Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlayne Woodard
Movies about superheroes are ten-a-penny these days. With Marvel and DC battling it out continuously alongside lesser-known publishers such as Dark Horse (Hellboy, Sin City), particularly using characters that were created nearly a century ago, it can’t be easy for any newcomers to make their mark. But damn it, they will try. Enter M. Night Shyamalan, a writer/director known for his darker themes and often interesting twists. Shyamalan has spent the better part of the past twenty years pulling his own universe of heroes and villains together through 2000’s Unbreakable and 2016’s Split, and it has resulted in Glass, the third of an originally unintended trilogy. Despite all this time creating his characters and setting the foundation for their world, has he actually succeeded in creating something new that sets itself apart from the likes of Batman and Gotham City or Iron Man and the Avengers?
(N.B: if you’ve seen neither Unbreakable or Split, you may find the odd small spoiler in this review, though nothing major. You have been warned.)
Glass sees the return of David Dunn (Willis) as ‘The Overseer’, a protector of the public whose supposed ‘powers’ include superhuman strength and the ability to tap into people’s minds when briefly making physical contact. With the help of his now-grown son Joseph (Clark), David attempts to track the kidnapper of some teenage cheerleaders. On discovering where the girls are being kept he meets The Beast, one of twenty-three personalities that inhabit the mind of Kevin Crumb (McAvoy), the amalgamation of the personalities themselves having publicly earnt the nickname ‘The Horde’. Their confrontation results in their arrest, and they are taken to a mental institution where they meet Dr. Ellie Staple (Paulson), and David finds his old friend-turned-nemesis Elijah Price (Jackson), a.k.a ‘Mr. Glass’, to already be an inmate there. Dr. Staple’s job is to help the three men to understand that their heroic or villainous personas and supposed abilities are all in their minds. As it starts to become apparent that it’s no coincidence the three men have ended up in the same place, a good-versus-evil comic-style story begins to take over, something that may have been planned all along.
Shyamalan has shown himself to be able to create mainstream movies that attract a solid audience and are generally commercially, if not always critically, successful. Unbreakable and Split were both examples of commercially successful productions that earned fairly favourable reviews overall. Unfortunately Glass, although apparently doing ok at the box office a week after its release, has not been nearly as well-received critically as its predecessors, and it’s not difficult to see why. Unbreakable introduced us to new characters that hadn’t already established themselves to be ‘heroes’. Much like Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, the truth of it all doesn’t come out until the near the film’s conclusion, and so it makes for a nice ‘are they or aren’t they?’ ending. Split does something similar with Kevin Crumb and his multiple personalities – is he superhuman, or is he just a very sick yet very clever man? Glass takes a different route, causing the audience to ask those questions right the way through. They are answered one way or another toward the end, doing something that generally opposes the end of a Shyamalan movie, but the absolute trudge that it takes to get there is certainly not worth the climax.
The main trouble with Glass is that, more often than not, Shyamalan comes across as a patronising filmmaker that treats his audience as though they’ve never seen a movie, let along a comic book-based movie or Unbreakable or Split. The amount of props or signs or pictures we are shown onscreen that act as blatant ‘Easter Eggs’, things that would normally casually appear in the corner of any other movie for moviegoers to spot and get excited about, are so forced that it becomes intolerable, i.e. Casey (Taylor-Joy) wearing the same Philadelphia Zoo jacket she was given in Split (Shyamalan feels the need to give the jacket its own five seconds of fame), or the name of a room within the institution that a character wanders into, as if what’s within the room and why the character is in there won’t be understood by audiences. The use of colours to distinguish the characters and whether they are ‘good’ or ‘evil’ isn’t exactly subtle either. Even some of the dialogue becomes corny and dumbed down, particularly when it comes to how the world works when based on comic books (the hero versus the villain and the pitting of one against the other in numerous ways) and the way it must constantly be explained to us, especially by Mr. Glass. There just doesn’t seem to be any intelligent dialogue or story to back up the characters Shyamalan has spent years creating. There are even times when Shyamalan appears unable to stick to a certain style of cinematography, as though he’s tried to squeeze in everything from POV and slanted shots to wide angles and close-ups, which is a headache when it all appears in one scene, but it happens in just about every single scene. All this does is confuse the audience, as we don’t know exactly what view we’re supposed to take – are we in favour of the character we’re seeing this particular event through the eyes of? Are we part of this? Are we just a bystander? Add this to a plot that often goes off on tangents leading to something different and frankly you’ve lost us.
Perhaps the only reason this film did not receive a one-star rating is James McAvoy’s performance. Going from performing nine personalities in Split to nineteen in Glass is just a whole new level of performance ability (arguably a more superhuman feat than anything any of the characters have within in the film). Not only does McAvoy successfully separate each personality into an instantly recognisable individual through body language and voice/speech, but he seamlessly flips between them within scenes. He vastly outperforms the likes of Jackson and Willis, themselves veteran actors at this point in their careers. Both have performed well as Elijah and David, respectively, in Unbreakable, but their characters have severely let them down in Glass, reduced to weak dialogue and pointless endeavours. Paulson, a fantastic actress, does the best she can with Dr. Staple, but again it’s a weak character whose M.O doesn’t make sense. And as nice as it was to see Clark and Taylor-Joy return as their respective characters, if they were to be lifted from the movie nothing significant would change, which is a shame. Perhaps their characters bring out certain sides to their respective hero/villain, but it’s nothing that would make a huge difference to the plot overall.
Considering how long audiences, not just Shyamalan, have waited for Glass to come to fruition, it’s a real shame that the end-product was not nearly as strong as it could have been. It has some interesting ideas in its foundations, but the execution overall is poor. It could arguably have been shared over two movies, allowing the character to breathe a little more after their initial meeting, to give them a chance to develop in what they believe to be real and to give audiences a chance to decide what they want to believe too. Instead we’re dragged through something where we don’t have a clue what to believe. Indeed, this is sometimes a good thing, as we can come to empathise with the characters and their plight, but in the case of Glass it’s just pure confusion, no understanding of what the heck is going or why. We can see what it is Shyamalan is getting at, but he fails to actually get us there. It’s probably best that we as an audience stick with Marvel and DC movies. Or just Marvel.