Nineteen years ago, writer and director M. Night Shyamalan came out with Unbreakable, a slow and moody film about a man who is the sole survivor of a terrible train wreck and discovers that he is nearly indestructible. Reactions to the film were mixed at release, but time has been kind to it, and it’s now considered somewhat of a cult classic.
This is mostly thanks to the big superhero boom in Hollywood – Unbreakable came out a decade too early, before superhero movies dominated the landscape, but the fact that it’s the most grounded and character-centric of the genre is what makes it stand out. It introduced us to David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard who reluctantly becomes a hero in order to make good by his wife and son.
Jump ahead seventeen years, and Shyamalan releases Split, a psychological horror film about a man named Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and kidnaps three young girls. Kevin has 23 different personalities fighting for dominance inside of him, earning him the nickname “The Horde”, and the most dangerous out of all of them is “The Beast”, a literal superhuman that can climb on walls, possesses immense strength, and a thirst for killing. The film is considered to be the first true supervillain origin story, but the most exciting part of Split is its ending, where a cameo by David Dunn reveals that the film takes place in the same world as Unbreakable, setting the stage for a sequel to both films and a meeting between hero and villain.
It’s the boldest creative decision that Shyamalan has ever made, and he’s made a lot. Two drastically different films, both in style and tone, are now a part of the same shared universe, and Glass exists as both a merging of the two as well as a sequel to both. There’s a lot riding on it, especially since the series, dubbed the Eastrail 177 Trilogy (named after the train David Dunn was on), is one of, if not the most unique and cerebral superhero franchises of the entire genre. Was Shyamalan able to pull it off? Well, forever true to form, Glass is a mixed bag. There’s a lot of great and a lot of not-so-great, but your enjoyment of it will inevitably come down to whether or not you like the decisions that are made at the end of the movie.
Glass picks up mere weeks after the events of Split. The Horde is kidnapping more victims to feed to The Beast, and the news is following him closely. They’re not the only ones. David is also interested in tracking him down – he and his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his role) have been working together to stop crime in their city. David has been named “The Overseer” for his work as a vigilante, and Joseph is his “guy in the chair” back at home. David has only ever dealt with small and petty crimes, so The Beast is definitely a surprise, and perhaps a bit more than he can handle. Both hero and villain wind up at a mental hospital, the same one that’s been housing Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) AKA Mr. Glass, David’s former friend and mentor turned evil mastermind. The three of them are put under the psychiatric evaluation of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who tries to convince them that they’re all suffering from delusions of grandeur, and do not, in fact, actually possess superpowers.
The setup is actually pretty fascinating, especially for a superhero movie. Lock our three characters up and put each of them under the microscope, analyzing every small detail about them to get through to their inner workings and motivations. To the movie’s credit, the mind games played by Dr. Staple are entertaining, and may occasionally make you second guess the true nature of the superpowered antics we’ve seen. Unfortunately, this would only truly work if this was its own standalone film. We’ve already seen these characters perform supernatural feats, we as an audience know that they are unquestionably more than human. So the entire framework for the second act in the mental hospital ends up feeling like a waste of time. You can’t exactly convince the audience that David, Kevin, and Elijah are all suffering from delusions, you can only convince the characters themselves. That could be an interesting device, but the characters only end up doubting themselves for a second, quickly overcoming it and proving to themselves what the audience already knew to be true.
The time spent in the hospital continuously feels like a missed opportunity. The film’s first act is an exciting and fun reintroduction to the characters and how they come into conflict with one another, but then it all comes to a halt. The three main players are kept separated from each other, losing out on interesting interactions between them. David is concerned that the hospital isn’t doing enough to keep The Horde contained, and The Horde becomes a bit obsessed with David, the only person they’ve ever met that’s been able to physically match The Beast. It seems like a tense build-up leading to the scene where the three are sitting together with Dr. Staple (which is her final evaluation), but even once they’re there, the three of them don’t actually bother to speak to each other. It feels like a waste, not only between Kevin and David but also especially for David and Elijah, who you would think would have plenty to say to each other.
But it’s the final act of Glass that will have people arguing for years. It’s impossible to discuss without spoiling the entire thing, so just know that there are several bold decisions made by the movie’s end that will divide audiences. Glass’ final moments actually work for me: they’re poignant, thought-provoking, and a satisfying semi-conclusion for what kind of superhero trilogy Shyamalan seemingly set out to create. The series is often cited as a deconstruction of the genre, and Glass especially is the one that runs with that idea, following up Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2 with the argument that perhaps superheroes hinder our society more than they improve it. However, Shyamalan writes as if he’s someone who only just discovered superhero movies, and a few times his “deconstruction” is limited to extremely elementary explanations of the first comic book, what a showdown is (who needs that explained to them?), and when the classic turn takes place.
Glass is an incredibly divisive film. Some will love it, perhaps even calling it a masterpiece and hail Shyamalan as a genius, and that stance will certainly have merit. Some will hate it, perhaps even going so far as to rank it among The Happening and Last Airbender as one of the filmmaker’s worst films, and that, too, will have merit. And some, like myself, will simply find the experience to be a little underwhelming. There’s a lot to enjoy, like the excellent direction, score, and performances, especially from McAvoy. But Glass ends up feeling half-empty, with too many ideas floating around Shyamalan’s head, leaving the final product to become overly ambitious and a tad incoherent, especially in its final act.
Glass is a mixed bag of good and bad that is sure to split audiences down the middle. The direction and performances are great, but some questionable decisions are made for where the story goes, and the end product feels underwhelming.