Editor’s Note: This article contains information that some might consider spoilers for Unbreakable, Split, and Glass.
Glass can’t end this way, can it?
M. Night Shyamalan’s trilogy capper nineteen years in the making can’t end with David Dunn, The Overseer, the unbreakable man, drowned ignobly in a puddle, not even a foot deep. David was on his way to a major superhero smackdown atop that brand-new tower, right? The same tower Shyamalan took pains to seed into the story, setting up an expectation for a climax filled with epic action and heroic triumph.
Instead, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) doesn’t even make it out of the parking lot of the mental institution he just escaped from. Instead, he is murdered by some secret superhero-hating society Shyamalan conjured out of the narrative ether — a deus ex machina of dashed expectations.
After nineteen years of anticipation, David’s story can’t end like this…
…or maybe it couldn’t have ended any other way. David Dunn, after all, has never been in charge of his own fate.
From the moment he’s introduced in Unbreakable, David is a man mired in sadness. He’s a lowly football stadium security guard, clinging feebly to a failing marriage, who long ago gave up finding his purpose in life. Destiny hits him in the form of a train crash in which he is the sole survivor and walks away without a single injury. From there, David meets the enigmatic Elijah Price, who tells him the reason he survived the crash was due to his superhuman strength. It turns out David Dunn is not some average nobody; he is, in fact, a real-life superhero. After some hemming and hawing, soul-searching and brooding, David Dunn accepts his mantle as a protector of the innocent. After all these melancholy years, David finally found his purpose.
But it all came at a terrible cost.
It was Price who orchestrated the train crash Dunn miraculously survived. Price was born with a condition that made his bones brittle and susceptible to breaks. Isolated from the world, Price grew bitter, angry, and mad. Drunk on the mythological power of comic books, Price fancied himself a supervillain ripped from their very pages. So he began looking for his opposite, a hero he could engage in the never-ending battle of good vs. evil. Price engineered disasters – a train crash here, a hotel fire there – hoping to smoke out his righteous opponent. When it comes to origin stories, most superheroes have dead parents weighing on their conscience. David Dunn has the weight of hundreds of innocent lives.
If it hadn’t been for Price’s machinations and manipulations, Dunn would have lived out the rest of his days unremarkably, with no inkling of his superhuman abilities.
David Dunn became The Overseer because Elijah Price willed it so. And the very moment David donned that rain poncho he signed his death warrant.
Nineteen years later, David Dunn was murdered by a secret society dedicated to destroying people with superpowers. This is the final piece of the puzzle, the moment that makes David Dunn one of the most tragic and relatable characters in superhero cinema. For he was a working-class superhero and he suffered a working-class fate. Like the laid-off factory worker, David was nothing more than a cog in the machine. A cog the secret society deemed problematic and removed with cold, calculated precision. David was crushed completely by forces far more powerful than he was.
Sure, his death wasn’t in vain. Security footage of his battle with The Horde (James McAvoy) went viral, and now the whole world knows superheroes exist. But that was all Elijah’s doing, a final gambit before Mr. Glass himself died and entered Supervillain Valhalla.
So what the hell is the point? What is Shyamalan trying to say here? That we’re destined to be manipulated all our lives until we die confused and struggling? I don’t know. Maybe. I do know that David Dunn made the best of a bad situation. He may have been manipulated into becoming a superhero, but he still became a superhero. He may have died confused and struggling, but he still battled evil for nineteen years.
David Dunn never stood a chance. Most of us don’t. That doesn’t mean we should give up the fight.