It’s difficult to discuss Glass without spoiling key story beats and twists from the previous two films in writer-director M Night Shyamalan’s (The Sixth Sense, Signs) surprise trilogy about extraordinary people who may or may not have superpowers.
If you haven’t seen Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016), stop reading here and watch those movies first. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Do not watch Glass (yet).
For everyone else, or if you really don’t mind spoilers for Unbreakable and Split, please read on (there are no major spoilers for Glass).
Unbreakable was ahead of its time
Despite its current reverence, Unbreakable was not a critical success when it first released. It received a mixed reception from reviewers, and audiences didn’t seem to ‘get’ the film. The story, about the sole survivor of a train crash who maybe had some superhuman abilities, was well ahead of its time.
When Unbreakable released, the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t exist, Christian Bale had never been Batman, Spider-Man hadn’t yet had a single feature film (he’s now had six – seven if you count the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse… and that doesn’t count team-up movies like Avengers: Infinity War) and the X-Men had just released their first film (there’s now been eleven!).
Unbreakable was a movie about superheroes and comic books that wasn’t based on a comic book. It asked what if superheroes were real? It took a grounded approach that deconstructed the tropes of comic book storytelling before they were well known by audiences in order to tell what was essentially a superhero origin story disguised as a methodically paced mystery thriller.
Bruce Willis played David Dunn, a security guard whose superman strength and empathic abilities were drawn out by Samuel L Jackson’s eccentric comic book curator Elijah Price.
The big twist was that Elijah was actually the villain. He believed that comic books were based on a grain of truth, and that people with special gifts really existed. To that end, he conducted a series of bombings in order to draw out someone special – a sole survivor – who might have such talents.
Finally finding David, Elijah took the security guard under his wing and helped him to discover his apparent powers before revealing himself as the mastermind behind the bombings. Elijah, whose bones were brittle and broke easily, was the antithesis of David. His opposite. Elijah’s desire was to show the world that superhuman beings actually existed, with his assumed superpower being his incredible intellect.
Unbreakable ended with Elijah, called Mr Glass by kids who had bullied him at school, being outed to the authorities by David and institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.
Split was a welcome surprise
16 years later, Shyamalan released Split, a thriller about Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with 23 personalities who kidnapped young girls as an offering to ‘the Beast’, a secret 24th personality with super strength, speed, durability and cannibalistic tendencies. The twist with Split was the ending which revealed that it took place in the same world as Unbreakable, with Willis’ David Dunn having a cameo before the credits.
With this reveal, Split became not only a showcase of James McAvoy’s acting skills as a man with multiple personalities, but also a welcome surprise sequel to Unbreakable’s superhero origin story. It solidified Split as a supervillain origin story that gave us a villain who, in his own way, believed he was fighting for those who were broken or had suffered in life like he had.
Watching Unbreakable again before Split, I was struck by a particular line at the end of the movie which explains that there are two kinds of villains: a physical villain who fights the hero with his fists and the real threat who fights with his mind. Unbreakable gave us Mr Glass, an arch enemy with broken body and powerful mind while Split gave us the Beast – a physical villain whose broken mind and powerful body both complemented and mirrored Mr Glass and David.
Glass concludes the surprise trilogy
The ending of Split left fans of Unbreakable salivating for a showdown between these characters, and I’m thrilled to say that Glass delivers as a capper to Shyamalan’s auteur comic book trilogy.
Glass picks up only a few weeks after Split, and we quickly learn that David Dunn now runs his own security store with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark returning as an adult to the role he played as a child actor in Unbreakable) while working as a vigilante at night variously known as the Overseer and the Green Guard.
David is tracking the Beast, also called the Horde, who has kidnapped some cheerleaders this time around. This leads to a first act confrontation between hero and villain which ultimately sees them both captured and taken to a mental hospital for assessment… the same hospital that Mr Glass was taken to at the end of Unbreakable.
There they are interrogated by Sarah Paulson’s Dr Ellie Staple, who specialises in treating individuals who believe they have superhuman powers. It’s a fantastic setup that smartly brings all of these characters together.
Having seen Unbreakable and Split, we know that these characters are capable of extraordinary things, but Dr Staple mounts a convincing argument that none of them actually have superpowers and their feats to date can all be rationalised and explained by science. This causes David to question himself, and the personalities inhabiting Kevin to question the Beast’s power.
What about Mr Glass? He’s pretty much out of the picture for the first half of the film, but – given the movie is named after him – you know he’s going to appear at some point and play a crucial role in the final act.
I won’t spoil what happens, save to say that Glass continues the themes and ideas of Unbreakable and Split and takes them to what I think is their logical conclusion and a place I really appreciated. To say what that place is and what happens would be to reveal the movie’s biggest secrets. Unfortunately, your mileage with Glass will likely vary based on whether you are on board with that destination or not.
Glass is regardless a story about believing in oneself. It’s about the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary and the power of positive thinking despite suffering, tragedy and what others may tell you. It’s all these things and more, and continues Unbreakable’s winking commentary through dialogue about the tropes of comic book storytelling. Some may find this commentary a bit on-the-nose, but it’s no more expository than Mr Glass’ similar declarative statements in Unbreakable.
As a fan of the first two films, I appreciated Glass’ revelations and callbacks including returning characters and actors, both main and supporting, from Unbreakable and Split (and even unused footage from Unbreakable tied in). Tonally, Glass falls somewhere between the prior instalments with a controlled pace whereby Shyamalan isn’t afraid to slow things down to let characters talk for lengthy chunks of screen time.
Make no mistake, Glass is not a whizz-bam-pow action movie. It’s not a comic book blockbuster like something Marvel or DC would put out. It’s a thriller; slower and more cerebral, beautifully shot with sparse but hard-hitting action that makes the most of its low budget. It’s a refreshing change of pace, which helps it stand out in a crowded and arguably over-saturated genre.
My issues with the film are few and far between. It’s an original story with a pretty definitive conclusion that ties everything together come the final curtain. I would have liked it if Bruce Willis, who is otherwise perfectly fine in the film, had a bit more to do as David Dunn, but McAvoy is so exceptional as Kevin’s competing personalities that it’s hard to fault Shyamalan for giving more time to him/them. Jackson too lights up the screen as Mr Glass, easily slipping back into his mastermind’s brittle frame. It’s a delight to watch him whenever he’s onscreen.
My main gripe is actually minor in the grand scheme of things – I would have liked to have heard more of the theme from Unbreakable used in the score. It is used only sparingly, with the sound of ticking clocks driving the score by composer West Dylan Thordson (returning from Split).
Still, Glass is a very different, thought-provoking movie that while bound to be polarising is filled with grandstanding performances from terrific actors and comes from a director with a truly unique voice and cinematic language. I couldn’t get enough of it and can’t wait to see it again.