Back in 2000, when Unbreakable was released one year after M. Night Shyamalan achieved wunderkind status with The Sixth Sense, superhero movies were little more than a novelty with the original X-Men film premiering a few months before Shyamalan’s ode to comic books and the tales told within. At the time there were rumors that Shyamalan had plans for a trilogy featuring the characters of Unbreakable. However, the years which followed saw precipitous change with comic book and superhero movies becoming among the most ubiquitous and celebrated genre in the medium and Shyamalan’s stock collapsing to the point where he is credited with two of the worst films of the time, one of them, 2010’s Last Airbender, destroying a beloved franchise. It seemed that the promised Unbreakable trilogy would never happen. Even if it did, with the glut of great superhero films, it would be redundant, and with Shyamalan’s string of failures, it would be better off not existing. It took seventeen years but finally, despite huge amounts of doubt, Shyamalan did make a comeback with the excellent psychological horror Split. Good as that movie was, the real talking point for many, other than James McAvoy’s incredible performance, was the credits scene tie-in to Unbreakable. Thus not only were we promised the long awaited continuation of Shyamalan’s previous good movie, but we were promised this sequel with the good M. Night Shyamalan. The wunderkind had returned to fulfill his promise. Now, after only two years, we see what this promise has become.
Glass both is and is not the sequel we were promised.
Picking up two weeks after Split but eighteen years after Unbreakable the duel sequel catches up with both before pitting the villain of the former and the hero of the latter in their inevitable showdown. This opening, which fits quite well into the general motif of Unbreakable‘s David Dunn (Bruce Willis) offers an intriguing extension of the unstoppable force-immovable object cliché as McAvoy’s powerful Beast persona faces Willis’s indestructible vigilante. However, given both the trailers and the title, we know that this confrontation, which could have made for an entire movie in itself, is mere prelude to the re-introduction of Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, now fully adopting the identity of the villainous Mr. Glass, and the introduction of Sarah Paulson as Dr. Ellie Staple, a specialist in dealing with people who believe themselves to be superheroes. This is the true beginning of the movie, and the point in which Glass shifts from being an Unbreakable sequel. Yet, while it tonally stands apart of its two prequels, Glass is as dependent upon them as Shyamalan is on twist endings, a practice so well established over the years that it feels both perfunctory and predictable.
The trick about twist endings, especially of the Shyamalanian variety, is that once they’ve reached the point where the practice is named after you the audience comes to expect them. Thus viewers are trained to pick apart every single frame for clues and may be disappointed when the end comes without an eureka moment. Shyamalan’s response to this, as apparent in Glass, is to write from the twist backwards. And this is where the vast majority of Glass‘s problems begin. Without going into details there are character choices throughout the film that are unnatural, idiotic, and painful to watch, making it obvious that consistency in character behavior is a far lower priority than arranging the players, twisting them if you will, where they need to be for Shyamalan’s ending to work. Even then, when all the pieces are in place, there are many ways in which the ending does not work. The sacrifice of coherent moment-to-moment storytelling makes watching Glass a periodically baffling experience. Simply, the film feel rushed. Whereas Shyamalan had seventeen years after Unbreaklable to polish Split, Glass seems to have been thrown together with much less consideration, an uneven, at times laughable, stab at concluding his promised trilogy before, assumably, Shyamalan’s shine once again fades. It’s understandable why much of the audience will be disappointed that this is how Shyamalan decided to continue his own universe. In some ways, Glass feels like a Star Wars sequel in that many, many viewers will feel betrayed by how the characters develop, even to the point that by the end moviegoers may walk away wishing the story hadn’t continued at all. The build-up, the years of waiting, the previous stories, and this is how it ends?
Yet, and here is where the audience will divide, somehow it works.
Disjointed as Glass feels, with its Unbreakable-like first act, its Split-inspired middle, and its already maligned conclusion, there are some thrilling moments and intriguing ideas throughout. Although her argument is never convincing given what we’ve witnessed in this film and the previous ones, Dr. Staple’s mission to break her patients’ delusions of comic book grandeur feels more relevant than ever given the cultural deluge of superheroes. There are, in fact, several fascinating ideas and suggestions presented through much of Glass (the least being that mentally ill people or those with personality disorders are potentially monstrous murderers, but I digress). While one statement in particular will feel like an attack on the very comic book audience most drawn to this film, such bewildering moments are in service of the film’s bigger point. Personally I found that Glass became much better once I accepted it’s not a details movie. I stopped picking the film apart, as Shyamalan has conditioned the audience to do, and enjoyed the ride. As such, the camerawork is often wonderful and many setpieces are extremely well executed, emphasizing tension and the terror of normal people witnessing super strength. There are still tons of plot holes, but, for some reason, the overall film is quite enjoyable.
One of the more interesting aspects of Glass is in the title. Despite being named after his character, Samuel L. Jackson does a whole lot with very little but is overshadowed by McAvoy’s flashy, tour-de-force return as The Horde. While not quite as captivating as in Split, and with an overreliance on the Hedwig personality, McAvoy’s transformation into each distinct alter ego remains amazing. Willis meanwhile is committed to the part but spends as much of the film with a look of detached stoicism as Paulson does explaining things to the camera. Yet, for all the time he spends silent, Jackson’s Mr. Glass is in every way the central figure of the film. Unbreakable, from title to tone to execution, is David Dunn’s story: down to earth, worn, weathered, reluctant to move too quick or show too much. Split is Kevin’s story: horrifying, brutal, dirty, sudden and visceral. Glass, with all its contradictions and inconsistencies, is the film Elijah Price would make, complete with grand fight scenes, retcons, twists and manipulations, nonsensical revelations, but with the grand finale fitting of someone who fashions himself a comic book villain. After all, as comic book and superhero movies show, the villain’s plan is always convoluted and too reliant on coincidences. But the movie wouldn’t work without the villain.
It’s a shame that the biggest twists Shyamalan offers are those required by the characters in order to get where he – not they – wants to go. And it’s almost regrettable that the Unbreakable/Split sequel arrives in such a rushed form. Still, there’s a lot of interest and excitement in this particular chapter. No matter how many superhero movies are made, no one but M. Night Shyamalan would make a movie quite like Glass. Although the least of the three films, Shyamalan completed the trilogy as promised: beginning, middle and end.