Glass (2019) sets out to shatter the superhero paradigm.
Closer in tone and intent to “Unbreakable” than its immediate predecessor “Split”, “Glass” sees filmmaker M Night Shyamalan returning to the world of comic book super heroics, not to homage or reimagine them, but to deconstruct them – especially their latest cinematic incarnations.
With The Beast/ The Horde/ Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy) still on the loose following the incident at Philadelphia Zoo, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is hunting him down with the help of his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). When Dunn finally confronts The Beast, they are both captured by the authorities and taken to a secure mental institution which also houses another individual from Dunn’s past: Mr Glass (Samuel L Jackson). As psychiatrist Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) tries to understand and treat what she claims to be severe delusions, Mr Glass makes his final moves.
Once again, James McAvoy delivers an astonishingly varied and nuanced performance, somehow able to embody the many personalities of the horde with nothing but a subtle change of facial expression – even though he’s noticeably bulked up since the first film (he fairly bulges out of Patricia’s rollneck and pearls combo at one point) while Jackson and Willis pick up where they left off as if they’ve never been away.
There are few filmmakers as fearless as M Night Shyamalan working today, especially inside the studio system. Although his track record could be considered as uneven and arguably downright patchy, when he’s given full reign, he invariably comes up with something interesting, even when its imperfect. “Glass” sees the idiosyncratic auteur in positively impish mood as he sets out to subvert the expectations of his audience at almost every turn. As if spinning “Split” at the last possible second into not only a supervillain tale but a quasi-sequel to boot wasn’t enough, “Glass” brings us his unique take on the current superhero zeitgeist: the cross-over/ team-up movie. Marketed as such, he knows that you’re bringing certain expectations into the cinema with you and he’s in no mood to pander to them. Thus the movie starts quite slowly, teasing your impatience for the first confrontation you know must come. The trailer has stoked this expectation because with the film beginning with both The Horde and Dunn out in the world, you’re waiting for the incident that will put them in the pink room with the kind and understanding Doctor.
He rewards your patience, eventually, and never quite in the way you’re expecting, but it happens. Dunn and The Beast clash – more than once – but its on Shyamalan’s terms, not Marvel’s or DC’s. In exploring and exploding the superhero tropes, Shyamalan crafts a grittier and more grounded world than anything the DCEU has conjured up and one more marvellous than the super-soldier saturated MCU has conceived. There’s super-ness in ordinariness in the world of “Unbreakable”/ “Split”/ “Glass” and its secret power is that it sneaks up on you while you’re expecting other things.
Of course, there are twists – this is an M Night Shyamalan movie after all – but they’re pretty predictable, from the inevitable reveal of the Doctor’s true agenda (casting Sarah Paulson – terrific actress – was a mistake, she’s too obviously got a hidden agenda, a legacy of her past roles that accompanies her like a ghostly version of The Horde) to the blindingly obvious fact that nobody should believe they have outwitted Mr Glass or that he has – heaven forbid – made an obvious mistake. But wait, there’s more – even as he’s trolling the audiences appetite and expectation for a big public showdown full of property damage, dust and devastation, he reveal’s the movie’s ultimate twist: you’re expecting one story but he’s telling an entirely different story, one that only Mr Glass is fully aware of until in the closing moments he lets us all in on the secret. It’s a bravura act of worldbuilding where what we thought was a trilogy closer, in fact, blows the whole fictional universe wide open.
Yes, there are moments of his trademark untidy storytelling: the secret society which, for some baffling reason, only ever meets in public places like restaurants and has to wait patiently for the last non-member customer to leave before they can begin their machinations; the ludicrously light security at the supposedly specialist treatment facility and he still can’t resist the teeth-grindingly awkward cameo he always grants himself but they’re the imperfections in the gemstone that make it interesting and unique rather than worthless.
It’ll definitely split audiences, some of whom will leave disappointed by Shyamalan’s determination not to play into the well-worn pattern that’s been set out for the genre but it retains his unbreakable devotion to the story he feels he must tell, regardless of the potential commercial and career implications. He’s ridden the popularity rollercoaster long enough that he’s unlikely to be bothered by the mixed reception this will likely receive but for those who embrace his defiant, unapologetically instinctive storytelling “Glass” caps a richly rewarding and endlessly intriguing trilogy, a three-part meditation on the dominant storytelling genre of our times.