M. Night Shyamalan’s command of form, his resounding desire to tell his stories cinematically above all else, allay a lot of the more quibblesome aspects of his script here. That script is more ambitious than its predecessors, “Unbreakable” and “Split”, and performs dual duty in re-telling them to an extent before iterating on them, while also trying to be its own separate thing at the same time. Shyamalan – wearing his director hat, at least – and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis do good work in that regard, the score had it trickier, being done by the same composer as “Split”, but nonetheless West Dylan Thordson did clearly deliberately try to give the film its own sonic atmosphere while respecting the earlier film’s motifs, even if that meant giving those motifs a bit of a short shrift.
[spoilers for “Unbreakable” and “Split”]
What the second film in this makeshift trilogy, “Split”, did was remarkable and seemingly quite unprecedented. It hid the fact it was a sequel to a film (a film sixteen years older, no less) completely in the marketing, and in the film itself right until the last few minutes, where what precisely the film had been doing all along was reframed by situating it in a different genre. From thriller and horror to superhero, a comic-book-esque “origin story”, that implied a showdown with Bruce Willis’ protagonist of that earlier film, “Unbreakable”. “Glass” smartly frontloads itself with this confrontation, as it is far more interested in putting its characters in a new situation (a mental institute where their sanity and commitment is tested) than just escalating the old ones.
A lot of the strength of “Unbreakable” came from the fact it was effectively the first third of a larger script Shyamalan had written. Zeroing in on the traditional first act of a superhero story, in the process shedding away layers of dreary plot and antagonism and instead focusing on characterisation and emotional arcs, kept the film eternally outside the genre it’s purportedly part of (it’s notable the film was originally advertised much like Shyamalan’s previous movie at the time, “The Sixth Sense”, as a sort of emotional mystery thriller). The villain in the rest of that original megascript was none other than the antagonist of “Split”, and “Glass” indeed draws many elements (including the ending) from that original script. So it’s unsurprising that the retcons and repositionings “Glass” makes to “Unbreakable” (less so “Split”, which was mostly concerned with its own themes concerning abuse, purity, and strength, and what it did share with the other two movies, like the elemental transformative superhumanity of its antagonist, was reconfigured as set-up for “Glass” anyway) feel uncomfortably solid.
[spoilers for “Glass”]
The first two acts of the film focus heavily on the new psychiatrist character convincing the central three (superhero David Dunn, supervillain Kevin Wendell Crumb, mortal-villain-but-smart-and-deluded-enough-he-styles-himself-a-supervillain Elijah Price) that all superheroic feats in the earlier films were delusion, and that the characters were suffering under a kind of psychosis, that everything apparently superheroic could be explained away with logic. The logic threatening that assumption (that the characters are still chained, that the psychiatrist performs no tests to specifically test these claims) is sidelined if the viewer buys into the possibility as the characters do. There are shades of “Spider-Man 2” and its impotency parallel narrative with Spider-Man losing his powers, as the myriad of psychological issues the characters have give weight to the claim that would truly upend the earlier films.
What’s fascinating is that when the truth wills out and the legitimacy of the superpowers are revealed, it’s done as a power fantasy so much as a quasi-religious-cum-political metaphor narrative. The superpowered characters all die strikingly ingloriously, and even in their shakedown preceding their death they are depicted as grounded almost to the point of banality (the clumsy inelegance of the fight scene stands in such striking contrast to the dance-like or hyper-kinetic combat of superhero movies, the only punctuation of its might being understated touches like the crumpling of a car door). Their superpowered feats are covered up in the shakiest part of the movie’s plotting, through a secret organisation depicted too ham-handedly to fit into the tone the trilogy had cultivated (it’s unfortunate, as the point Shyamalan tries to make through this development is in perfect keeping with the themes he’d been developing, but it’s executed painfully clumsily). Then, Elijah Price’s foresight and recognition that the promotion of narratives and liberation of perspectives is more transformative and long-lasting than the actual individual existence of powerful actors themselves (something setup by his indiscriminate murderous methods of uncovering a superhero in “Unbreakable”) sets off an implied societal shift based off of a population awakening, freeing themselves of what the humdrum of everyday reality had obscured as very real and very effective ideological constraints.
This is not difficult to read politically, although it is surprising to see a superhero film do something other than tacitly endorse fascism and Great man theory. That the triumph of the film’s ending predicates itself on nameless masses unknown to us is so antithetical to the genre that it’s downright fascinating. Shyamalan himself contextualises it as a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”-esque fulfillment of certain character’s stories by other characters down the line. The singular, focused intent of Shyamalan’s ideological take on his ‘superheroic’ characters, compounded by his incredibly well-honed cinematic sense (every shot, based on his own personally drawn storyboards, feels drenched in meaning and intent, from the jarring breaks in perspective in uncomfortable conversations with a psychiatrist, to every carefully considered composition, every representative colour) creates a film that could never hope to truly be called a modern superhero film…because it has something to say, and both the conviction and skillset to actually say it. Four and a half expressions of physical affection, and a repurposed flashback.