Warning: Major “Glass” spoilers ahead.
M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” is one of only two superhero films listed among 2000′s biggest moneymakers. It was a different era then, a time when intimate survival dramas (“Cast Away”) and low-concept character comedies (“Meet the Parents”) could outperform something as mighty as “X-Men.” Without knowing it, “Unbreakable” anticipated the genre’s current ubiquity, deconstructing comic-book tropes for an audience that hadn’t yet come to await the moment Spider-Man would finally meet Doctor Strange.
“Glass,” a joint sequel connecting “Unbreakable” to Shyamalan’s 2016 psycho-horror exploitation “Split,” arrives with more baggage. Now, even moviegoers who have never so much as touched a comic book know the formula in and out; it’s harder to deconstruct something that’s become so firmly cemented. “Deadpool,” for example, tries to parody those conventions with a crass wink, only to succumb to the very thing it’s parodying. “Venom” puts a down-on-his-luck antihero at the center but resorts to the same witless, Earth-threatening clash that concludes all 21st century-superhero vehicles.
“Glass” wants to subvert what “Deadpool,” “Venom” and others couldn’t. It almost succeeds in spite of itself until a convoluted twist reminds us that eventually all roads lead to a uniform payoff.
The film reunites poncho-clad vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis) with brittle-boned Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson), the “Unbreakable” miscreant dedicated to legitimizing his own villainy. David’s heroism has earned him the comic-book-ready moniker “The Overseer,” and it’s also what gets him committed to the same mental institution where Mr. Glass sits around in a state of feigned vegetation. Anyone who fancies himself a superhero or an über-villain is suffering “delusions of grandeur” and should be quarantined, according to the facility’s lead psychologist, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). Captain America, are you listening?
Accompanying David to the institution is “Split” ringleader Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and his 23 alternate personalities, who had kidnapped the four teenage girls David was rescuing when police showed up mid-tussle. Together in a pink room lined with security guards and off-kilter camera angles, Ellie lectures the trio about how “more and more people” are claiming to be superheroes, a line she might as well deliver directly to the audience. For the post-“Unbreakable” generation, moviegoing now means capes and crusades, leaving Shyamalan to tacitly ask, “What the hell else did you expect?”
Ellie’s operation, in typical Shyamalan fashion, is a red herring. She isn’t really researching Kevin, David and Elijah’s condition; quite the opposite. She knows they are who they say they are and won’t stand for the inundation. In fact, Ellie is on a vigilante mission of her own: to rid the world of anyone with super-skills, good or evil. Whether applied to big-screen fads or real-world delusions, her stance is philosophical. “There just can’t be gods among us,” she asserts in one of many monologues. “It’s just not fair.”
Good thing her clover-tattooed secret society is on call for backup should things get unruly, which of course they do. She stationed two murderous reprobates in the same facility, after all. Elijah is back on his bullshit, recruiting Kevin (as controlled by his animalistic persona, The Beast) to stage a cataclysmic attack on a new Philadelphia skyscraper that’s garnered the country’s attention. That way, David will have to salvage the destruction, and the world will learn that superheroes and über-villains really do exist. No longer will freaks of nature hide in the shadows.
“Glass” teases the big Osaka Tower calamity so hard you might believe it’s actually going to happen. Without a third-act battle, how can this saga hew to the comic-book blueprint that Elijah routinely references? Even Elijah’s mom (Charlayne Woodard) knows that a culminating “showdown” where “all the skills are revealed” is pure formula ― something we’ve seen over and over and over in Marvel and DC leviathans. (A magazine headline touting Osaka as a “TRUE MARVEL” is no accident.)
But “Glass” has too many other calculations going on to give us a pro forma waterloo. Elie’s prevention program becomes meta: She is intercepting the climax audiences have been trained to anticipate, like an eleventh-hour savior who won’t settle for another CGI cliché. It makes “Unbreakable” look prophetic. After all, what is Elijah if not a testy superfan obsessed with codifying the sanctity of comics, just like today’s many man-babies who take offense when anyone criticizes their fictional beloveds?
“Unbreakable” was prescient in other ways. Shyamalan’s first movie after “The Sixth Sense” vaulted him onto Hollywood’s A-list, it positioned comic-book culture on the margins and predicted that it would soon be mainstream. Elijah, who turned to comics as a fragile and bullied kid, disappeared into a mythology greater than anything he could dream up. At first, his belief that the pages’ characters are real ― a “form of history,” Elijah insists ― seems like a flight of fancy. But he possessed what his bullies didn’t: insight. Outcasts like him had it figured out the whole time. The train derailment that begins “Unbreakable” was Elijah’s way of getting both David and Kevin (whose father was killed in the crash, begetting The Beast) to recognize their powers. David, at least, used his telepathy and infinite strength to vanquish human-rights crimes.
“I create superheroes,” Elijah says in “Glass,” 19 years after inciting The Overseer. “I truly am a mastermind.”
The key achievement of “Unbreakable,” though ― the thing that “Glass” doesn’t recognize ― is its willingness to prioritize David’s humanity over his magical gifts. He is, first and foremost, a lonely working-class man whose marriage is crumbling, much to the disheartenment of his young son (Spencer Treat Clark). Elijah waxing on about the taxonomy of comic-book customs feels hollow compared to David’s deeply felt struggles, and so when David finally accepts his powers, seeing him fill a hole in his life has greater meaning than seeing him achieve some sort of supernatural destiny.
The clunky, talky “Glass” doesn’t have as much time for somber depth; it’s too concerned with connecting the trilogy’s twisty dots so that Ellie can silence Kevin, David and Elijah. In “Unbreakable,” David had to grapple with the horrors of heroism and the bitter realization that guardians can’t save those at risk without also internalizing society’s brutalities. In “Glass,” he’s trapped inside an institution while an inept doctor and a crazy man in a mauve suit carry on about plot structure. Both movies have a knack for long, steady shots with confident compositions, but Shyamalan ― like the Marvel and DC properties that have become inescapable in the years since “Unbreakable” opened ― seems drunk on his own methodical world-building. He’s sticking a middle finger to the franchise machine, promising more psychological nuance but muddying it with a mixed message.
If nothing else, Shyamalan subverts Tinseltown’s reliance on gleaming orbs, laser beams and nuclear threats, killing off the heroes and the villains to exact Ellie’s plan. Instead of a famous skyline or a faraway planet, the climactic skirmish takes place in a parking lot outside the asylum. The Osaka Tower remains intact. By today’s standards, the sequence is shockingly low-fi, proof that heroes aren’t sacred and directors don’t need $150 million to stage an action set piece. (“Glass” cost a reported $20 million.)
But Elijah, who had hacked the building’s security cameras, has receipts. David’s abnormal strength and The Beast’s wriggly menace are caught on tape, stymieing Ellie’s life work. When the footage is leaked to the world, no one will be able to deny that superhumans exist. In that light, Shyamalan’s trilogy is not a satisfying exegesis on good and evil, nor is it a statement about the complex line between ordinary and extraordinary. It is, in Elijah’s words, an “origin story” ― the thing that launches franchises, not concludes them. Once others like David and The Beast see they aren’t alone, they’ll come out of hiding, and eventually a proper showdown will ensue, even if Elijah and company aren’t alive to witness it.
No matter how many tropes these stories challenge, “Glass” seems to say, they will still resort to a certain uniformity. Kill off the main characters? More will be born in their wake. (Or, if you’re a member of the Avengers, reborn.) The formula will, somehow, be fulfilled.
That’s why “Unbreakable” succeeded where “Glass” doesn’t. The former turns out to be less a comment on the genre than a portrait of refreshingly original concept within it. But crafting a self-aware superhero movie that has something to say in 2019 requires a feat of ingenuity, a renouncement of Hollywood’s infatuation with corporatized “universes.” By the time the blurry ideas in “Glass” semi-congeal, a perceptive quote springs to mind, uttered by its namesake almost two long decades ago: “These are mediocre times. People are starting to lose hope.”