Back in 2016, I felt like the only person who didn’t like M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, the backdoor sequel to the very good Unbreakable. I can honestly see why so many people were seduced by Split (James McAvoy’s insane performance, foremost), but I couldn’t get past the unbelievably bad expository dialogue (which seemed to be more than half of the dialogue overall) and the problematic hand waiving that trauma and mental illness is some sort of superpower. I also rolled my eyes over Split’s twist connecting it to David Dunn’s more thoughtful sad story while so many got caught up in the surprise without trusting that Shyamalan would build out the narrative implications in good faith.
Now comes Glass, which more directly connects David Dunn and The Horde while also bringing in the villain of Unbreakable, Samuel L. Jackson’s broken evil genius Mr. Glass. Glass is also a direct continuation of the problems of its predecessor. In a brilliant twist, though, it cements the strengths of Split, in particular its slow-build narrative design, making me reconsider the film’s final reveal just a bit.
Glass introduces Dr. Ellie Staple (the always dependable Sarah Paulson), a psychologist whose focus is the delusions of grandeur of ordinary men who think they have superpowers. She explains away The Horde’s ability to climb walls and bend bars and Dunn’s strength as unusual but not extraordinary. She secludes and sedates them in a psychiatric hospital, conducts family therapy sessions to convince them they are just regular folks.
Structurally, this is pretty compelling—the image of these three men sitting together in a large room is striking and makes for good promotional material. Unfortunately, Glass takes far too long to get to this moment and, in practice, the pace completely zaps when it gets there. Dr. Staple proves to be nothing more than an expository machine in a monotone voice. Bruce Willis somehow gives a performance with less energy than Samuel L. Jackson as a character who is so heavily sedated that he’s basically comatose. McAvoy is again giving it his all cycling through a dozen distinct characters, but it is less effective this time around because the film needs him to change more suddenly and give more time to The Beast.
The appeal of Split and especially Unbreakable was the slow build to realization that these stories were actually superhero origins. For Unbreakable, this was in a time where superhero films weren’t the norm, for Split there was a nice meta-context of a tarnished filmmaker returning to his roots. By the beginning of Glass, all the cards are on the table, there is no narrative tension to what these characters are capable of despite what third parties will tell us over and over again. This leads to the inevitable twist that functions more like your everyday realization that a character’s actions were not what you thought instead of a real change to the fabric of the narrative.
Shyamalan also lays on the comic book talk thickly. Secondary characters talk about the origins of comic books as people telling real stories of superhuman acts they’ve witnessed (did you know the original Superman didn’t fly?) and dissect comic book philosophy as major critique on unhealthy fandom. Like most of the dialogue in the film, characters’ musings on the role of superhero stories in the real world are very awkward, never honestly engaging in actual questions of obsessive fandom and vigilantism. Shyamalan finally shows his hand that he not only doesn’t really understand comic book culture, but he actually hates it.
Speaking of secondary characters, three are revived from the previous films as sorta sidekicks to the three stars: damaged Casey as the only person to truly understand and communicate with The Horde, Elijah’s strong-willed mother Mrs. Price, and Joseph Dunn who now acts as the man in the chair to the newly named Overseer. Of these three, Joseph is the only one to be given a satisfying subplot as he’s the only one active in their connection. Spencer Treat Clark is back 19 years later, the flashbacks to Unbreakable showing how much he’s grown up while looking exactly the same, and his over-earnestness is strangely effective even if it isn’t a traditionally convincing performance. Both Casey and Mrs. Price are completely sidelined, reduced to supportive and loving women to their troubled men.
Glass isn’t likely to be one of the worst films of the year, it is just lazy. Even with my low expectations not being a fan of Split, it does disappoint in unexpected ways. What seemed to be a fun set-up of having these three characters together in the space turned out pretty dull. I can’t even imagine this being satisfying for those completely taken by Split’s revelation. Maybe Glass tries to do a bit too much outside of the centerpiece scene—maybe this could have been one hell of a bottle episode. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t do anything to push these characters or the world forward.