The conclusion to M. Night Shyamalan's unexpected superhero trilogy feels like a wasted opportunity.
January 17, 2019
Glass, by director M. Night Shyamalan, concludes a trilogy nobody knew was a trilogy until the final moments of his previous film, Split. What at first seemed a fun and, at times, disturbing thriller about a split-personality kidnapper (played by a terrific James McAvoy) suddenly presaged an entirely new world of superheroes in the vein of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Harking all the way back to Shyamalan's 2000 film Unbreakable, Glass is the film designed to bring together the stories of McAvoy's unhinged killer, Bruce Willis's reluctant hero and Samuel L Jackson's evil genius. It's a two decade project and a gutsy effort to try something new. Unfortunately, the finished product fails to live up to the alluring concept.
A quick refresher. Unbreakable brought together two fascinating characters in the form of comic book expert Elijah Price (Jackson) and sports stadium security guard David Dunn (Willis). Dunn is the sole and miraculous survivor of a horrific train crash from which he emerged entirely unscathed. He's a soulful and introverted family man, and it's not until Price contacts him that he realises he's never been sick or injured his entire life. Price, by contrast, is wheelchair bound, a sufferer of a brittle bone disease that makes him, effectively, as fragile as glass. Price's theory is that if he's as weak as humanity permits, it stands to reason someone must be his direct opposite; a man who is, essentially, unbreakable.
Then in 2016 came Split and the introduction of The Horde (McAvoy), a collective name for the many personalities embodying the hapless Kevin Wendell Crumb. Chief amongst them is The Beast, an abnormally strong and animalistic entity capable of scaling sheer walls and even ceilings. If Dunn is the superhero, then The Beast is the super villain.
Glass ties these characters together by locking all three up in a mental institute under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). Her speciality is illusions of grandeur manifesting in the belief that its sufferers are superheroes, and the film does an impressive job of sewing doubt in both the characters' and audience's mind that everything we've seen to date might be explained away by simple science. It's an enticing counterpoint to the conventional superhero narrative, which tells us they simply exist and that's that. Here, Shyamalan continues his preoccupation with how one might become a superhero. It's a trilogy-long origin story, grounded in the lore and mythology of comic books.
Fascinating as that idea is, however, the movie spends far too long footnoting itself, going to pains to explain again and again how its events track the narrative arc of any comic. It's as if Shyamalan is desperate to ensure you know how clever his idea is, and all you want to do is yell back at the screen: IT'S OKAY! WE GET IT! MOVE ON!
Admittedly, it is clever. The idea that superheroes do exist, but are also very human and only marginally more enhanced and capable than everyone else represents an appealing and refreshing take on the genre. And yet the film's theoretical strength is also its practical weakness. The climactic clash between Dunn and The Beast feels entirely lacklustre and unimpressive in a world now accustomed to such scenes frequently involving the levelling of entire cities. Mass destruction can be tiresome as well, of course, but surely there's room for something in between? In Glass, the characters are a far cry from Superman, Thor or The Hulk. Consequently most of their fighting consists of the pair locked arm-in-arm like a dull MMA bout. There are flourishes of brilliance – Beast's inhuman gallop across a field being amongst the best – but they're far too infrequent.
Ultimately though, the biggest problem with Glass is that it's far too preoccupied with explaining itself as it goes. And so while the journey is enjoyable enough, the final feeling is that a great opportunity has been missed.