'Glass' Review: The Most Brilliant Superhero Movie of 2003
M. Night Shyamalan's long-awaited superhero film goes up, up, and away into mediocrity, outshone by the very genre it's trying to subvert.
Batman is in M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass. No, the movie isn’t secretly part of the DC Extended Universe. Rather, a TV playing a Blu-ray of the 1966 Batman appears behind Sarah Paulson, who plays a psychiatrist seeking individuals who believe they are superheroes. The point Shyamalan makes is that superheroes dominate our culture so much we now think of ourselves as heroes with our own origin stories. The only problem? In 2019 this isn’t a fresh concept for a movie, it’s very old news.
When Bruce Willis returned as David Dunn in Split, it seemed like Shyamalan was on the brink of renewed brilliance, but it turns out the director forgot his own lesson. The director’s latest film doesn’t trust its audience to recognize what a superhero movie looks like. Glass would have been brilliant just after Unbreakable, when there were Marvel Knights on stands and Smallville and Heroes were the only superhero shows on TV. Instead, the movie exists in 2019 as a confusing mess that’s never sure whether to subvert or become a genuine entry in the now-familiar genre it’s desperate to deconstruct. Worst of all, the movie undoes all the good work Shyamalan established in Unbreakable so many years ago.
Almost twenty years after Unbreakable, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) patrols Philadelphia as a super-powered vigilante in a poncho, existing as a popular conspiracy theory on the internet. Meanwhile, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James MacAvoy) — an individual whose multiple identity disorder harbors a very powerful, very dangerous ego called “The Beast” — has been wreaking havoc. It isn’t long until the two cross paths, and that’s when the fun stops.
During their big battle, which plays more like an episode of Arrow on The CW than a bonafide Shyamalan thriller, Dr. Ellie Staple (Paulson) steps in to apprehend them both. From there, they become patients in a mental hospita where the enigmatic Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) awaits with a plan.
That’s where the majority of Glass takes place: In and out of a hospital where characters have ridiculous conversations about how silly comic books are and that they aren’t real. (Wow, no shit). But as if the bad opening wasn’t enough to doom the movie, it’s through Shyamalan’s misguided thesis of superheroes that the, ahem, cracks in Glass begin to show.
Throughout Glass, Shyamalan believes in superheroes, a decision that poisons his sublime Unbreakable. His original film didn’t posit the question “Are superheroes real?” but “Can we make them?” Jackson’s Mr. Glass/Elijah was the ultimate evil fanboy, so obsessed with the medium he found solace (born out of his own insecurities and self-pity due to his condition) in doing everything to make them real. In Glass, however, there isn’t even a question. Superheroes are real, and Elijah wants to prove it to the world. His ultimate goal is to go viral.
Unbreakable was, and remains, great because it was a cerebral, atmospheric thriller with the mask of a superhero. Glass is the other way around, a watered down superhero movie pretending to be something deeper, and it consequently zaps away the mystique that once empowered this series.
Mystique is also zapped away from Split. While McAvoy put on an performer’s master class in that film opposite a revelatory Anya Taylor-Joy (who returns in this movie with little to do), his talent is wasted in Glass. His “Beast,” an inhuman animal that acts on instinct, now… talks. And Shyamalan — I guess, because, “realism” — does nothing to change McAvoy’s voice. The result is a bare-chested McAvoy grunting like Christian Bale’s Batman (I will not buy for one second if Shyamalan says it was an homage) in front of a stone-faced Sam Jackson. You wonder what Shyamalan is trying to do here exactly.
In 2000, Shyamalan was a genius for taking a genre like superheroes and giving it a real-world face. Tropes like the discovery of powers and the creation of iconography were subverted as Shyamalan went about doing those beats for “real.” (A rain poncho was a cape! Whoa!) This was cool when the only Marvel media you could watch was on Fox Kids. 20 years later, the audience is sophisticated, but Shyamalan insists the last 20 years of movies didn’t happen.
For two hours, the director assumes the general public has no idea how superhero stories work. What are “origin stories”? Shyalaman tells us. What is the “showdown?” Shyamalan explains. Are the bad guys teaming up? Shyamalan explicitly says when they do. The movie explains everything, and it’s a waste of energy and atmosphere when the preceding movies in the trilogy were nothing but precise visual storytelling and mood. And then Batman is on TV. It’s a confusing message.
What happened? Even at his worst, M. Night Shyamalan is a master of understated communication. Unbreakable didn’t need to be in company with the MCU for us to recognize what he could do differently. Neither did Split, a monster movie that existed on its own terms until the very last scene. But in Glass, Shyamalan is so worried we’ll be lost in his maze that every character needs to bring up comic books to remind us what’s happening. He may as well have thrown in thought bubbles telling us what his characters are feeling.
In the years since Unbreakable, superheroes have become the dominant pop culture force, rising and evolving before our eyes. They became interconnected, the result of trust in a smart audience that is only earned through reliable consistency (Infinity War doesn’t even bother to remind you what’s happening in the MCU before diving in). So when Shyamalan revealed that he, too, was going for a cinematic universe, returning to a brilliant story that virtually preceded this whole thing, it felt like all bets were off. But Shyamalan didn’t trust us, and the work suffers. You know what trusts me? The CW. Arrow airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW.
Glass is in theaters on January 18.