HEAT VISION

How the 'Unbreakable' Trilogy Became a Toxic Version of the American Dream

With 'Glass,' M. Night Shyamalan crafts an intriguing homage to superheroes while forgetting the most important thing about them.
Anya Taylor-Joy and Samuel L. Jackson in 'Glass'   |   Universal Pictures
With 'Glass,' M. Night Shyamalan crafts an intriguing homage to superheroes while forgetting the most important thing about them.

[This story contains spoilers for the Universal thriller Glass.]

M. Night Shyamalan tackles the American folk hero in his love letter to superhero comics, The 177 Train Trilogy. Unbreakable, Split and Glass weave a tale of new gods in a dark city. Pain acts as a pathway to a superior form. Men rise together and fall alone. The truth sets everyone free. These elements are the American dream, and they’re a toxic nightmare.

Three of the earliest American superheroes, Superman, Captain America and Batman, established the pillars of a new American Dream. This new dream reflects the impoverished, war-torn, rapid industrialization of their era. Superman represented trust. A refugee who happens to be an alpha predator, protecting the little guy. Through Captain America, young readers learned about legacy and sacrifice. Steve Rogers allows his body to be experimented on to better serve his country and eventually sacrifices his life to protect a friend. Batman taught the darkest and most important lesson: Transformation through pain strengthens character. Using these three pillars of identity, The 177 Train Trilogy mimics these early heroes. For this analogy, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is Superman, Elijah "Mr. Glass" Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is Captain America and Kevin "The Beast" Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) is Batman.

No genre exemplifies the American Dream better than superheroes. Truth, justice and the American way have evolved with the American people for nearly a century. Superman, in the 1930s, operated as Titan for the oppressed. Captain America was kicking Nazi ass in the '40s. Women liberation movements deified Wonder Woman. In 1989, Tim Burton's big-screen Batman launched a darker, more violent era of superheroes. Larger guns, bigger muscles and darker crimes were called to reflect the times. A new 24-hour news cycle made sure everyone stayed on high alert at all times. Readers and moviegoers wanted heroes who could combat the threats they were sold on TV every day.

"I believe comics are our last link to an ancient way of passing on history,” Shyamalan communicates through Price in Unbreakable. “The Egyptians drew on the walls. Countries all over the world still pass on knowledge through pictorial forms. I believe comics are a form of history that someone, somewhere felt or experienced." The 177 Train Trilogy tried to take the next evolutionary step in superhero storytelling. Shyamalan removed the muscles, giant guns and superpowers and put people in pain at the center of the story. But, along the way, he forgot the most important rule of being a superhero: All life is sacred.

TRUTH

In Unbreakable, David is a man who chose a less spectacular life, giving up a professional career in football, to be with the woman he loves. Much like Superman, David could live happily in a simple life, but when he discovers he's nearly invincible and has the ability to sense danger, he can't sit back while people get hurt. His desire to do good is compounded by the fact that his son, Joseph (Spencer Trent Clark,) a Jimmy Olsen type, wants, more than anything for his father to be the hero he envisions him to be. Joseph becomes whatever his father needs him to be so that David can be a hero.

When Glass begins, Joseph and David are working in a home security store. Like Superman’s fortress of solitude, the shop holds all of their secrets. As a child, Joseph laments that he isn't ever going to be as strong as his father. Like Olsen, he is powerless against something like The Beast. David is the muscle, so Joseph became the brain. He keeps up to date on all local crime and he can triangulate probable locations for villains. There doesn't seem to be any life for Joseph outside of his father's work. Just like Jimmy Olsen's entire being is dedicated to Superman.

In a scene from Unbreakable, inspired by a famous Hollywood legend, Joseph pulls a gun on his father to prove that David has superhuman abilities and could withstand the blast. The legend goes that George Reeves, who played Superman on The Adventures of Superman from 1952-1958, once had a gun pulled on him by a child because the kid saw bullets bounce off Superman on TV. Thinking quickly, Reeves told the boy Superman couldn't be hurt if he was shot, but the ricochet might hit a bystander.

Joseph's intense need for his father to be a hero isn't healthy. In comic books, Olsen has left to be an on-air talent at a rival news network. On Supergirl, the CW series, Olsen moves to a new city to understand who he is without Superman's shadow flying over his head. Joseph will only ever be David Dunn’s son.

JUSTICE

While the father-son story plays out, a villain rises on the other side of Unbreakable. Born with a rare condition that causes a protein deficiency, Elijah's bones are brittle and break with very little provocation. Ostracized from normal activity, Elijah sees himself as a freak, isolating himself from the rest of the world as a child. Through reading comic books, he's able to envision a world in which he has a purpose.

Elijah Price and Captain America share a lot of similarities. Both were outcast as children; both were weak, fragile and sickly; and both found their inner strength when they confronted human atrocity. Captain America was trying to end the senseless tragedy of World War II. Elijah was willing to start World War III if it meant he could make sense of the unjust hand he'd been dealt. There's no reason a baby should suffer broken bones on its first day on the planet. The anger Elijah built up over what happened to him led him to cause at least three terrorist attacks and kill over a thousand people — just so he wouldn't be alone.

Though labeled a villain, Mr. Glass is the hero of his own story. At the start of Glass, Elijah doesn't yet have the justice he seeks. His mother tells David, "He says there're always two kinds [of villains]. There's the soldier bully who fights the heroes with his hands. Then there's the real threat, the brilliant and evil archenemy who fights the hero with his mind." Because Elijah could not be the former, he made himself the latter.

Like Cap, Glass has dedicated his body to the cause. Captain America's reward for agreeing to undergo medical testing is extended height, a tan and a brand-new, ultra-hot body. That body is meant to be a sacrifice. Glass, too, puts his body on the line, but as the villain of the story he is constantly punished. While chasing a lead that could confirm his suspicions about David, Glass has to run down the stairs to the subway. He falls, shattering his leg and breaking several bones. Glass, however, isn't deterred.

Like the best villains and heroes, he's patient. Even when he's captured and left to rot in an asylum, Glass is playing the long game. Eventually, he gets what he seeks, but he had to sacrifice everything to do it. As of yet, Shyamalan hasn’t revealed how that victory pans out. That lack of knowledge leaves the entire victory feeling hollow.  

THE AMERICAN WAY

Shyamalan set aside David and Elijah to tackle Kevin Wendell Crumb, the guy certain to be a serial killer because his head is shaved and he has three names. McAvoy's Kevin suffers from multiple personality disorder. Inside of him lives 23 distinct personalities. A 24th is awakening. It is called The Beast, and it hungers for human flesh.

Born of the pain Kevin's mother inflicted on him as a child, The Horde makes Kevin's body nearly invincible. His skin becomes tough like a rhino. He's impossibly fast and can climb walls like a lizard. Misguided as they may be, all of Kevin's personalities attempt to protect him. Patricia, an older, proper woman with very strict rules, works with Dennis, a pervy bully, and Hedwig, a perpetual 9-year-old, to make room for The Beast to manifest. Meanwhile, Barry, a fashion designer, tries to get their shared body and mind to a psychiatrist to help them.

All of these personalities are reminiscent of the Bat-Family. Comprised of five Robins, three Batgirls, Batwoman, Nightwing and an entire international slate of Batpeople, Bruce Wayne is juggling a lot of personalities. Though Batman and his many proteges don't share one mind, they do share one insane mission: Eradicate crime without hurting a living soul. At one point or another, all of Batman's children have had to save him from himself. Most notably, they were all born into the superhero world via extreme pain.

When Kevin loses his father, he loses the only protection from his abuser. Like Batman, he becomes his own hero. Both possess a wide range of talents to help them achieve their goal. Batman is a detective, a martial arts expert, a weapons technician, a mechanic and occasionally a therapist. But, he's also lonely. Despite the huge family, he never deals with his trauma and is therefore never afforded the respite a soul needs. Though Kevin is in therapy, he, too, can't escape the horrors of his past. In American tales, individuals outrun their pain by doing good works, an unstable model when tested in the real world.

THE LEFTOVERS

Kevin's therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), asks a colleague, "We look at people who are shattered as less than, but what if they're more than us?" Pain can transform an individual in miraculous ways. Early Americans escaped or survived slavery, religious persecution and genocide. In the folk stories they told one another, they revealed how transformation through pain was vital to survival. Pecos Bill lost his parents in a boating accident, was raised by coyotes and then became a cowboy. John Henry died challenging a machine to a tunnel-digging contest. Davy Crockett lived an incredibly hard life in the wilderness before dying at the Alamo. Batman places his pain at the center of his life. The trauma of watching his parents murder is internalized as his fault. So, he works to make sure no one ever feels pain again.

Note the absence of women in these classic American stories. The 177 Train Trilogy has many women, all of them in pain, none of which manifests into superpowers or a better life. Dr. Fletcher is killed by The Beast. Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) is duped by Mr. Glass and fails her mission. Audrey Dunn (Robin Wright) loses her family. Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) gets the shortest end of the stick. Through flashbacks in Split, the audience is shown that at the age of 5, Casey is sexually assaulted by her uncle. There's a scene, nearly identical to Joseph holding David at gunpoint, where Casey has a shotgun aimed at her uncle. Only this time, the gun should go off, but he yanks it out of her hands and continues to abuse her for the next 10 years.

Later, when Casey's trapped in a cage facing The Beast, he sees cuts and cigarette burns on her stomach. Because she has experienced pain, she is allowed to walk away with her life. Once she's escaped the compound, a police officer informs Casey that her uncle has arrived to pick her up. A look of fear flashes across her face. In Glass, Casey's story picks up in a foster home. She got away from her abuser, but neither the hows, the emotional struggle nor the triumph of escape are celebrated onscreen. 

But denying Casey a decision about her uncle at the end of Split leaves the message of the film rather cloudy. Is it important to show your scars, to wear them proudly? Or, should she have told the police what was going on immediately? It isn't until Glass that Shyamalan shows Casey’s decision. Three weeks after being kidnapped, psychologically tortured and discovering the partially eaten carcasses of her dead classmates, Casey chooses to touch The Beast in order to bring Kevin to the spotlight. Unlike David's touch, which allows him to sense danger on any passerby, Casey's touch is only seen working with Kevin. Despite the fact that she's been "cleansed by pain” like David, Elijah and Kevin, she isn't allowed to have the same superhero journey.

Casey doesn't even get a cool job like Lois Lane, or a flirtation with the criminal underworld like Catwoman. Instead, she's the poster girl for the good victim. The same girl that films like A Star Is Born and the James Bond franchise have perpetrated over and over again. When Casey touches Kevin, he is at peace, in control. Kevin's multiple-personality disorder could be construed as Casey helping just Kevin and not The Beast, but it's difficult to see it as anything other than a retelling of Beauty and the Beast.

What makes the177 Train Trilogy so dissatisfying is what made it interesting in the first place. Stripping away the large budget of a Marvel and DC film, Shyamalan promises a grounded, more authentic superhero experience. Using the same toxic elements popularized in the '80s, Shyamalan was unsuccessful in his homage, because he forgot the very people heroes were supposed to protect. Casey deserved an opportunity to be the hero of her own story. Joseph deserved to be told he had a life outside of his father and crime fighting. Kevin deserved peace and healing. Without these elements, the "super" is removed from the "hero" and what’s left is an uncertain future. Heroes are supposed to show audiences how to be their best self. The 177 Train Trilogy only teaches survival. In today’s social, political and emotional climate, just surviving isn’t enough.

  • Joelle Monique
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