Why are audiences drawn to superhero movies? What is it about these stories in particular that inspire, provoke or challenge us? With Glass, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan attempts to answer such questions while providing his own spin on the genre.
After the surprise reveal at the end of Shyamalan’s Split (2017) that the film exists in the same universe as his film Unbreakable (2000), the highly anticipated Glass will bring his unconventional “Eastrail 177” trilogy to a close. Glass certainly contains something of substance, but whether it’s half empty or half full will continue to remain up for debate.
Glass picks up three weeks after the events of Split, where David Dunn (Bruce Willis), now a bonafide vigilante, tracks down Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), a man diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, with the help of his son, Joseph Dunn (Spencer Treat Clark). After a violent confrontation, the hero and villain are apprehended and taken to the psychiatric facility where Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) has been held since the end of Unbreakable.
While there, the three characters are treated by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in delusions of grandeur involving those who believe they are superheroes. Their time here will cause everyone, including Joseph, Split’s Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Unbreakable’s Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard), to question whether Dr. Staple may be right.
Despite what its title suggests, Glass is less about any one character and more about the world that Shyamalan has created, complete with its own set of rules. Unlike Unbreakable or Split, this installment in the unconventional trilogy lacks a clear-cut protagonist to identify with because it hinges heavily on the groundwork completed by its predecessors (seeing Unbreakable and Split is a must). In fact, the narrative is well on its way before Jackson’s Mr. Glass is fully activated as a character in the story.
As a consequence, the film feels impersonal because the characters are distanced from us. Each gets their moment “in the light,” yet all feel somewhat wasted (save, perhaps, for McAvoy’s astounding portrayals of his character’s many identities) as they fight both on-screen and for screen-time. In particular, Taylor-Joy’s Casey Cooke — who seems to be suffering from unaddressed Stockholm Syndrome — takes a complete backseat in Glass when she was center stage alongside McAvoy in Split. Perhaps this is to be expected given the promised showdown between Dunn, Price and The Horde, but considering that even Dunn and Price have somewhat limited roles as it is, it merits questioning whether these other characters were wholly needed if they’re going to be largely inconsequential anyway.
This shouldn’t subtract from the performances themselves, however. As previously stated, McAvoy walks away from Glass as its true star, juggling 20 distinct personalities throughout the film (including a nine-year old boy, a posh British woman, and a superhuman known as “The Beast) and making all of them believable. For their part, Jackson and Willis successfully revive their nearly two-decade-old characters with calculated menace and stoicism, respectively. When any given character is on screen, their performances are easy to buy into.
Removing the character-driven element from the story becomes the first of many subversions Shyamalan will implement throughout Glass’s running time. The director is known for his trademark “twists,” but there’s no singular moment that upends the trajectory of the film; it’s the individual storytelling decisions that add up to a concluding chapter that many won’t see coming — which will undoubtedly make it divisive for viewers just as it’s been divisive for critics.
So if Glass isn’t about its characters, what is it about? The film seems to be Shyamalan’s response to the exponential proliferation of superhero stories in mainstream media — specifically, the notion of such heroes residing within the same universe. This is evident primarily through his refusal to steer entirely into genre expectations. Shyamalan’s pointed color scheme and stylistic cinematography (punctuated by many POV shots) combined with swelling notes from West Dylan Thordson’s score signal the director’s adherence to aesthetics utilized in superhero films. The story beats involving confrontations between Dunn and The Horde further uphold this idea.
Yet, Shyamalan also shows interest in deconstructing such familiar narratives. The 19-year build-up for Glass plays into our expectations of an Avengers-like showdown between good and evil. There are certainly elements of this, but Shyamalan, practically winking into the camera as he does so, does not let us off the hook so easily. He strips away the archetypes of his characters — the hero, the villain — to reveal that they are, first and foremost, humans like anyone else.
By both adhering to and deconstructing superhero mythology, does Shyamalan truly accomplish either? It depends on who you ask, but perhaps Glass adds something new to the conversation by challenging how such extraordinary beings come about — and how they are viewed by society. I mentioned that Glass is somewhat impersonal, but that doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t play a role in Shyamalan’s universe. Our fascination with such impossible stories, to me, stems from our own desire to do extraordinary things in the world. These superpowered beings then become a projection of that very desire — one that Paulson’s Dr. Staple actively tries to suppress within Glass’s three key players. The road to such third-act conclusions is a bumpy ride that may not be enough for some, but the final moments of the film are quite resonant as it pertains to these ideas. On that front, Shyamalan seems to have a firm grasp on his narrative.
With Glass, Shyamalan’s foray into the superhero genre comes to a close — for now. The story that Glass tells may not have been the best way to convey Shyamalan’s message, and it’s certainly not the most climactic. Then again, that’s part of the point. Whether Glass is effective for the individual viewer depends on personal taste, but despite its many flaws, it certainly left me with far more to stew on than plenty of other, more traditional superhero stories.