Glass: Wonderful exploration of superhero lore but not for everyone
Writer and Director of Glass, M. Night Shyamalan first gained major acclaimed for his 1999 supernatural horror drama The Sixth Sense. That film was a commercial and critical success and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. His next big feature released in 2000, the ambitious Unbreakable was a film that divided audiences. Was it a super-hero film? Was it something else?
In 2016, Shyamalan returned to the universe he created with Split, starring James McAvoy. It was a psychological horror thriller about Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), a troubled young man with dissociative identity disorder who kidnapped and mutilated teenage girls. Split wasn't marketed as a sequel to Unbreakable, saving the revelation for a final scene in which Bruce Willis makes an uncredited cameo as his Unbreakable character, David Dunn. Enter Glass, the culmination of Shyamalan's unprecedented (and rather unexpected) trilogy of deconstructionist superhero films and one the first great films of 2019.
Upon seeing the film and leaving the cinema, I was listening to the responses of people around me. Reactions ranged from "crap" to "wow" and everything in between. The most common reaction was "m'eh" which I was delighted to hear. It meant that the film had not hit home with some but had made them think and that's what great films do.
The events in Glass happen some sixteen years after the events in Unbreakable. Security guard David Dunn (Willis) has devoted his life to fighting crime as a vigilante superhero known as The Overseer, protecting the citizens of Philadelphia with the help of his now-adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, who also played his son in the 2000 film). Gifted with superhuman strength, stamina and invulnerability, as well as an extrasensory ability to see the crimes people have committed by touching them, Dunn uses his security business as a means of maintaining his anonymity while equipping people with the tools to protect themselves. Meanwhile, Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy) and his sinister personalities, a collective known as The Horde, have kidnapped four more "impure" teenagers to feed to The Beast, a superhuman creature that dwells inside Crumb.
When The Overseer comes face-to-face with The Beast, the battle results in both men being captured and detained at Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Research Hospital under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in a specific type of delusion of grandeur: people who believe they have superpowers. Dr. Staple has a third patient suffering from the same affliction, a man who has been housed at Raven Hill for 16 years: Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). Known as Mr. Glass, Price is a highly intelligent mass murderer and comic book aficionado with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition that makes his bones brittle and prone to fracture. Now wheelchair-dependent after 94 breaks, the mastermind and arch-enemy of David Dunn is secretly orchestrating a plan to unleash The Beast and expose the world to the existence of super-humans.
As expected, Willis and Jackson slip back into their roles with ease. In his isolation, Jackson's Elijah Price has become even more calculating, despite appearing as a mute, heavily sedated lost cause. Dunn, meanwhile, has become a grizzled veteran of vigilantism, like Batman, with his son acting as moral anchor and aide-de-camp; his Alfred Pennyworth. Watching Dunn, Crumb, and Price interact is more than enough spectacle; a scene in which they join Dr. Staple for a group therapy session is the dramatic equivalent of a comic book splash page – it's just so satisfying to watch these characters bounce off each other while sharing a mutual disdain for Staple.
It's fascinating to see Shyamalan conclude his superhero trilogy as the genre reaches its saturation point. This is the era of Avengers: Infinity War, a sweeping epic with more than 30 integral characters, massive action set pieces, and an estimated budget in the range of $316–400 million, and here's Glass, a $20 million character drama that boldly, and poignantly, explores our obsession with superheroes. In comparison to the cheesy, over-the-top melodrama of Aquaman, or the wink wink; nudge nudge nature of Deadpool, Glass is more minimalist, exploring the psychology of people with superpowers. If you're expecting an Avengers-level spectacle, you'll likely be disappointed.
Like Christopher Nolan, Shyamalan creates intricate narratives that often feel more like an equation being solved than a story being told. Hence the "m'eh" reactions I mentioned. You know there's going to be a revelation – something in the third act that changes the way you perceive the film – and Glass is no exception. Your overall enjoyment of Shyamalan's latest will likely hinge on its ambitious and unconventional third act, which some may find slightly underwhelming or deeply unsatisfying, depending on your expectations. Personally, I love that the writer-director swings for the fences, opting for a powerful finale that brings to life the themes and ideas at the core of both Unbreakable and Split, and delivers a logical, meaningful conclusion to this story he is telling.
Many reviews have been negative and I understand why. As audiences we have been force-fed a Marvel-centric view of superheroes. It partly explains why the darker DC films have struggled to connect with audiences. Shyamalan's trilogy asks you to think.
I recommend you see Unbreakable and Split before seeing Glass.