M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable hit cinemas as the end of 2000, mere months after the X-Men had made their first big screen appearance, and a full eight years before Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Our fascination with comic-based films has evolved since then, with each year bringing another barrage of superhero movies to your local multiplex. But to this day, Shyamalan’s second film remains one of the most subtly subversive entries in an increasingly oversaturated genre. It prophetically deconstructed conventions that were about to undergo a cinematic renaissance, analysing and shattering comic book tropes while offering an origin story that stands to this day as Shyamalan’s most rewarding narrative. With 2016’s Split having revealed the existence of a Shyamalaniverse by becoming a stealthy second chapter to Unbreakable in its final moments, the trilogy that started 19 years ago now concludes with Glass. The premise sees Split’s multifaceted killer Kevin Wendell Crumb, aka “The Horde” (James McAvoy) and vigilante superhero David Dunn (Bruce Willis) locked up in the institution where puppet master Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) has been housed since the events of Unbreakable. “The brains, the anarchist and the reluctant hero” are under the watchful eye of monologuing psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a specialist in the growing field of those who believe they have superpowers. She posits they are suffering from intense delusions of grandeur and wants to cure her three patients…
The idea of bringing these characters together is a tantalising one and while Glass doesn’t meaningfully comment on the genre or our current unquenchable thirst for superhero properties as much as one might hope, its underlying themes remain fascinating. The central one, already addressed in Unbreakable, is faith – in oneself and in others’ capacity to be extraordinary, for better or worse. This gives the narrative some momentum and the movie’s thought-provoking strands, as well as certain final act developments which shan’t be spoiled here, are impressively ambitious. Sadly, for all these shards of greatness and James McAvoy’s effortless show stealing, Glass is an admirable gambit that doesn’t pay off. It’s not as focused as Unbreakable nor as entertaining as Split, and surprisingly lacks the latter’s claustrophobia despite the delicious possibility of a huis-clos structure, with the psychiatric hospital setting ending up strangely misused. Above all, what makes this trilogy-closer such a frustrating experience is the way it squanders its high-concept potential with inert pacing and a script that reminds us why Shyamalan’s output has been so hit-and-miss over the years. He pedantically repeats his themes to the point of talking down to his audience, shovelling huge chunks of expository dialogue down their throats. This frequently makes the dialogue sound overripe, as if the writer/director was too enamoured with his own heady ideas to satisfyingly engage with his characters and their stories. Unlike Unbreakable, which gently nudged the viewer towards its central conceit and cultivated an aura around its ending, Glass erects massive signposts. It’s this high-on-your-own-supply insistence of explaining away its narrative developments that makes this a missed opportunity and the weakest instalment of an inventive-but-flawed trilogy.
Glass | Directed by M. Night Shyamalan (US, 2019) with James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson. Starts January 17.
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