How do comic books work? M. Night Shyamalan knows, and he’d really like you to know. Not how comic books work; Shyamalan wants you to know that he knows how comic books work. It’s an important distinction (though I’m not sure why) but whatever it means to him, it’s just one of the many problems hampering his latest, and hopefully final, installment in the Eastrail 177 trilogy: Glass, a movie nineteen years in the making that could’ve benefitted from twenty.
Shyamalan’s backdoor trilogy began in 2000, back when comic book franchises were still just a whisper. Hot off the heels of his 1999 breakout hit, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable took the comic book formula to heart and crafted an unusual superhero origin story where the superhero, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), isn’t all that super, and the villain, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), is the star of the show.
A quick refresher: Price, born with a rare genetic defect of extremely fragile bones, finds solace in comic books. But where others see escapist entertainment, Price believes he’s stumbled on to an alternative history. He theorizes that if he is made of glass — as the other kids teased him — then there must be another out there who was not. Someone unbreakable.
That man is Dunn, but the events leading up to Dunn’s discovery are less than satiable. Price is locked away in an institution for the criminally insane and Dunn lives out his superhero days in the shadows.
Back to reality: after a slate of critical and financial flops, Shyamalan’s 2016 movie, Split — about a man (James McAvoy) with 23 personalities and a predilection for kidnapping teenage girls — became both a surprise hit and a continuation of the Dunn/Price story. Naturally, a sequel was in the mix, one where all three characters would collide in some form of a superhero showdown.
Glass is that movie. Through a series of lackluster events and one half-hearted battle, Dunn and “The Hoard” — the collection of multiple personalities contained within McAvoy’s chiseled physique — are carted off to the same institution that houses Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass. The newcomer, psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), specializes in superhero-psychopathy and makes it her goal to convince all three men that they are not special and all of these “super” acts are delusions of grandeur.
It isn’t much of a spoiler to reveal that Dr. Staple is the villain of the piece — doctors and scientist rarely get to play hero in popcorn movies — but Shyamalan leans so heavily on the believer/non-believer tension that it shatters well before his argument devolves into a rote reworking of that old Randian argument. Essentially: We can’t have special people in the world because it makes the rest of us not special by default.
No doubt the objectivists are already sharpening their proverbial pencils for obnoxious treaties on Glass and the American suppression of the heroic being. But Glass is too much of a mess to hang any tried theory on. Even worse, Shyamalan is so in love with the form that he forgets to utilize it, choosing instead to have his characters scream out the movie’s plot points like football announcers calling the championship game.
There are other problems, myriads of them. While Unbreakable and Split took place mainly at night or in subterranean shadows, Glass exists primarily in the bright light of day, which doesn’t do the special effects, or the performances, any favors.
And then there are the side characters: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), from Split alongside Price’s mother (Charlayne Woodard, working under a mountain of old age make-up) and Dunn’s son (Spencer Treat Clark) from Unbreakable, reprise their previous roles while, potentially, setting up the next installment in the franchise. In the 21st century, every movie’s ending is just another beginning — as long as there’s money to be made.