Arguably the most shocking thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, besides being a solid thriller, was the final reveal that its story took place in the world of Unbreakable. Even though Shyamalan intended for his pseudo-superhero film to become a trilogy, it never really took off, mainly due to the onslaught of poorly received films that defined his career for over a decade. Truth be told, that twist got me extremely hyped for the announcement of Shyamalan’s sequel Glass, mainly because there really isn’t any superhero film like Unbreakable.
See, Unbreakable came out a time when X-Men was the only noteworthy superhero film in recent memory and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was an impossible dream. It’s premise, as Quentin Tarantino put it elegantly- “What if Superman was here on earth and didn’t know he was Superman?”- provided a unique take on the superhero mythos by attributing the concept of superpowers to a unique form of realism. The logic of comic books was literally and plausibly adapted by persuading train crash survivor David Dunn (Bruce Willis) that his lack of injuries, as well as the duality of his strength and another man’s weakness was proof of superheroic potential. Glass…. almost succeeds in that department, delving into the motifs of comic book logic with an entry more heavy-handed than it seems to realize.
Taking place shortly after Split, Glass follows a much older Dunn, now dubbed “Green Guard” and “Overseer” by the internet, as he tracks down Split antagonist Kevin Wendell Crumb i.e. The Hoard (James McAvoy) following his last escape. Crumb, whose body houses twenty-four interchanging personalities, has begun testing the limits of his final, seemingly perfect form: a superhuman, flesh-eating monster known as “the Beast.” However, when the two finally cross paths, they’re both apprehended and sent to a mental hospital under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients that believe themselves to be superheroes. Makes you wonder what kind of PhD Thesis she wrote to pursue that medial field.
At first glance, this medical exploration of superheroism makes sense, as it continues the open-ended nature of Unbreakable’s themes. Are these men really super strong and powerful, or do they believe these stories to cope with youthful trauma like most superhero origin stories. To add further tension, David and the Hoard find themselves locked up with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the brittle-boned mastermind who orchestrated David’s train accident to prove the existence of real-life superheroes and villains, namely as a way to give his life- one defined by numerous bone breaks and fractures- purpose. Subtly blurring the lines between fantasy and reality on what superpowers mean for these characters and their universe could work, if done right.
Unfortunately, subtly is rarely one of M. Night Shyamalan’s strong suits when it comes to writing dialogue. Oh there are a few self-aware jabs at comic book scenarios from Price and Dr. Staple, including one very on-point joke about the nature of Comic Con. However, these references veer too far into over-exposition as the film progresses, blatantly telling the audience what trope is playing out as the scene involving that trope plays out. There’s a difference between Elijah Price orchestrating an Overseer vs. Horde “final fight,” thereby literally reenacting superhero conflicts to reveal their existence to the world, and simply reciting the dictionary text of a comic book trope. At some point “show, don’t tell” becomes “tell all,” which just doesn’t work when EVERY modern cinema-goer is familiar with comic book movies as a genre.
It doesn’t help that the action scenes are pretty weak. When David and the Beast aren’t throwing each other against walls or trucks, the camera awkwardly shift into a weird POV close-up that focuses on the character’s faces and little else. I have no idea if this was due to budget constraints, but in an era where Netflix’s Daredevil can make a simple hallway fight feel iconic, Glass’ choreography feels noticeably underdeveloped. Ironically, any action scenes outside of the hero vs. villain brawls are well-executed, especially during a confrontation between McAvoy’s Beast and the hospital staff.
Truth be told, it’s the three main characters that are Glass’ biggest strength. Willis and Jackson are successful in recreating the melancholic nature of these two characters they played nineteen years ago, but the biggest star is McAvoy and his chameleon-like ability to jump between personalities on a dime. Carried over from Split is how distinct each personality feels from one another, be they the childish Hedwig, the orderly and religious Patricia or even a pair of twins who somehow occupy Kevin’s body simultaneously. Some of McAvoy’s best performances come when his personalities are forcefully brought out by a light-based mechanism in Kevin’s hospital room, rotating them at such a rapid pace that you’re amazed at how effortlessly he channels these various characters. I also appreciate how Shyamalan kept the color-coded iconography of all three characters from the previous films, which is a nice use of visual continuity.
The side characters, sadly, exist more as vehicles to restate Glass’ themes than developed individuals. Apart from Sarah Paulson’s character, all are returning Unbreakable and Split actors, including Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey the survivor of a kidnapping orchestrated by Kevin’s personalities, Charlayne Woodard as Elijah Price’s mom and Spencer Treat Clark as David’s now-adult son Joseph. Their purpose as sidekicks/emotional tethers are kept rather minimal until a final act where… well it’s a Shyamalan film and the theater employees read a statement asking us to withhold any spoilers. Just know that there are plot twists galore in the climax and they’re about as weird as you’d expect from this director. I guess some Shyamalan tropes never change.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Judging by M. Night Shyamalan standards, Glass is a better film than all of the critical disasters he previously directed. Still, even with these interesting themes and characters, with James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson’s performances standing out, Shyamalan bit off way more story than he could chew. Going big in the final act of a trilogy is understandable but, because of Unbreakable and Split’s low-budget nature, Glass’ ambition feels jarring compared to its budgetary execution. I respect Shyamalan’s vision, but it’s a pretty underwhelming one nonetheless.