable also made him unfloatable and so was at a higher risk for drowning. It was also a psychological weakness, as he had almost drowned once as a child (probably due to the aforementioned bone density), an event so traumatic he blocked it from his memory but left him with a phobia around water, even if he couldn't remember why.
  • Lantern Jaw of Justice: When showing off a piece of comic book art to a prospective client, Elijah explains how the square jaw is common to superheroes, while supervillains have more pointed facial features. Later, a sketch artist's rendering of the hero who saved the kids (David) is given a jawline to rival Dick Tracy.
  • Law of Conservation of Detail : Here, as in most of his early films, Shyamalan intricately controls almost every line of dialogue to have some significance. Listen carefully to the first scene between David and a fellow passenger: it all feels very natural, but reveals many current and future story elements.
  • Made of Plasticine: Played straight with Elijah due to his osteogenesis imperfecta.
  • Meaningful Rename: Elijah dubs himself "Mister Glass", a name his peers had called him when they were kids due to his condition. It's a stark contrast to David, who pretty much assumes the name of the film with his "power".
  • Meta Casting: John McClane is Unbreakable, who knew?
  • A Million is a Statistic: The movie makes efforts to avoid this. We hear about 100+ people dying in the train crash, but a memorial service for the dead shows a mural with pictures of every one and the pastor is reading off every name and their occupation. David falls into a depression over Survivor's Guilt. Elijah states that he had been watching all these various incidents that result in mass deaths looking for someone like David, and when David realizes Elijah orchestrated all those accidents he is shaken over the loss of life.
  • My Brain Is Big: Elijah comments on the tendency for villains heads to be larger than average. especially to evoke intelligence. Elijah's afro-esque hairstyle has the effect of exaggerating the size of his head.
  • My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad: Made especially ironic/funny when Potter says this to Joseph, who turns away so Potter won't see his smirk because he knows what his dad can do.
  • Not So Stoic: Elijah, and by extension, Samuel L. Jackson to anyone familiar with his other movies and pop culture status. Hearing his tearfully triumphant delivery of his Motive Rant is a twist in itself.
  • Oh, Crap!: Several. One of the most notable is when David realizes that he'd fallen on the plastic cover for a swimming pool.
  • The Oner: Many scenes of the film are one continuous shot. Several conversations feature the camera simply panning back and forth between the actors speaking rather than cutting.
  • Playing the Heart Strings: During the flashback to the car accident.
  • Proto-Superhero: Discussed. Elijah expounds on the ways comic book superheroes have their roots in earlier forms and archetypes, and uses this fact to bolster his belief that they are ultimately based on real life.
  • Psychometry: The film has David discovering that he has the ability to read evil intentions and/or actions in a person via physical contact. He never gave it much thought, as he never tried to develop it and dismissed it as intuition. Elijah eventually confirms that his intuition is extremely accurate, to the point of describing the look and design of a concealed gun.
  • Raincoat of Horror: This film is a Psychological Thriller/Deconstruction of the Super Hero genre, but it strays into horror territory near the end when protagonist David Dunn confronts a sadistic janitor who has invaded a family home, killed the father, and held the wife and their two children captive. David wears a long, hooded rain poncho that conceals his face for the duration of that scene. The poncho later makes an appearance in a newspaper article about his heroics, with an artist's depiction of the mysterious hooded hero who rescued the two children gracing the front page.
  • Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: David, Elijah, and Joseph all come from The Bible. There may be some symbolism implied: David was a warrior king, Elijah was a prophet, and Joseph was an idealistic dreamer.
  • Scary Black Man: Played with: any character played by Samuel L. Jackson is bound to have an intimidating presence, but his character has a bone disease that makes him extremely frail and infirm. He's also the super-villain of the story.
  • Secondary Color Nemesis: Elijah talks about the use of secondary colors to characterize villains in comic books. The first villain David faces on his path to becoming a superhero is a sadistic janitor who wears bright orange overalls, while his diabolical arch-enemy wears purple, because it's Elijah himself.
    • However, David himself is associated with green, rather than red, yellow, or blue.
  • Sequel Hook: The movie as a whole stands alone just fine, but being a Super Hero Origin and establishing that David is a real world superhero with the intent of fighting criminals, the movie ends before we see anything come of that. As such, a sequel was requested by basically everyone up until the announcement of Glass nearly 18 years later.
  • Serial Killer: Elijah kills far more people than he probably needed to just to find his antithesis. The janitor also was one.
  • Serious Business: When Elijah is first seen as an adult, he is speaking about the artistic merit of a very valuable concept sketch for a comic character, and the customer says he'll take it. Elijah walks out while congratulating him on his purchase, but stops when the other man remarks, "My kid's gonna go berserk." At that, Elijah tears into the man.
    Elijah: Once again, please?
    Customer: My son Jeb; it's a gift for him.
    Elijah: How old is "Jeb"?
    Customer: He's four.
    Elijah: No. No, no, no, no, NO. You need to go. Now.
    Customer: W-What did I say?
    Elijah: Do you see any Teletubbies here? Do you see a slender plastic tag clipped to my shirt with my name on it? Did you see a little Asian child with a blank expression sitting outside in a mechanical helicopter that shakes when you put quarters in it? No? Well, that's what you'd see at a toy store; and you must think you're in a toy store, because you're here shopping for an infant named Jeb. Now, one of us has made a gross error, and wasted the other person's valuable time. This is an art gallery, my friend, and this is a piece of art.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Elijah's hairstyle is based on Frederick Douglass.
    • Given the movie's comic book themes, there is a subtle one that is Fridge Brilliance on later viewings. As noted above, the Color Motif that goes with Elijah is purple, and his office has a large Egyptian mural behind his chair, both of which are references to Ozymandias from Watchmen. It's Fridge Brilliance after you’ve seen both movies, read the latter's source material, or both, and know that both characters are actually secretly the villain of the work.
    • There is another in the scenes in the house when David is wearing his green raincoat with a hood pulled up, making him look like The Spectre. What do David and The Spectre have in common? They both punish the guilty and the first Spectre drowned, like David almost did as a child.
    • The note Elijah left David "How many days in your life have you been sick?" is written in Comic Sans, a font directly inspired by the lettering in comic books.
  • Shower of Angst: A Deleted Scene had David taking a shower after returning home from the train crash and collapsing into tears. Shyamalan said it was taken out because it was too much too soon.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Osteogenesis imperfecta is a real disease, and was classified into four types at the time the film was made, as explained by Elijah (who explains further that he has Type I, the most common and least severe one). Today, there are seven known types.
    • The mutation of the LRP5 gene can also result in ultra-dense bones. Interestingly, this effect was only noticed by scientist Karl Insogna in 1994 after a man was found uninjured after what appeared to be a serious car accident. The only hint of the condition he had previously was his tendency to sink like a stone in water. People with the mutation also tend to have “unusually square jaws.” Sounds familiar enough to be inspiration.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Most of the film could be seen as a quest to an uplifting story. Once the twist is revealed though, its often debatable on which side it actually leans forward to.
  • The Smart Guy: Elijah, though just as with David it's massively downplayed. He doesn't so much have genius intellect as a superb attention to detail, a good education, and an utter devotion to his goals. Oh yeah, and a complete and utter Lack of Empathy. He has that too.
  • Sole Survivor: David, in a train wreck.
  • Staircase Tumble: While pursuing a man, Elijah falls down a flight of stairs, which puts him in a wheelchair and inflicts damage that necessitates months of physical therapy.
  • Starter Villain: The Janitor is the first real threat David faces, and he almost loses when the Janitor catches David off-guard, knocking him into the pool, inadvertently exploiting David's Kryptonite Factor. Defeating the Janitor and saving the children is the first time David is hailed as a hero; Elijah later points out that this is just the first step in his burgeoning career as a real-life hero.
  • Stealth Sequel: The movie has one in the form of M. Night Shyamalan's Split, as revealed by David Dunn appearing in that movie's ending.
  • Superhero: Deconstructed. Unrealized sequels could have been intended as a Reconstruction.
  • Supervillain: Also deconstructed, in that the film explores what would drive a real person to become one, and what massive loss of life the scale of true super-villainy would entail. The hero-villain relation is also reversed; the villain isn't there to give the hero purpose in the plot, the villain created the hero to give himself purpose in the 'plot' of life.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Played with. David has a phobia of water due to a childhood incident. It's shown that David may be invulnerable, but he still requires oxygen, so he can drown just like anyone else, and due to his greater density with his abilities, he sinks like a rock.
  • Super Strength: David is clearly shown as being an incredibly strong individual; however, the film never actually confirms the upper limits to David's strength: they run out of weights to put on the bar for him to lift and put several heavy objects on top of that.note  He's able to wrench open the door of a crashed car. David wasn't aware of this, as he never pushed himself beyond what he thought he could do. It's almost Strong as They Need to Be.
  • Super Toughness: David discovers that he is highly durable when he's involved in a train crash and comes out unharmed without a scratch on him. His durability is shown to have limits, for although he sustained no serious harm from the crash, it did knock him out for a while, since he woke up in the hospital. It is also revealed that he nearly drowned as a child. It's unconfirmed how he would respond to a gunshot, since he successfully talks his son into giving up the gun, and even Elijah points out that he never said David couldn't be killed. As a deconstruction, this ability leads to David having a serious case of Survivor's Guilt as he is the only one to walk away from the train crash unharmed when so many others died.
  • Survivor's Guilt: David has a case of this due to being the lone survivor of the train crash. This is expanded in a couple of Deleted Scenes that show him taking a Shower of Angst after hearing reports about the crash, and being disturbed after talking to a priest who is having a Crisis of Faith due to losing his nephew in the crash.
  • This Is Reality: When David finally admits he has never been injured and asks Elijah what to do, he tells him to go where people are and offers the following advice....
    Elijah: It's alright to be afraid, David, because this part won't be like a comic book. Real life doesn't fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.
  • This Is the Part Where...: "I think this is where we shake hands."
  • Time-Shifted Actor: A flashback to the car crash David and Audrey were in while in college has them played by younger actors. The difference is notable but obscured by the low lighting.
  • Tragic Villain: Elijah is Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life. He thinks that being a super-villain is better than not knowing who one really is, so he engineers several disasters to find his antithesis, a real-life superhero. He seems to express remorse for the sacrifices necessary to complete his life's work, but believes it was worth it to finally know who he is.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Everything Elijah teaches David is so that he can be a great superhero and save people from other villains, but he has ulterior motives for guiding David on his journey. He wants David to be the hero so his own role as the villain is defined and was willing to engineer the deaths of hundreds of people in order to make this happen.
  • Unbuilt Trope: A deconstructive film that explores what a 'realistic' superhero would be like, long before 'realistic' superheroes were even a thing in motion pictures. It's older than Batman Begins, preceded only by actual comic book deconstructions such as Watchmen. It also goes even further than later deconstructions: David is entirely human, has only some above-average abilities and no super-gadgets, and struggles with accepting his role because he thinks heroes are just the stuff of stories, whilst his Eccentric Mentor Elijah speculates that heroic characters are in fact inspired by real-life heroes such as him. Elijah proves how dangerous applying tropes to real life can be; to force it into a narrative that makes sense to him, he arranges the deaths of hundreds of people to cement himself as a super-villain and find his natural opposite, David's superhero.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Elijah's mother. Her introducing him to his first comic book, in an attempt to cheer him up, ultimately led to Elijah becoming a real life super-villain by causing hundreds of deaths as he attempted to find his antithesis in a real-life superhero.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: In-story, Elijah believes that the concept of the superhero, dating back to the epic heroes of the ancient world, was inspired by real-life people with superhuman qualities.
    • The film itself is based on actual medical stories, both Elijah's brittle bones and David's indestructible bones. In fact, one story has a man in a car accident and was unharmed, but went to the hospital because that's what you're supposed to do. They learned that his bones were ultra-dense, as strong as granite, and the only indication he had before the accident was that he couldn't swim.
  • Villain Opening Scene: The film opens with the origin story and birth of the later supervillain and David’s Treacherous Advisor Elijah, showing why his fragility devastated his mother and ultimately caused him to become a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds, which is further fleshed out in a later scene between the two.
  • Walking Spoiler: More like 'Limping Spoiler,' but going into great detail about Elijah's character will spoil a large part of the film.
  • Wedding Ring Removal: In his first scene, David removes his wedding ring before flirting with a much younger woman on a train. After a while, she ends the conversation by telling him she's married.
  • Wham Line: In the opening scene with the doctor.
    "Ma'am, I've never seen... this. It appears your baby has suffered some fractures while in your uterus. His arms and his legs are broken."
  • Wham Shot: Near the end of the film, when David shakes hands with Elijah, he sees a series of visions showing Elijah at the sites of various deadly accidents, with the final one being Eastrail 177.
  • What Do You Mean, It's Not for Kids?: invoked In-Universe, Elijah tears into a customer who assumes his comic-book art is an appropriate gift for a four-year-old.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Elijah suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, which creates a brittleness in his bones that makes them very susceptible to fracture. He can't do things other kids can do in his childhood, is constantly in casts, and has only comic books to bring him joy. Then he decides that his purpose in life is to be a supervillain...


Unbreakable gun scene

One of Shyamalan's trademarks.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / TheOner

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