It’s an odd thing to have such a major release like M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass hitting theaters in the middle of January, which normally is a dumping ground for movies that studios have no idea what to do with, but once the credits roll, you’ll understand why. It’s a sequel to both 2000’s Unbreakable, a now-classic superhero movie that managed to precede the genre’s ultimate rise to the top of the box-office charts, and 2017’s Split, an unlikely success that revealed itself to be related to the former in a mid-credits sequence, both of which managed to be critical successes in their own right. Yet Glass carries with it a rare off-screen drama that makes it irresistible to critics and writers of all stripes: It’s the cap on a redemption arc for the filmmaker, whose work was mired in the muck of disappointment and failure up until he began working in low-budget horror once again in 2014. But Glass refuses to offer an easy finish to Shyamalan’s narrative, be it his own or the invented adventures of his protagonists, and that, in a way, makes it even more enticing and intriguing.
In the near-20 years since Unbreakable, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has opened a security system shop with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, reprising his role from the first film), which mainly acts as a cover for their vigilante heroics: David in the poncho, Joseph on comms back at the shop. With David dubbed “The Overseer” by the press, the two have managed to elude the police for years, targeting minor criminals based on Dunn’s sixth sense, such as in the opening, where the Overseer targets two knock-out game participants based his collision with them the Philadelphia subway. But the reemergence of “The Horde” — the collection of 24 separate personalities residing inside the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), including the super-powerful “Beast” — and his subsequent kidnapping of four cheerleaders, puts the two on a collision course. It’s at their first meeting when they’re both captured by Philadelphia PD and placed in the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, who is limited for the runtime by a third-act reveal involving her character), a psychologist who specializes in narcissistic delusions, specifically involving patients who believe they are superheroes. The pair are held at a local mental hospital alongside Elijah Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), the so-called mastermind called “Mr. Glass,” who caused the very accident that revealed to Dunn his powers, and the man who is manipulating them into a confrontation that will rattle the very foundation of the world itself.
Those expecting a Marvel-like collision of superpowers will undoubtedly be disappointed. Shyamalan’s magnum opus is basically a feature-length emotional edge play, raising your excitement and expectations for cathartic release — via on-screen violence or perhaps a satisfying resolution — only for the filmmaker to back away as soon as the audience gets close. Part of this comes from his self-imposed budgetary limitations, as Glass was entirely self-financed by Shyamalan so that he could maintain full creative control, and it’s not hard to imagine that most of that money went to paying off his cast. It’s not exactly cheap to get Bruce Willis out of bed these days, after all. As such, the movie is trapped in its central location, the mental hospital where our superheroic trio are being held by Paulson, and almost all of the story, past the twenty minute mark, is set there. It’s a location with little-or-no grandeur (though credit to Shyamalan, he does wring some beauty out of the location in its colors), and the final, supposedly “epic,” fight between the Horde, the Overseer and a whole bunch of SWAT team members is set in the facilities’ parking lot, which practically invites members of the audience to shout “WorldStar” at the screen. Shyamalan has also never particularly excelled at filming action, especially in his later work like Split, and the same is true here: For one, McAvoy’s fight choreography amounts to him bear-hugging Willis, which inherently limits the amount of kinetic filmmaking possibilities within the supposed draw of the film.
But that’s not to say that there’s not some level of satisfaction possible within Glass: Indeed, it’s a lot of fun to watch Jackson get to work, as the titular character continues to provide him with the sort of campy menace dozens of directors have attempted (and failed) to coax from him. The film’s at its worst when Elijah is catatonic (most of the film’s dreadfully slow first hour), or when he’s sidelined in favor of The Horde and Kevin’s many problems, but it rips to life whenever he’s allowed to dictate the pace. His plan is genuinely exciting to watch unfold, and Jackson’s presence manages to elevate those around him, especially McAvoy, who now has a stable co-star to bounce off of much like he had Betty Buckley in his and Shyamalan’s first collaboration together. He, once again, is absolutely fantastic, with his masterfully unhinged performance remaining undiluted even in this new mixture. And those expecting the director’s trademark twists will not be disappointed, as the film’s last act is basically Shyamalan’s attempt at breaking Chubby Checker’s hips with all of his plot gyrations — there are at least four third-act reveals of devastating consequence, not to mention a pre-epilogue resolution that may actually cause the less restrained to boo the events unfolding on screen. All of this — both the cheapness and the plotting — is in service of Glass’s themes, specifically its commentary on the superhero genre, or rather, the conventions of the comic book itself, which may prove to be for many its tragic flaw.
Indeed, it feels like Shyamalan hasn’t read a comic book since the days when he was directing Rosie O’Donnell in comedies for kids, especially based on the comics that he has had produced for the film itself (one wonders why, given that this is a Disney co-production, they wouldn’t outright let him us a Hulk comic when discussing The Horde’s issues instead of the hackneyed writing that fills up the on-screen pages), much less seen any superhero film since Joel Schumacher had creative control over the Batman franchise. And as such, his conclusions come across as either nihilistic to the point of reading like a mid-‘90s DC Elseworlds tale or a Marvel What If? book from back in the day, or obvious to the point of having been done to death by other filmmakers more in-tune with the conventions of the genre (see: Gunn, James). He doesn’t even have a particularly good grasp on the language of comic book publishing lingo, either, and what felt roughly authentic back in Unbreakable to a world largely unfamiliar with this entire market is rendered lacking by an audience who have more than likely read a comic in the past year.
Yet, the conclusions reached are undeniably Shyamalan’s, which gives them a bizarro quality well-worth exploring for the curious. That, in a way, is the entire appeal of Glass summed up: It’s a take on the comic book movie so out-of-tune with modern trends and conventions, so dead-set on denying its audience the pleasures they’re seeking, that it just can’t help being compelling. Glass isn’t the home-run that Shyamalan’s biggest advocates will hope it is, but it’s not bad enough to warrant the hyperbolic pans that have preceded its release. It is one weird and difficult film, one that is sure to drive audiences crazy and inspire a whole new round of not-wholly-undeserved frustration towards the director, stymying any hopes for a full-on joyous finale to the filmmaker’s redemption arc. But, in a way, it’s an assertion that Shyamalan is his own man at his core, unencumbered by expectation or a need to please, and that, in a way, is deserving of respect.