Where does Glass go wrong?
Not in ticket sales, certainly. M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film is thus far the highest-grossing American film of 2019. But despite the money it’s raking in, the film has generated a mixed reception – it currently stands at 37% of Rotten Tomatoes, with some reviews calling it one of the director’s biggest disappointments. And having now caught up with the film, I can understand why.
Shyamalan’s had an up-and-down career over the past twenty years, going back to the breakout of The Sixth Sense in 1999. We’ve come to expect certain tropes and cadences from his films, even the good ones – clunky, on-the-nose dialogue; artificially quirky side characters; a pointless cameo from the man himself.
The first two films of Shyamalan’s “superhero trilogy” – Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2017) – had these issues as well. But they were also intriguing and compelling in a way that the bulk of Shyamalan’s late ‘00s/early ‘10s work was not. In contrast to those two films, however, Glass feels slow, laborious, and uninvolving, its material mostly made watchable by its talented lead performers.
In keeping with the series’ “Rule of Three” (three films, three superheroes, three weeks of this film topping the box office), I’ve pinpointed three major problems that make Glass the underwhelming film it turned out to be.
(Moderate spoilers early on, and I’ll warn you when we get to the major ones.)
1. Glass Wants to End a Trilogy That Isn’t Really a Trilogy
For many years, Unbreakable was a standalone film. Marketed as a real-world superhero story, it was a surprisingly compelling Sixth Sense follow-up, anchored by solid performances by Bruce Willis as an invulnerable hero and Samuel L. Jackson as his physically fragile (and supposedly altruistic) mentor, Elijah Price. Shyamalan had mentioned early on that he intended the film to start a trilogy, but following the tepid box-office response, these plans quickly faded away.
But Shyamalan’s spirit, like David Dunn’s skin, could not be easily broken. Split, when first released in 2017, had been marketed as another standalone film, the story of a multi-personality criminal named Kevin Crumb (excellently played by James McAvoy) and the efforts to stop him. But a cameo by Willis in the final scene linked the film back to Unbreakable, and set the stage for a third film to tie everything together.
That description alone should key you in on one of the problems with Shyamalan’s film trilogy – for nearly two-thirds of its running time, we don’t even know it’s a trilogy. Glass thus needs to convincingly tie these films together in story and tone, while at the same time crafting its own storyline that will bring everything to a final climax.
It’s tough to craft a trilogy when each character only gets two films’ worth of development, but that’s precisely what Shyamalan tries to do. Individually, Unbreakable and Glass each feel like a first-act film, leaving Glass with the unenviable task of serving as both Acts Two and Three. Much of Glass feels indecisive, as though the first two films are fighting for greater prominence, making for a substantial lack of momentum by the time the story reaches its climax. (More on this in a minute.)
In a better world, Glass would serve as Part Two of the story, allowing for more freedom and less hastiness in wrapping things up at the end. Maybe that’s the world where audiences appreciated Unbreakable back when it first premiered. Oh, speaking of which…
2. The Themes Are Completely Out of Date
When Unbreakable debuted in 2000, superhero films were far from a box-office powerhouse. Sure, X-Men had come out to positive only a few months earlier, but studios didn’t really start recognizing the financial power of comic-book movies until Spider-Man was released in 2002. The themes of Unbreakable, which deconstructed the superhero genre and its various tropes and clichés, felt fresh and innovative, coming at a time when everyone with an opinion considered comic books to be either crass commercialism or high art. (Guess which camp I’m rooted in.)
Nineteen years later, the depiction of superheroes – particularly in film – has changed drastically. Now we have ongoing Cinematic Universes which push the limits of how blockbuster films can unspool long-form stories. We have myriad superhero parodies that play off tropes both old and new, capitalizing on the seemingly endless superhero craze. We even have a film that’s been described by many as “a living comic book.”
And yet Glass is still stuck analyzing the superhero tropes of the 20th century.
It’s a missed opportunity, and a frustrating one at that. At many points in the film, Elijah (Shyamalan’s avatar, as a friend pointed out) monologues about how the events in the film parallel the familiar events in traditional comic books. Even at the turn of the century, these speeches would feel uninspired and surface-level (do they need to repeatedly point out the trope of the “final showdown”?); nowadays, they’re completely out of touch.
It’s especially frustrating because, beyond its uninspired references to various comic-book tropes, there isn’t much to the themes of Glass. David is the hero, Elijah the villain, Kevin a psycho who never quite clicks with either of them. Strip away the superhero element, and you’re left with a standard good vs. evil story that doesn’t reveal very much we didn’t learn in the first two movies.
This is key to understanding the film’s most disappointing scene, which occurs about midway through its running time. David, Kevin, and Glass engage in a group therapy session with Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who tries to convince them all that their so-called “superpowers” are merely a form of self-delusion.
This should be a pivotal scene that dives into the respective minds of the three leads, yet it largely feels inconsequential. Why is the film expending so much effort to convince us that these three don’t have powers? If you’ve watched the first two films – and trust me, Glass assumes that you have – there’s really no way you’ll believe that all this superhero talk is building to a major hoax.
Instead, though, it leads to something else – the third big problem with the film. But to discuss it, I will need to SPOIL THE ENDING:
3. Glass Bungles Its Big Reveal
Shyamalan, as any fan is aware, loves twist endings. And Glass, true to form, has a surprise ending of its own. We learn during the climax that Dr. Staple is part of a covert organization meant to keep superpowered individuals – both heroic and villainous – from upsetting the world’s balance of power.
It’s an intriguing development, and it justifies Staple’s earlier self-delusion speeches. Yet it doesn’t land with much impact – in fact, of the three reveals during the film’s home stretch (where we also learn that Kevin’s father was killed in the train accident that David survived, and that Mr. Glass’ plan to get the word out to the public succeeded in the end), this one feels the most muted and underwhelming.
A large part of the problem lies not in the twist itself, but in the way the film builds to it. Glass, for all its technical strengths, is a drearily paced film, moving quickly in its first act and far too slowly in its second. Much of the momentum has been sapped away by the time the story reaches its climax, so the surprise that all three leads are being manipulated doesn’t leave much impact.
A tighter script – one that didn’t have to juggle two different films at once, and had a firmer grip on its characters and tone – could have delivered a twist like this earlier in the story, and spend a bit more time on its potentially absorbing message about power distributions and whether the world would be better off with superheroes in it. Had we not already reached the end of this purported trilogy, this could be the catalyst for a more complex and ingratiating story. Alas, though, we’ve reached the end, a once-promising concept given an unfortunately muted coda.
Leaving the theater, I considered one aspect of comic books that Glass never really touches on – the crossover. Crossover events can be fun ways for characters and storylines to intersect, or they can feel forced and cluttered in their attempts to combine two different storylines into one. Much as I enjoyed Unbreakable and Split, their own crossover film slots right into the latter category.
Glass is currently playing in theaters, although by now audiences seem to have moved on to other sequels.