Sometimes I’m too persuadable for my own good.
I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable in theaters way back in 2000, thought it had intriguing concepts and believable use of a comics-fandom backdrop, but I lost patience with its plodding, lugubrious tone (years before The Walking Dead and Marvel’s Netflix shows made snail-speed pretentiousness an acceptable norm) as well as the Dragnet-esque text-only ending that cheated the viewer out of any earned closure. Cutting a story short after the final twist worked well for Rod Serling, but not so much for other writers.
I saw Shyamalan’s Split in 2017 when word-of-mouth suggested we could call it a comeback, but it lost me with its To Be Continued ending that recast the otherwise taut thriller as the second chapter in Shyamalan’s very own superhero universe.
That brings us to the final act of the trilogy, Glass. I’ve skipped several Shyamalan films, but curiosity got the best of me. Was there a remote chance it would tie together the threads of the first two films with some sense of thematic satisfaction and retroactively redeem them, or at least provide a better sense of closure? Dare I hope?
Yep, I dared.
Short version for the unfamiliar: When last we left our combatants, David Dunn (former A-lister Bruce Willis) was an average Joe from Philadelphia who found himself gifted with above-average strength, a limited degree of invulnerability, and a psychic ability to detect evildoers by bumping into them. Many years later, Kevin Wendell Crumb (X-Men ringleader James McAvoy) was a three-named serial killer with dozens of personalities, nearly all of them astonishingly acted and at least one of them super-powered, who made himself an evil lair at the Philadelphia Zoo. Separately, they had movies that could’ve been better.
Fast-forward to today: David has made a hobby of wandering the streets fighting crime in his trademark green raincoat. The media have nicknamed him the Overseer even though he shows no signs of “overseeing” squat, but his powers are too generic to evince anything more descriptive, and all the really catchy synonyms for “punching guy” were already taken. Kevin found himself a new base and more teen girls to murder, and has taken to calling himself the Horde, which, to be fair, isn’t a bad choice. Eventually these two disparate souls meet-uncute and fight-and-fight-and-fight, but things go wrong and both wind up in the same mental hospital even though David shows no signs of mental health issues, just a passion for vigilantism, which is a crime but not an AMA-certified disorder yet, except arguably in Gotham City.
Our opponents find themselves on the same cell block with David’s old arch-nemesis, the wheelchair-bound, dangerously fragile, hyperintelligent Elijah Price (The Samuel L. Jackson), who coined his own nom du crime Mr. Glass before David anticlimactically called the cops and had them roll him away behind bars. At some point the authorities decided it was best to keep Mr. Glass drugged 24/7 into drooling catatonia so he couldn’t defeat anyone with his super-smarts ever again. Had their plan been as perfect as they’d hoped, Glass would only be a live-action short film.
The talented, twisted trio is assigned to the same psychiatrist, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson from American Horror Story), who makes it her personal mission to gaslight all three men — in the same room at the same time, because general group therapy beats individual, personalized treatments in all the best quack offices — into believing they’re actually normal and their amazing feats are all products of their imagination and/or totally achievable through ordinary average means. In theory, if they all believe they can’t do abnormal things, then they’ll never try to do abnormal things again and the world will be a better place if they’re tamed, though that could’ve been done in prison ever after with or without their powers, but it would be more cost-effective if they were brainwashed into thinking they couldn’t escape rather than squandering taxpayer money on enhanced super-cells. That budgetary aspect is never mentioned; that’s me trying to imagine non-contrived reasons justifying this approach.
Can Dr. Staple intellectually best Mr. Glass, the Green Poncho, and the Every-Hitchcock-Film-Ever One-Man Show? Or will something go wrong so our guys can fight-and-fight-and-fight some more? More importantly, where’s the inevitable twist and how loudly will the audience groan at it?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) returns as the one victim Kevin let get away from him in Split, but she’s wasted as a concerned Stockholm Syndrome sufferer. Returning cast members from Unbreakable include Charlayne Woodard as Glass’ mom; former child actor Spencer Treat Clark (who’s had a couple of runs on Agents of SHIELD) as David’s now-adult son, who’s in on his secret and is his “Guy in the Chair”, as a young Ned Leeds once put it; and Shyamalan himself reprising his previous cameo, eighteen years and at least one career-track change later. Among the few other parts with more than two lines is Luke Kirby (Lenny Bruce from Amazon’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as one of two severely inept nurses.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? In Shyamalan’s world, metahuman powers are necessarily limited in scope for the sake of “reality” or actual science or whatever. Given at least ten seconds to prepare, Hawkeye could take any of them in a fair fight, and I would watch the heck out of that movie. Also, any sane government would not simply stand idly by and let them fight-and-fight-and-fight without taking some kind of decisive action. In short, Shyamalan’s goal appears to be “what if superpowers but in the ‘real world'” and watching the dominoes fall accordingly. If you’ve never watched NBC’s Heroes or read Marvel’s “New Universe” or delved into George R. R. Martin’s round-robin Wild Cards universe or watched the quick deaths of a plethora of failed concepts from various defunct comics publishers throughout the last few decades, this may sound like a new idea. It isn’t quite.
Examined from another direction, Shyamalan’s trilogy is a thematic distant cousin of Brad Bird’s Incredibles and to a lesser extent his Tomorrowland, in that the greatest threat to the most special people among us isn’t other special people, but a mediocre population in general and The MAN in particular. Now that the movie-going majority has embraced the wonderful world of super-heroism and spent literal billions demanding more of it, it’s a tough proposition to offer a story that’s not “good vs. evil” but rather “superheroes vs. people who think the idea of superheroes sucks”.
Nitpicking? Forty years of immersion in superhero universes have made me extremely wary of getting deeply invested in any more new ones. Dozens of them have come and gone in my time, so it’s been ages since the word “superhero” itself triggered a Pavlovian cheer from me. I still enjoy some across different media for a variety of qualities, but fresh takes from new voices are getting fewer and farther between. That’s been a problem for me for a while now, from the way Heroes lost me after the pilot to that time DC’s “New 52” turned into a major case of separation anxiety and inspired one of the most well-received thinkpieces I’ve ever written here on MCC.
In hopefully non-spoiler terms, Shyamalan’s ultimate take (of which the eventual “twist” plays a defining role) is technically something I haven’t seen done in recent memory, but there’s an aspect of how things play out with such despondency that I can just imagine Bill Maher giving Glass a thumbs-up. There’s an ostensibly game-changing epilogue that tries to one-up the twist itself (I’d call it a “counter-twist” if it hadn’t been telegraphed an hour earlier), but it tries to reassure the audience with a finishing move that would’ve worked in the 20th century but is laughably quaint in the 21st.
Also, I don’t recall questioning the basic comics-cred of Unbreakable (maybe? look, it’s been 18 years), but Glass raised my hackles more than once. Multiple characters keep using the “limited edition” whenever they actually mean “story” or “story arc” or possibly “crossover”. Glass’ mom seems like a nice lady but her minimal attempts at talking comics are gibberish. (Maybe she didn’t listen closely enough to her son?) And my brow deeply furrowed at a scene in which the mild-mannered Dr. Staple complains about how San Diego Comic Con has turned into a promotional vehicle for “teen TV shows”, like she’s trying to complain about how San Diego isn’t just about comics anymore, like some rants she once read on some old message board she Googled, but she forgot to bookmark them and someone hit her in the head with a cinder block so she’s desperately struggling to remember all of them at once and the resulting mental bottleneck is mashing all those geek talking points together into a single, stale, stilted statement.
The film’s final hour also depends on a series of Idiot Plot moves starring the least staffed hospital in America and the two most slow-witted nurses since Halloween II.
There’s also something annoyingly perverse about a film named after a guy who spends half the movie checked out, and the other half drowned out. Jackson is given free rein to chew scenery to his heart’s content, but precious few minutes of screen time in which to do it. And the moments he masterminded but doesn’t personally supervise to fruition don’t count toward his meager total. Willis is slightly more there, but seems awfully sleepy even when he’s not in restraints.
So what’s to like? Once again James McAvoy is the MVP, skittering back and forth between twenty different personalities — new ones as well as old favorites such as the prim Patricia, wacky kid Hedwig, street-smart Dennis, and of course The Beast, who’s like a primitive Wolverine prototype. The complexity of Kevin’s brain comes alive as McAvoy shifts gears, his different mindsets and accents separated by mere split-seconds. His showboating in Split was a sort of treat, but here he pushes the accelerator to the floor and stops for nothing. McAvoy fans would do well to check this out once, then wait for the updated “Kevin’s personalities supercut” to show up later this year on YouTube.
Otherwise, part of me wishes I’d been stubborn enough to skip Glass the same way I skipped that fourth Shrek film and the last few Police Academy sequels. But I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Glass end credits, but you can watch shards of images from the complete Unbreakable Split Glass trilogy cascading around the scrolling names, which helpfully include all twenty of McAvoy’s characters. His hardcore fans can hold themselves a cinematic scavenger hunt and try to spot them all.
Anyone who’s ever been to Philadelphia wondering why they don’t recognize many landmarks (other than the Philadelphia Zoo, reprising its role from the end of Split) will also discover the role of Philadelphia was mostly played by Allentown and bits of New York. Once again, Shyamalan gives us a thing that we thought was one thing but was in fact another thing.