Warning: Major spoilers to follow
M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a unique spin on the comic book movie genre that arrived just ahead of the big superhero boom in 2000, has had fans clamoring for a sequel ever since. Well, guess what? Turns out the writer/director was quietly listening.
The big twist at the tail end of Shyamalan’s latest film Split is that you’ve secretly been watching an Unbreakable follow-up all along. Split provides the origin story for the next supervillain to potentially take on the real-world superman David Dunn, played by Bruce Willis, whose out-of-the-blue reappearance in Split’s final scene drives the Unbreakable connection home. Just before the credits roll, we see him wearily recognizing that he may need to once again don his low-key version of a comic book avenger’s outfit — a rain poncho, with a hood that doubles as a Dark Knight-esque cowl when going into action.
In its execution, this coda is actually less of a twist and more of an explanation of what you’ve really been watching for the past two hours. Whereas Shyamalan’s past surprise endings typically have upended the audience’s understanding of the film’s reality — think The Sixth Sense or The Village — Split doesn’t change the nature of the narrative’s reality so much as confirm it.
At the center of the film is Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), a mentally disturbed man who has 23 distinct personalities battling inside his head, from a young boy to an older, more refined woman with a fine taste in necklaces. He’s looking to fit one more identity into his overcrowded noggin, a fearsome creature he calls “The Beast.”
But this entity can’t become one with Kevin unless Kevin does something for the Beast — and that “something” involves providing it one, or more, sacrificial lambs. So Crumb brazenly kidnaps three teenage girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), from a mall parking lot and holds them captive in his underground lair. The bulk of the story chronicles their various failed attempts to escape, either through force or by appealing to their captor’s more susceptible personalities. Meanwhile, Kevin marches methodically toward his final transformation, a process that’s kicked up a notch when he pays a visit to a Philadelphia train station where The Beast is believed to reside.
Laying flowers in front of an empty train, he climbs aboard and allows this being to take full control of his mind and body, gifting him with new abilities — including enhanced speed and agility — and a hunger for human flesh. This could be taken as the film’s first subtle reference to Unbreakable as David also discovered his powers after surviving a horrific train accident that took the lives of 131 other passengers. (Forget radioactive spiders: in Shyamalan’s comic book universe, the conduit to superpowers is the Philadelphia railroad!) Dunn’s emergence from the wreckage is what brought him to the attention of wheelchair-bound comic book art dealer, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who convinced him, in the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, that with great power comes great responsibility. Of course, the fragile Elijah ultimately revealed himself to be the Joker to David’s Batman — a mirror-image nemesis to the stalwart hero who even came equipped with his own DC Comics-ready bad guy name: Mr. Glass.
While Mr. Glass was the brainy version of a villain, the Beast is all brawn. Returning to Kevin’s bunker, he feasts upon Claire and Marcia, but Casey flees, eventually seeking refuge in a cage. When the Beast approaches her to deliver the killing blow, he realizes that she, like Kevin, has suffered childhood trauma: Casey has been the victim of sexual abuse for years at the hands of her uncle. Those scars are her savior, as the Beast lets her be. She’s eventually discovered, and stumbles out into the daylight of the Philadelphia Zoo, where Kevin has hid them all along. As for the Beast, he escapes to strike another day…
And that day may come soon. Immediately after the film’s title card appears, we cut away to a Philadelphia greasy spoon where a TV is blaring away news coverage of the gruesome events at the zoo. The reporter on the scene mentions that the suspected perpetrator of the kidnapping and murder is being referred to by the even-cooler sounding supervillain name: “The Horde.” (That moniker may sound familiar to readers of the popular Image Comics title, Savage Dragon.) A customer in the diner remarks on a similar case 15 years prior involving a crazy man in a wheelchair. What was his name again? “Mr. Glass,” pipes up David Dunn, who’s sitting at the end of the counter and staring mournfully ahead.
So there you have it! It’s The Horde vs. The Hood in Unbreakable 3, right? Well…not so fast. For one thing, there are rights issues to consider as Unbreakable was a Disney production through its Touchstone Pictures label, while Split is being released via Universal. And while Unbreakable has acquired a passionate fanbase over the years, is it franchise material? It only grossed $95 million upon its original theatrical release, well behind both Shyamalan’s breakthrough, The Sixth Sense ($293 million), and Signs ($227 million), the film he made after Unbreakable. Here’s one potential solution: maybe instead of a feature film, we can see David pursue the Horde in their natural habitat — a comic book.
‘Split’ featurette: Countdown of the 23 personalities: