What a difference a couple decades makes. When M. Night Shyamalan dropped Unbreakable on an unsuspecting world back in 2000, the new Spielberg on the block was told that superhero movies were still a post-Burton/Batman novelty. As the man himself recently admitted, his what-if project about an everyman who discovers he may be a closet Superman was never to be referred to as a “comic-book movie” if he wanted to get it made. Just call it another psychological thriller. Or maybe sell it as a Bruce Willis star vehicle costarring Samuel L. Jackson. Just leave the capes out of this. It’s a niche market.
The irony, one of a dozen here, is that the director’s leap-of-faith follow-up to The Sixth Sense may have helped lay the foundation for the revolution (or devolution, your call) that hit modern multiplex culture. The original X-Men movie had arrived in theaters in July of that year and proved you could tell a straightforward, semirealistic superhero story, one that didn’t rely on bang-kapow camp or Goth-pop art. But Unbreakable — released in November, your prestige movie prime-time month — was the first to suggest you needed to take comic book narratives themselves seriously. The initial reception proved that Shyamalan’s reputation wasn’t bulletproof. Now ask any MCU fanatic or random Comic-Con attendee what they think of the movie. Geek love gets the last laugh.
Several impressive twists, some misguided projects, a personal come-to-Jesus moment, one massive comeback and one “wait, WTF?” coda later, we find ourselves staring down the third part of a trilogy set in a distinct Shyamalaniverse. (Hopefully this concept extends past just three films, and we can one day see the extra-terrestrial visitors of Signs take on the malicious plants of The Happening.) A bridge that officially connects both Night’s dark, minimalist take on the men-in-tights genre and his 2017 serial-killer thriller Split, Glass starts more or less where the latter film’s last-minute reveal left off. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) now runs his own business, selling surveillance cameras and security devices alongside his son Joe (Spencer Treat Clark). He’s still prone to go on late-night prowls through the mean streets of Philly in a hooded slicker — new nom de vigilante: The Overseer — teaching lessons to criminals and knuckleheads one superhuman punch at a time.
But Dunn’s also got a lead on where a quartet of missing cheerleaders may be, and a coincidental brush against a conspicuously childlike man suggests that they’re in a nearby abandoned warehouse. The gent, not surprisingly, is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), squarely in his hyperactive tween mode. The two will have an official introduction to each other soon enough. The unbreakable man will meet The Beast.
It’s in these early scenes, in which the cross-cutting between Dunn’s quotidian crimefighting and Crumb’s deck-shuffling his way through personalities eventually leads to a confrontation, that you feel like Shyamalan has found a solid, fertile groove to work in. He somehow manages to meld one film’s somber heroics with the other’s horror-movie ghastliness without it making it feel like a genre ping-pong game — the deftness with which he splits the tonal differences yet makes them feel in sync gives you hope. (I’m not apologizing for that pun.) And then, just when the face-off starts to edge toward a fever pitch, the movie anticipates your expectations and stops in its tracks; it’s a trick that will be trotted out more than a few times. The two find themselves cornered by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a specialist in dealing with delusions of superpowers. She wants to cure these men. So she admits them to a local psychiatric institution for treatment. Guess who else is there?
[It’s probably safer to alert folks to the fact that we’re gently trodding into spoiler territory now, and to move forward with caution.]
Once our trio is assembled in this color-coded sanitarium — Shyamalan lays on the purples, yellows and greens whenever he can, all the better to identify which character he wants to draw your attention to, my dear — Staple begins rationalizing away all of the extraordinary abilities these three have. “Comic books are an obsession,” Paulson practically hisses in her best Fifties schoolmarm-scold voice, standing in for every critic who bemoans the death of western civilization thanks to caped crusaders. Each man wants to battle the other; each man is kept in check by strobe lights, high-pressured hoses and heavy medication, respectively. Samuel L. Jackson drools, twitches and bides his time. Anya Taylor-Joy’s final girl Casey from Split shows up to therapeutically act as beauty to McAvoy’s Beast. (“Love and true affection … it’s like a superpower,” we’re told, a line which rivals Signs‘ symbol-carved fields in terms of high-volume corn.) A massive, brand new skyscraper, the tallest in the city, keeps popping up on the news and may or may not be a red herring. Eventually, these three men will be forced to put up or shut up regarding the fight of good vs. evil.
Until that happens, Shyamalan keeps hitting viewers with chin-stroking notions about what comic books mean, how these archetypes establish a modern mythology, why we need strong men and savage beasts and evil masterminds in the same way the ancients needed gods and monsters to tell their stories. In essence, the filmmaker wants to continue a conversation that he started back in 2000, but it’s not necessarily one we need to have anymore. He told the New York Times that each film has taken its cues from its main character (slow-burning, scary) and that Glass, per its title villain, is “very philosophical, playing a chess match … [with] a tongue-in-cheek smile.” Only it’s a chess match in which one player announces the moves loudly ahead of time, explains them in depth even when you clearly understand them and then pats himself on the back.” This is where the enemies band together against a common foe!” “It’s not a showdown, it’s an origin story!” Mr. Glass may be a brainiac, but his real power is smothering you with meta-exposition. As a continuation of Split‘s storyline, this third chapter works fine; as a sequel to Unbreakable, it arrives roughly 15 years too late.
What we have here, essentially, is not the final grand statement to an overarching narrative but merely a Glass that’s half empty, half full (of itself), and what you decide to focus on is up to you. On the pro side, you’re reminded that while Shyamalan may not have the most consistent ear for dialogue, he has an incredible eye for composing shots; the director and his cinematographer Mike Gioulakis know how to use that frame for doling out or withholding information, heightening moods, establishing bonds (see: a fantastic foursome shot at the beginning of the big climax). Nobody does stoic, Easter Island-headed heroic better than Willis; nobody can flip personalities on a dime like McAvoy; there’s a single look of surprised, malicious glee that Samuel L. Jackson gives halfway through this that belongs in the S.L.J. Great Moments Hall of Fame. It is a movie that’s indeed smarter than the average Zack Snyder punch-up.
On the con side, well … virtually everything else. The twist is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. (Keen viewers may remember a comic-book cover in Unbreakable that is granted a rare close-up; consider that a clue.) The upside takeaway might be described in two words: renewable resources. McAvoy’s rapid-fire showcase, zipping from one character to the next as fast as orderlies can strobe-flash him, can go from cool parlor trick to a three-course scenery meal in seconds. Don’t get us started on the backstory behind the backstory. Traumas and original sins are dealt with, though you find yourself shrugging at the frustrating meh of it all.
Glass is not the flaming flop some folks have already suggested it is, nor is it the movie you want in terms of tying ambitious, highfalutin notions together about how we process our pulp mythos. In a world in which all movies are now either genocide or ice cream, it’s a grand gesture characterized by a sense of ambivalence about what you’ve just seen — which may in and of itself be a sign of failure. It does, however, contain what may be one of the scariest fade-out scenes in all of Shyamalan’s filmography. He wants people to leave thinking about what it might mean if the fantastic stories we tell ourselves in order to live might also be used to better ourselves. Then he ends the movie with the masses all staring worriedly into an endless landscape of screens. Look who’s broken now.