Minor spoilers for Unbreakable (2000), Split (2016), and Glass (2018).
Films based on comic books tend to gravitate towards displaying a sense of grandiosity on screen. Even the supposedly more grounded blockbusters, like Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy,” exaggerated certain aspects of filmmaking, like the actors’ performances, the visual scope of the action scenes, and the volume and pitch of the background score, to attempt to match the larger-than-life persona of the characters they aimed to represent on screen. In his first two films of the now infamously popular indie super-hero trilogy, however, director M. Night Shyamalan worked towards minimizing this sense of grandeur present in the big super-hero film by rooting the extra-ordinariness of three individuals deeply in the personal traumas suffered by the protagonists. The novelty in his movies was not in finding a link between a person’s psychological trauma and their need to stand out in a crowd (almost all origin stories for superheroes stem from pain incurred by them). It was the way in which the director went about achieving that association.
By either grounding his world entirely in the mundane in the case of “Unbreakable,” (2000) or by placing a super-villain origin story inside the bubble wrap of an abduction thriller in “Split,” (2016) Shyamalan almost played with the convention of the superhero film, emphasizing character studies over action to deconstruct several superhero film conventions. His final film of this trilogy, “Glass,” follows in the footsteps of the two previous films, pondering if the stories of the last two films even justified being deemed super-hero origin stories. Always questioning these “delusions of grandeur” that science lady, a.k.a, Dr. Ellie Staples (Sarah Paulson), postulates the three central characters – David Dunn, Kevin Wendell Crumb, and Elijah Price – have, Shyamalan attempts almost to invert the conclusions of his previous two films in this final film, now boldly wanting to suggest the ordinariness (or even non-existence) of super-heroes. The director, however, only half-heartedly commits to this idea in what is easily the most ordinary, and under-developed film in the trilogy.
The problems with “Glass” begin at the very beginning when Shyamalan attempts to set up this intriguing mystery that tries to challenge the audiences’ perception about the nature of the film’s three central characters narratively but forgets to convey the same confusion visually. Repeatedly emphasizing Staple’s claims that favor scientific reality over the existence of superhero abilities, Shyamalan really tries to make the audience buy this conflict that he thinks is at the heart of his film. Science lady (that’s how I recognize her because of how generically the character is written and performed by the otherwise always reliable Paulson), in fact, does this so regularly to all our heroes/villains/mentally disturbed patients in the first act that I almost began to feel frustrated by the repetition with which Shyamalan was making this point evident. However, the reason I still never bought into conflict was that in stark contrast to what Shyamalan had his characters mouth on screen, the cinematography, production design, lighting, and background music very clearly told me which character to believe. Possibly using the most exaggerated sense of aesthetics of all of Shyamalan’s films in the trilogy, “Glass'” reliance on evocative lighting, expressive mise-en-scène (pink walls and all!), and the excessive use of background music (has some echoes of Benjamin Wallfisch’s “Variation 15” track from “Dunkirk”) all plainly hinted at how superhero-y this film is.
This diffusion of tension from the first two acts of the film, however, seems like a tiny problem in comparison to my disengagement with almost every single character in the movie until Mr. Glass (a magnetically charismatic Samuel L. Jackson) begins to take center stage in the last act. David Dunn (a seemingly disinterested Bruce Willis) barely even features in the film, and whenever he does, he rarely offers anything to it. His son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), if anything, has a far more interesting role in the film, which again Shyamalan undercuts because he seems to be dealing with way too many characters in the movie. The connection of suffering shared by him, Casey (an effective Anya Taylor-Joy), and Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard) may have formed an interesting sub-plot and helped further investigate the central dilemma surrounding the three characters in the film. But, their connection felt too tenuous and forced here, only seeming necessary to make sure the plot sticks together as Shyamalan wants it. That unnaturalness in plot progression also bleeds in naturally into in the way in which characters interact with each other in Shyamalan’s film (both “Unbreakable” and “Split” also had this problem for me), with even the seemingly invincible James McAvoy suffering in his role as Kevin. It’s possibly a combination of the director’s clunky writing of his portion, and McAvoy’s decision to play his roles far more loudly, and broadly as he did in “Split” that made me tire off him far too quickly.
Fortunately, the film starts to pick up its shards once the pulpy plot kicks in its second hour. It’s the first time when Shyamalan stops making his characters (some of who, do seem to almost feature as a stand-in to express the director’s ideas) talk to other characters about ideas, and decides actually to delve into exploring some of the answers through action. This event-filled last act leads to several revelations – some predictable, some kind of fun, and some even justifying the turgidness of the film’s first hour. I think what I was most glad about, however, was that some of them had stopped talking!