Bruce Willis starred in Unbreakable, which Disney was scared wouldn’t make money, because it was about comic book heroes.
In the year 2000, Bruce Willis assumed the role of an unlikely superhero in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. An article from Slashfilm tells the story of how, even after the success of Sixth Sense, Shyamalan had difficulty convincing studio executives of what Unbreakable was. Walt Disney Studios purchased Shyamalan’s Unbreakable script for $5 million but remained wary about the film’s comic book subject matter; Shyamalan is not shy about pointing out the irony of the studio’s apprehension.
“That’s the thing that they were so worried about,” Shyamalan said, “that no one would come to see a movie about comics. This is Disney. Would they know this many years later that they would bank the entire thing on that same thing that they were so scared to even talk about?” Unbreakable reunited Shyamalan with Die Hard actor Bruce Willis after the smash success of The Sixth Sense, but despite that similarity in the two films, the director explained that the films are fundamentally quite different, something he wishes he could have highlighted to the studio years ago.
Shyamalan gave the impression that Disney, which made the film under its Touchstone Pictures banner, wanted to stick to what they knew Shyamalan was good at, horror. The folks at Disney were not keen on the comic book aspect of the film and wanted to shy away from it by leaning on the movie’s grounded, dreary tone; in essence, they wanted it to be more like The Sixth Sense. The combo of Shyamalan and Bruce Willis coming back for Unbreakable was an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle.
To Shyamalan’s point, the irony of Disney’s skittishness cannot be ignored, as Disney now owns Marvel Studios and has leveraged comic book movies to redefine the landscape of cinema. There were Batman and Superman films at the time Shyamalan and Bruce Willis made Unbreakable, along with a handful of more obscure comic book film titles, but the superhero movie revolution didn’t really kick off until Spider-Man landed in theaters in 2002. Many believe Unbreakable was ahead of its time, and even rank the film as one of the best superhero movies ever made.
Shyamalan went on to make a surprise sequel to Unbreakable with 2016’s Split, then united the characters from the two films with the crossover movie Glass in 2019. Glass saw Bruce Willis face off with Unbreakable villain Elijah Price, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and James McAvoy’s Split characters, which are too many to name. The film opened to an underwhelming fan and critical response, which made the irony of Disney’s wariness two decades ago even more poignant; the cinematic universe trend that Disney propagates with superhero films infiltrated the comic book film they were afraid to make, and in doing so, deflated nearly twenty years of anticipation.
Bruce Willis finished the Unbreakable saga and is now facing retirement after he announced he had been struggling with an aphasia diagnosis. M. Night Shyamalan will return to theaters on February 3, 2023, with his latest film, Knock at the Cabin. The new thriller stars Dave Bautista and Rupert Grint as part of a crew that invades a vacation cabin and forces a family to make a tragic decision in the face of a coming apocalypse.
M. Night Shyamalan has been a force in original films and out-of-the-box adaptations for thirty years. The writer/director/producer has made his mark on the horror and thriller genres, and along with Bruce Willis, he even impacted the superhero genre with Unbreakable. The story of Unbreakable is a perfect example of how, in the entertainment industry, the future is truly unpredictable, and no trend is unbreakable.
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