M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was arguably years ahead of its time. Released in 2000, five years before Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Shyamalan’s low-key superhero/supervillain origin story was the sort of grounded comic book film that studios are still trying (and failing) to make. With his 2017 psychological thriller Split, the writer/director upped the ante considerably, feeling like a natural escalation of the themes he explored in Unbreakable while slyly establishing an entirely original universe within which the filmmaker could continue to play. As teased in Split’s final moments, Shyamalan has finally combined the casts of both films into one epic thriller with Glass, pitting heroes against villains while exploring the complexity of both and serving as a deconstruction/commentary on the now-prolific superhero blockbuster genre.
In the years since the events of Unbreakable, the near-immortal David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has opened a home security store with son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark); by night, he’s become a self-styled vigilante referred to by the media as “The Overseer.” Glass is quick to pick up where Split left off, with the more deviant or “undesirable” of Kevin Wendell Crumb’s (James McAvoy) 24 personalities — known collectively as “The Horde” — still kidnapping young women as food for the animalistic identity they call “The Beast.” Early in the first act, David rescues the teen girls and goes toe-to-toe with The Beast, but their super-powered fight is cut short by the arrival of a SWAT team led by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychologist who specializes in a very specific disorder, in which mentally ill people have come to believe that they have superpowers.
The bulk of Glass subsequently takes place in a mental hospital, where David and Kevin are locked away alongside Samuel L. Jackson’s hyper-frail Elijah Price, kept under constant sedation in order to subdue his exceptional intelligence. Nonetheless, the notorious “Mr. Glass” remains ever the mastermind of this larger comics-riffing narrative, so it’s not long before he frees himself and sets about teaming up with The Beast in an effort to fight David in full view of the public, so as to prove that superheroes and villains do in fact walk among us.
Glass maintains the campier qualities of Split, along with its deeper themes regarding the ways in which that trauma is processed and internalized. Anya Taylor-Joy fittingly reprises her role as Casey Cooke, the lone survivor from the events of Split, only able to endure because The Beast sensed that she had likewise experienced severe trauma and had her own deeply felt strength as a result. As a culmination of the earlier films, Shyamalan’s trilogy-capper distills the technical and thematic elements of each, though the heavy-handed approach of Unbreakable is occasionally a little too present here, as with an overly lingering close-up on a photo of Joseph Dunn at Casey’s high school. It’s not exactly a hindrance to a film so committed to all the self-aware camp that entails. Shyamalan remains preoccupied with the idea that there is no such thing as coincidence, that everything is connected. When we watch a Marvel or DC Comics movie, we readily accept these plot contrivances, however far-fetched they might be. In a “grounded” world such as the one established over these three films, it may be a more difficult pill to swallow, although that’s exactly the point in some respects.
As with Split, a huge part of what makes Glass work lies with the casting. McAvoy is once again exceptional, delivering a multi-faceted series of performances that effortlessly transition from one to the next; Jackson infuses his role as the mastermind who schemed to bring such opposing forces together with a subtle element of tragedy and heartache (the film is similarly deft at combating the binary thinking of “good” and “evil” with thoughtful nuance); hell, even Willis actually appears to be awake during his scenes for the first time in far too long. But it’s the scenes between Kevin and Casey that give this entry a healthy dose of heart and realism. Taylor-Joy and McAvoy brilliantly sell the emotional connection between these two abuse victims, lending a real sense of consequence to Kevin’s story arc.
Glass is a bold piece of work that pays off nearly twenty years of creative investment in surprisingly beautiful and entertaining ways. While some may find Shyamalan’s aesthetic and tonal choices to be too heavy-handed, others will appreciate Glass as the clever, campy work of a die-hard cinephile — maybe even a kindred spirit.