Glass (2019) by M. Night Shyamalan
Review by Nathan Smith
M. Night Shyamalan has given us many twists in the two decades since The Sixth Sense and Signs led Newsweek to dub him the “Next Spielberg.” First, he was a whizkid, before films like The Last Airbender and After Earth burned up the goodwill he’d earned with the general public, with only the most hardcore of auteurists left to defend him. Shyamalan went from “universally beloved” to “unfairly maligned” in about two minutes. With Split, we got two twists: first, it was a secret sequel to Unbreakable; second, it made moviegoers and critics take him seriously again. I’ll admit to having liked every single M. Night Shyamalan movie—yes, even the Avatar one—but it warmed my heart to see skeptics and detractors welcome one of our finest filmmaking talents back into the fold.
But there’s another twist waiting in the wings. M. Night Shyamalan got your attention and your dollars with Split, and instead of fulfilling your expectations or building a new cinematic universe, he’s used it to make one of the strangest studio movies of the last decade, a superhero movie that is everything superhero movies aren’t supposed to be. Glass, I am happy to report, is more Lady in the Water than Infinity War.
After an early confrontation, the three major characters from the first two entries in what’s now being dubbed the “Eastrail 177 Trilogy” are collected inside an asylum, under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). The bulk of the film unfolds inside the institution, motivated by little more than dialogue and Shyamalan’s visual showmanship. Dr. Staple claims that the study of individuals like David Dunn, Kevin, and Elijah—those special people who believe themselves to be superhuman—is her life’s work, and it’s her aim to deflate their delusions of grandeur before the state has its way with them. Kevin isn’t a monster, just a boy with twenty-six complicated defense mechanisms. David’s weakness isn’t water; he’s just scared of drowning. Elijah is very smart, yes, but he’s not a mastermind. At least that’s how Dr. Staple sees them—or wants them to see themselves. Around the edges of this story are Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), David’s son; Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the victim of Kevin but also the only person to see through his pain and forgive him; and Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard), the mother who still loves her son no matter what he’s done.
At every opportunity, Shyamalan—suppressing his own urge to entertain—confounds our expectations. Though there is a battle in the third act, the confrontation we are promised is never quite delivered, and action set pieces are often captured from a surveillance-like remove. There are few displays of superheroics, little in the way of special effects, and no reward for those who wait through the credits. Though much of Glass is all talk, that doesn’t mean Shyamalan is absent; his voice as a director is as constant as any of the voices we actually hear in the film. Shyamalan is working once again with It Follows and Split DP Mike Gioulakis (also the DP on Jordan Peele’s upcoming Us), a collaboration that seems to have rejuvenated his visual sensibility. There’s a go-for-broke, balls-to-the-wall spirit to the filmmaking here that is as compelling as anything Shyamalan does thematically. Say what you will about his films, but at the very least they always feel directed, a scarce commodity these days.
If there is a touch of awkwardness about Glass—an awkwardness that’s not aided by the film’s overabundance of plot—it’s less because of the filmmaking itself and more because this is the synthesis of two very different films. Unbreakable is a mood piece, swapping out the normal tropes of the comic book movie for atmosphere and ambience. Split, on the other hand, verges on exploitation, though it maintains a raw, melodramatic core. But this tension isn’t anything new.
As a sequel to two very different films, Glass makes literal the dichotomy that has defined Shyamalan for his entire career. The Happening is a depraved disaster movie about a virus that makes people kill themselves, but it’s not afraid to be goofy. The Sixth Sense is a somber film, but you can also feel Shyamalan getting a kick out of how gross human bodies can be. His detractors might dismiss him as sentimentalist, but he’s not just that: one side of him might be sentimental, but the other is sick. It takes a Mr. Glass-level mastermind to resolve that contradiction. Unbreakable allowed M. Night to play the hero, and Split let him indulge in villainy. With Glass, he does both.
So what exactly does Glass have to say about heroes and villains? From two decades on, Unbreakable seems remarkably prescient for a film that came out only a few months after notorious abuser Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie and over a decade before the release of Avengers and the ascendance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 2000, superhero movies had yet to strangle the culture, which makes Shyamalan seem like something of a visionary.
But Unbreakable wasn’t just about superheroes: it’s about comic books, and the relationship between society-at-large and visual storytelling forms. That checks out considering the first two decades of superhero movies, in which the genre was still tied to its origins as ink and pulp. When Superman was a hit for Warner Brothers in 1978, Paramount tried to replicate it not with another big-screen superhero adaptation, but with Robert Altman’s Popeye. After the success of Batman, Disney didn’t buy up Marvel Comics, they made Dick Tracy. Until Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the other “serious” comic book movies of the early 2000s weren’t gritty reinventions of beloved intellectual properties, they were adaptations of adult-oriented graphic novels like The Road to Perdition and A History of Violence. Even Ang Lee’s self-reflexive Hulk is less about superheroes themselves and more about the materiality of the comic book form. All that has changed since 2000; it’s safe to assume that most people who saw Avengers: Infinity War don’t keep up with comics, which can be confusing, self-contradictory, and intimidating in a way that the MCU is only just now becoming.
This is one of the curiosities of Glass, which is still very much about comic books. A number of comic book tropes—the “origin story,” the “limited edition,” and dark secrets about character’s parents—are referenced, often in a rather on-the-nose way. There’s a clunkiness to the exposition, a clunkiness that feels deliberate in how it mimics the limited space comic book writers have, which can lead to a reliance on overly simplified “Eureka!” moments to reveal crucial information. But it also feels deliberate for the simple reason that it reminds us that comic books exist. There’s a certain thrill to seeing the work of Steve Ditko credited in Into the Spider-Verse—a joy at seeing an artist finally given the due he was denied while living—but beyond the contributions of Stan Lee, the existence of the MCU is a threat to history, the very history Elijah sees comic books as keepers of. Reducing comic books to the fictional individuals they are centered around erases the labor of the artists and authors that brought them into being.
In the world of Glass, a shadowy organization oppresses the ability of gifted individuals to do extraordinary things. In our own world, industry threatens the artist, the worker, the laborer, the very people who make industry possible. My friend Adam Katzman reads Glass—like many have read Brad Bird’s Incredibles movies—as “Randian hokum” about the ability of great men to effect change upon society, but I read it the opposite way. Glass isn’t about the individual, it’s about the collective. Elijah needs David and Kevin to do battle to prove superhumans exist, David needs Elijah and Kevin to have something to fight against, Kevin needs the mental abilities of Mr. Glass and the antagonism of The Overseer in order to bring his message to the “broken masses.”
The people Shyamalan cares for the most—the people he ends his film with—are the very people the current superhero hegemony has largely brushed aside. They’re not the superheroes, but they are the real heroes: the victims and survivors. The mother who loved her son so much no matter how many sins he committed. The son who believed in his father when even his father didn’t believe in himself. The friend who gave love to a man everyone else saw as a monster. The focus here, despite all the time we spend locked up inside with our hero and villains, isn’t on the larger-than-life figures that make the superhero genre what it is. It’s on the regular people they leave behind, the ones they love and the ones they hurt. Given the wreckage left behind by America’s superheroes over the last two decades, that’s about as radical as it gets. The final shot isn’t of a single person, but a crowd, as that crowd realizes its capacity to do what it thought it could not, to stand as a majority against the minority at the top, to take back the only real superpower we have: the power of our own labor.