Shyamalan's Superhero Series Is Screenwriting School

A few weeks ago I went to see M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass”, the sequel to both “Unbreakable” and “Split”. I could spend a paragraph or two reviewing the film, but Richard Kutz and I talk at length about the film and its genius on a recent podcast episode of “Three Cylinder Stardrive”. Check that out if you want the review.

What this post is about, actually, is what that film made me do, which is go back and watch “Unbreakable” and realize at once what kind of an environment into which that film was released. The same year “Unbreakable” hit theaters to mixed reviews, Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” began what many would call the era of the more “true-to-comic” superhero film. Before this, comic book movies were never really that great, often leaving fans of these amazing stories and heroes lacking due to the studio’s unwillingness to follow the model. The success of the Marvel films beginning with “Iron Man” began a new era of superhero film, but now the genre is beginning to flounder and people are more in awe of a superhero film that is more gritty and deeper in subject matter (i.e. “Logan”). We even have a parody superhero film now in the form of the Deadpool films.

“Unbreakable”, however is far ahead of its time and is indeed a misunderstood work of genius.

What Shyamalan was doing with “Unbreakable” was deconstructing the superhero genre to its base form, telling a story where the superpowers were muted enough to make us wonder if they were real or to make the characters wonder if they were real. He has a simple story of a hero and a villain, but the villain is revealed at the end in a horrific way, much like the origin stories of the more realistic superhero comics of Frank Miller or Alan Moore. The film is “The Watchmen” without all the grandeur of celluloid, more close to a comic book version that is not a film. It comments on the mythos of the hero much more in the vein of the ideas of Joseph Campbell in “Hero With a Thousand Faces”.

What it teaches us about screenwriting is that the story is something that is heartfelt but at the same time commenting on a genre that perhaps Shyamalan saw as an emerging cultural wave. He was putting his own spin on the ideas and themes expressed by these superhero films before the first of the Marvel wave hit theaters. There is something of the DNA of “Unbreakable” in each of the Marvel films, a gritty realism that doesn’t really hit its stride until “Captain America: The First Avenger” and later brought about in “Logan”. But there is more of the DNA in the latter than the former. The tone of “Unbreakable” is continued in “Split” as well as “Glass”, an understanding that these “powers” expressed by the heroes and villains float on the cusp of reality for the characters.

The point here is as screenwriters we should look beyond story to see what it is that we could do with a genre that can comment on the validity of that genre. What is it about the genre that draws your writing closest that you can shift or upset the status quo? I don’t think most of us have the insight of Shyamalan, but perhaps if we try hard enough with plotting and really analyzing why we think our particular genre is so interesting we can write more captivating scripts.

I haven’t found all the nuggets in the series yet, but I’m studying the screenplay for “Unbreakable” right now as a model for good measure. I recommend you read a lot of screenplays if you are going to write one.

I am currently examining my screenplay with a Shyamalan scalpel. I’m breaking down why I think science fiction is so fun to write about, what draws me to it, and what new thing I could say about the genre from within the confines of a screenplay. It may be lost on my audience, but I will have the satisfaction that I went further, tried harder and worked to make a more layered experience for the audience.

How are you working to layer your screenplay with more weighty stuff? Is it just a one-off story that won’t be remembered? Feel free to comment in the space below!