Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Two decades ago when Shyamalan made Unbreakable, his thoughtful, meditative take on comic books, he could never have predicted how quickly and thoroughly superheroes would take over Hollywood in the subsequent years. Since the film’s 2000 release, superheroes have grown into a global sensation. From Sam Raimi’s campy, cartoonish Spider-Man trilogy to Christopher Nolan’s gritty, introspective Dark Knight trilogy right up to the cultural phenomena that the MCU and DCEU have become and countless more movies in between, the pervasiveness of the comic book movie in today’s cinematic landscape is not to be doubted. The genre with all of its characteristic stories and tropes have become so identifiable and familiar to us that many viewers have since grown bored and fatigued with their pervasiveness and are demanding progression and change. Part of this has led to more superhero films devoting their stories to a greater variety of characters (i.e. women and people of colour) and part of it has led to a self-reflexive examination of the genre itself, e.g. the satire of Deadpool, the demythologisation of Logan and the modernised evocation of Into the Spiderverse. There is a greater demand than ever for these kinds of films and the stage has never been clearer for Shyamalan to return to offer his philosophical, auteuristic take on comic book movies as they stand today.
Except that’s not what he does. Glass it turns out has shockingly little, if anything to say about superheroes today because it seems to think it’s addressing the same audience as 19 years ago. It’s almost as if back in 2000 Shyamalan had a screenplay that was ready to go but was instead shelved and that last year he dug it up, dusted it off and turned it into a movie without bothering to revise or update it. The plot revolves around super-strong vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis), multiple personality stricken Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and brittle-boned psychopath Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who are all gathered together in a mental institution by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She believes that all three men are deluded in the ‘superpowers’ they claim to have and tries to help them reckon with the superhero/villain complexes they each harbour. The most insight Shyamalan offers about superheroes however ultimately boils down to the most basic structure of comic book narratives, which he relates with the pedantic weightiness of a 15-year-old who thinks that they’re the first person to discover Quentin Tarantino. “In comics, this is referred to as the ‘showdown,’” explains Mr. Glass in anticipation of the film’s climax as if nobody in the audience has ever read a comic book or watched a superhero film before. One of the great failures of Glass is Shyamalan’s inability to recognise that the world has moved on since the days when Adam West was the most famous Batman.
The road to Glass was a long and arduous one for Shyamalan and, however one might feel about his filmography, one cannot help but admire the endurance it must have taken to weather the career-destroying storm that threatened to sink him for over a decade. Fresh after having astounded audiences with two back-to-back knockouts in 1999’s and 2000’s The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, with many speculating that he was primed to become the next Spielberg or Hitchcock, Shyamalan’s career took a nose dive. Audiences grew tired of his go-to formula (a supernatural mystery-thriller that comes to a head with a game-changing twist) and his concepts grew more and more outlandish and nonsensical, leading to such flops as Lady in the Water and The Happening. By the time he was making the critically panned and financially disastrous blockbusters After Earth and The Last Airbender, Shyamalan had become a Hollywood punchline; a parody of his former self whom most of us had written off. With his low-budget found-footage movie The Visit, Shyamalan was able to regain some shred of credibility and Split had us paying attention once again when his twisted horror-thriller turned out to be a surprise sequel to one of his most acclaimed films. Thus we get Glass, the film that seeks to combine the stories of Split and Unbreakable into a single, cohesive whole, the conclusion of what turned out to be a trilogy, and mark the triumphant return of Hollywood’s forgotten auteur.
If only. Outside of his absolute worst films, Shyamalan has often shown himself to be a director of great talent and singular vision and the composition of Glass is truly something to behold. The director has always been one for finding tension in that which appears normal and banal and the modest scale of Glass allows him to lean into that strength. Through long, drawn-out takes, theatrical staging and imposing colours, Shyamalan is able to make the asylum where the near entirety of the film is set feel like a battleground in the most ordinary sense. There are no unstoppable forces of CGI threatening to destroy the world, but the stakes still feel amplified because even the most mundane encounters are framed in such an intimate, eccentric way so as to make us feel like something larger is at work behind what we’ve been allowed to see. Shyamalan’s greatest weakness as a filmmaker however is that his skills as a screenwriter have never been a match for his skills as a director and Glass is let down by the same kind of confused plotting, laborious exposition and general goofiness that can be found in even his strongest work. There’s enough of interest going on throughout that the film is never unwatchable but there are hints and suggestions of a much more profound and stimulating story that was never realised.
My feeling is that either Shyamalan needed a few more years to work out what it was he really wanted to say with this film and how to make it work or he needed to bring another writer on board to iron out the ideas that were worthy of pursuit and scrap those that weren’t. If, at any point in his career, Shyamalan had ever managed to find his own Emeric Pressburger or Mark Frost, who knows what wonders he might have achieved? As far as Glass goes, there is certainly some promise in its premise. While the mystery of whether the characters really do have superpowers is a non-starter considering that those who have seen the previous two films will recall David bench pressing everything but the kitchen sink and the Horde running up the walls with his bare hands and feet, the film still raises some interesting points. By bringing its three leads together, the film invites us to consider the ways in which these broken men are all seeking some kind of identity and fulfilment in their alter egos. David finds some purpose in his previously unfulfilling existence by meting out vigilante justice, Kevin kidnaps and kills people in order to satisfy the most monstrous of his 24 personalities and Elijah became a criminal mastermind in order to make sense of the crippling disease he was born with. A greater focus on this theme might have allowed for a deeper, more captivating study of how superheroes and supervillains are almost always born from the traumas and tragedies they’ve suffered and what that really says about the ways in which we mythologise and revere them. Sadly this idea is left unexplored.
When the movie threatens to be too aimless and self-indulgent to bear, it is the three leads who pull you through and keep you watching. Even though the film never quite manages to strike the right balance between David, Kevin and Elijah (resulting in some conspicuous absences for certain stretches), each actor gives a memorable performance and make the most out of their interactions even with that awkward Shyamalan dialogue they inevitably have to contend with. McAvoy especially continues to give 100% in what must be a physically and dramatically demanding character to play. Playing a young man with two dozen personalities through which he is constantly jumping between at unpredictable beats, McAvoy ably assumes each persona thrust upon him including the prim and menacing Patricia, the lisping nine-year-old Hedwig and the savage, vicious Beast whose convulsively muscly appearance displays the kind of shocking body horror you might expect in a Cronenberg film. Jackson also impresses playing the character who gives the film its name. He’s a background player in the first half as he waits for his moment to come but once it does he comes as close to capturing some sense of pathos as this film could possibly attain. Willis, who has been asleep in most of his movies of the last few years, is also on form. Paulson, sadly, is once again trapped in a film that doesn’t know how to put her talents on display as she is given too little to work with until the very end, by which point it’s too late.
Glass is a showcase of everything that Shyamalan is good and bad at and neither dominates over the other. The film is very middling, which makes feel let down when I think about how much more the director could offer if he could just learn to overcome his weaknesses and limitations. While he offers some interesting ideas, directs his actors into delivering some great performances and brings things to a head with a wonderfully subversive confrontation near the end, they ultimately aren’t enough. What insights the film does try to make about comic books and superheroes are insubstantial, outdated and even a little patronising and the obligatory finale twist is a disappointment, complicating and confusing more than it enlightens and satisfies and failing to underscore the very themes and ideas driving the movie in the way that The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable did. It took a certain boldness on his part to try and offer the world a superhero movie unlike any other being made today and I would have loved nothing more than to see that film in its most fully realised form. Shyamalan, much like the characters he created, seems just as lost in his own search for identity and Glass could very well be seen as a film about the man himself; a mark of how far he has come and how much further he still has to go.