In “Glass,” writer-director M. Night Shyamalan revisits three of his most popular and iconic characters. There’s David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the sad-sack Philadelphia security guard from “Unbreakable,” who discovered that he was physically indestructible and, with a kind of agonized destiny, began to take on the identity of an earthly superhero. There’s Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), from the same movie, the man with bones that shatter like glass, who grew up escaping into a world of comic books and yearned so badly to know that a real-life superhero could exist that he was willing to commit horrendous crimes to find one. And there’s Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the leering, shaven-headed chatterbox psycho from “Split,” who has 24 personalities, each more self-adoring than the last, that he flicks through as if channel surfing.
What are these three doing in the same movie? They’re shoring up the Shyamalan brand by reviving two of his biggest hits. They’re mirroring the way heroes and villains now drift in and out of each other’s narratives in the metastasizing multiverse of Hollywood comic-book cinema. And all three, viewed from the perspective of a rational world, act as if they might belong in an insane asylum, which is where most of “Glass” takes place.
“Unbreakable,” for some of us, is still the best film that M. Night Shyamalan has ever made. When it came out in 2000, comic-book movie culture was still in its relative infancy, though it didn’t feel that way. Batman, in his dystopian-avenger mode, had already been portrayed on the big screen by three different actors (Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney), and though the first “X-Men” film was released just six months before “Unbreakable,” its ensemble-of-super-freaks quality seemed to suggest the whole jumbled grab-bag cosmos of comic-book films that was coming down the pike. All of which made “Unbreakable” a haunting commentary on a genre it also embodied. With a pace that was less ADD than art film, and an introspective grandeur that hovered between neurosis and catharsis, it was Shyamalan’s most majestic tone poem of a thriller, one that tapped deep into the glories and pathologies of our obsession with comic books.
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“Glass” continues the saga, only this time stripped of any sense of revelation. We are now, if anything, oversaturated with comic-book films, so in theory the time is right for a movie like this one. And you could say that “Glass” follows the inevitable path of any comic-book sequel, with the origin story safely behind it. All of the first film’s secrets have been dragged into the light.
But in “Unbreakable,” the vibe of moody mystery was all. In the early scenes of “Glass,” Willis’s David, still lean and mean in his graying fringe and beard, and now working closely with his son, Joseph (played by the grown-up Spencer Treat Clark), has become a fully operational super-powered vigilante, who dons his hooded rain poncho as an official crime-fighting uniform. You may wonder, with a chuckle, if he’s got a name based on that look — and, in fact, he does. He is known as the Green Guard (and also the Overseer). After literally bumping into McAvoy’s Kevin, he heads to the abandoned factory where Kevin has shackled four cheerleaders to a pipe and proceeds to free them. To do so, he’s got to tangle with Kevin in his hellbent mode known as the Beast: the strong-man id who’s all roaring rage and bulging torso veins, like a scaled-down bad-guy version of the Hulk.
Yet this all now feels very conventional, as if we were merely seeing the Dark Knight in a less cool uniform. David is wanted by the police, who think his crime-fighting ventures are getting in the way of due process — and that, too, is a conflict that’s been touched on in other comic-book films. After David, along with Kevin, is caught and captured, both are placed in the Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Research Center, a stately asylum where Elijah, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, has been incarcerated for the past 19 years. They may be good guys and bad guys, but in the eyes of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who speaks in a hypnotic mode of smug deliberation, all three are suffering from the exact same mental disorder: the belief that they possess the super qualities of comic-book characters. According to Dr. Staple, it’s a delusion that’s going around. (It’s become her field.)
Shyamalan may be the most gifted director of the last 20 years to see his own name turn into a punchline. It’s not just that he singlehandedly made the words “twist ending” into a signature that become a tic that began, over time, to inspire a collective eye roll. It’s that as his films grew less confident and more mannered, the tail seemed to be wagging the dog, as if everything that preceded his trademark twists had no purpose but to lead up to them. Shyamalan, though, as he proved with “Split,” can still win over an audience, and in “Glass” he’s a poised and confident filmmaker who seizes our attention.
Yet the movie, watchable as it is, is still a disappointment, because it extends and belabors the conceits of “Unbreakable” without the sensation of mystical dark discovery that made that film indelible. “Glass” is a sequel that feels more dutiful than necessary. It turns the earlier film’s ominous pop poetry into overexplicit blockbuster prose.
The new movie has what is basically a very simple plot: Can Elijah and Kevin team up to escape the asylum? And can David, who truly doesn’t belong there, figure out how to free himself from its confines? Shyamalan makes the place feel like the clinical prison it is, but he’s a supple enough filmmaker to avoid feelings of claustrophobia (he sets one highly effective sequence in a vast chamber that’s all lavender pink).
Kevin is housed in a room where a machine that blasts him with light can force his personality to change with the touch of a button. His multiple personalities are known, collectively, as the Horde, and McAvoy plays them with the same obscenely avid, gender-bending fluidity that made his performance in “Split” such a showboat feat. If anything, he’s more fun to watch now that he doesn’t have to be the whole show. (To this viewer, a little of Kevin goes a long way.) Anya Taylor-Joy plays the lone survivor of one of his killing sprees, and despite her soulful presence there’s not a lot the actress can do with this sketchy and sentimental role. As for Elijah, he’s a heavily sedated wreck who doesn’t utter a word for half the movie — but, of course, he’s just biding his time.
In “Unbreakable,” Elijah, with his purple finery and parted Afro and scowl from the depths of hell, was the rare villain who inspired empathy, a man who committed unspeakable violence out of a kind of quest — to find the hero of his dreams. In “Glass,” he’s still a mastermind with a lot on his mind, though the character seems less resonant now that he’s an official antagonist. There is, as before, a twist to his madness, and though on paper it’s not a bad twist, it somehow lacks the “Whoa!” factor.
So does the whole movie. It’s good to see Shyamalan back (to a degree) in form, to the extent that he’s recovered his basic mojo as a yarn spinner. But “Glass” occupies us without haunting us; it’s more busy than it is stirring or exciting. Maybe that’s because revisiting this material feels a touch opportunistic, and maybe it’s because the deluge of comic-book movies that now threatens to engulf us on a daily basis has leeched what’s left of the mystery out of comics. In “Unbreakable,” Elijah said, “I believe comics are a form of history that someone, somewhere felt or experienced.” He still believes that, but today’s comic-book culture looks more like a dream broadcast from corporate central. What it no longer feels connected to, even in “Glass,” is experience.