Movie Article

Comic Belief

Director M. Night Shyamalan explains the movie's comic book references -- and why they matter

For many moviegoers, the ''M.'' in M. Night Shyamalan might as well stand for ''mystifying.'' The ''Sixth Sense'' wunderkind's follow up, ''Unbreakable'' -- a brooding, lugubrious take on comic book heroism -- has divided both critics and audiences, its $67 million gross notwithstanding. Reaction to the movie, and its head spinning twist ending, has ranged from joy to bewilderment to outright rage. When the lights come up, the mood is, shall we say, Floridian.

Yet there's one group of folks who seem pretty happy with ''Unbreakable'': comic book aficionados. Shyamalan himself is a fan (Marvel's ''Spider-Man'' and ''Daredevil'' top his list), and so is one of the stars, Samuel L. Jackson (''a comic book freak,'' according to the director''). But for the benefit of those who don't know their Green Lanterns from their Green Goblins, EW.com turned to Shyamalan and other experts to clear up the comic confusion.

If this is a comic book movie, how come it doesn't look like ''Dick Tracy''?
Though the gritty, seemingly naturalistic flick offers up nary a pair of Day-Glo spandex tights, those in the know immediately recognize the hallmarks of the comix form, such as heightened dialogue (Samuel L. Jackson's giggle inducing expository speeches) and bizarro flourishes (Jackson's cane is made of glass -- so practical!). ''The reaction I've gotten so far has been insane,'' says Shyamalan. ''An insane, insane reaction from the comic book contingent. I think it's primarily because the subject matter is treated with respect. Something that's important to them is now made important to a larger audience.''

What are the ''classic comics'' this movie's referring to?
According to well known ink and paint devotee (and ''Dogma'' director) Kevin Smith, an affection for the genre informs the film's somber, rainwashed aesthetic. ''It reminds me a lot of a comic book called 'The Mage,''' says Smith, speaking from the set of his latest offering, ''Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.'' That semi- obscure comic follows ''a wizard who convinces a regular guy to try and find out if he's a superhero, and it's also set in Philly.'' What's more, several pundits -- including New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell -- have mentioned the visual similarities between the security guard hero (Bruce Willis) on patrol in his poncho and a DC Comics character known as ''the Spectre.''

Nate Nelson, a comics guru at Seattle's world famous Golden Age Collectables (sic) sees even broader resonances: ''I think a lot of what he's doing is highlighting the greatness of the 'Silver Age' of comics. That was the '60s and early '70s, when superheroes really hit their stride. There had been a few superhero comics before that, but they had been pretty much replaced by Western comics, horror comics.''

Okay, it's about comic book heroes and villains. So why is everybody moping around all the time?
During the '80s, when dark, revisionist comics and graphic novels about Superman and Batman became popular, the genre as a whole got gloomier. ''Everybody had these internal struggles, which was great,'' Nelson says. ''But you lost a little bit of hope and altruism.'' In the movie, Jackson's character, a comic book connoisseur, pines for the glory days of flawless heroes. Smith notes some allusions to one famous hero, pointing to ''Willis' feet with the poncho hanging down like a cape,'' as well as framelike near stills ''where the light is just touching his nose and chin, like Batman when he's wearing his cowl.''

That said, Shyamalan still won't call ''Unbreakable'' a comic book movie. ''It's more a movie about the milieu of comic books than it is a comic book movie,'' he says. But that doesn't mean he has anything against the genre: He's a die hard fan of ''Superman'' and ''Batman.'' ''Of course, they were easier to relate to when I was a kid, and harder to relate to now that I'm an adult,'' he explains. ''Or at least pretending that I'm an adult.''

Originally posted Dec 06, 2000