[This story contains spoilers for Glass]
Watching the opening title cards of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 drama Unbreakable is a little quaint in the year 2019. Shyamalan’s low-key follow-up to The Sixth Sense began by offering some statistics about the popularity of comic books, the kind of information that’s not terribly necessary in the era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC film universe and beyond. Of course, in the year 2000, the presence of comic books in popular culture wasn’t quite so firm, so it made enough sense. Nineteen years later, Shyamalan has returned with a crossover-event of his own in the form of Glass, which feels weirdly out of touch in the era of comic-book movies.
Unbreakable was a dark drama in which seemingly ordinary man David Dunn (Bruce Willis) realized that he had superpowers after he was able to survive a disastrous train crash without a single scratch. The end of that film revealed that his new ally, comic-book art-gallery owner Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) had actually caused the train crash, and a few other recent disasters, in the hopes of finding real-life superheroes. That film ended abruptly, with David informing the cops about Elijah’s terrorist acts; it took 17 years for us to see David again, at the very end of Shyamalan’s Split, about Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man with multiple personalities who has fearsome superpowers of his own. Glass is all about what happens when these three men meet up, all brought to a mental hospital for mysterious reasons.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Shyamalan is not attempting to turn the so-called “Eastrail 177” universe (so named after the train from Unbreakable) into something out of Marvel. The colors here are as muted as in either Unbreakable or Split, and the budget is fairly low so any of the fight sequences are pretty uneventful, and most of the film takes place in the same location. Making a low-key superhero film, in and of itself, is honestly admirable as Marvel and DC get bigger and wilder. But Glass makes a number of fatal errors, the first of which is the setup for why David, Elijah and Kevin are in the same hospital, overseen by the kindly Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She wants to prove to them that they, in fact, are not superheroes, but just deluded men.
The core flaw in this premise (and it shouldn’t come as a shock that Paulson’s character is up to something aside from her stated goal) is simple. Glass feels very much like a film designed to appeal to fans of Unbreakable and Split, which are both movies that feature characters who ... have superpowers. Imagine watching a Marvel movie where Spider-Man was stripped of his suit but told that he didn’t have any web-slinging powers at all, and then Spider-Man begins to believe this might be true. We all know these guys have powers (and while Shyamalan does throw twists at you in Glass, one of them is not “They’re actually all normal, non-super guys”), so waiting for them to accept these gifts all over again is kind of boring.
Glass also feels decidedly removed from real-world pop-culture in the way that it talks about superheroes. Nineteen years ago, when Elijah Price tried to explain to David Dunn why he committed so many murders, clarifying that some supervillains and superheroes start out as friends and are often very similar, it wasn’t a case of poor writing. David Dunn, it had been established, wasn’t much of a comic-book buff, and this was an era before characters like Spider-Man and Batman had symbolically redefining films made about them. People probably needed a clarification. But now, basically everyone knows about superheroes and superhero movies. So in Glass, when one character explains to the other the very concept of good guys and bad guys fighting each other in comic books, it’s almost jaw-droppingly dumb. There’s nothing wrong with the characters in Glass, perhaps, living in a world in which the MCU doesn’t exist. (The only big-name heroes who get referenced, directly or not, are Batman and Superman.) But the audience for this movie is going to be made up of people who are already well aware of what a showdown in comics is like.
Perhaps what’s most frustrating of all is how the three lead characters’ journeys are resolved. Elijah, who’s been orchestrating a lot more of the events than either David or Kevin was aware, is convinced that he’s living out a comic-book story of his own, a “limited edition.” (Never mind that he probably means a “limited series” or “miniseries”.) But in a climactic battle in the parking lot of the mental institution, he comes to realize that it’s “an origin story” instead. Seeing as both David and Kevin had their origin stories, in the form of Unbreakable and Split, the notion that Glass is just ... another origin story as opposed to the film paying off on those separate origins makes for a vexing cinematic experience. Worse still, this origin story ends with each of them dead — David by drowning in a puddle, Kevin by being shot and killed by cops, and Elijah by having his bones irreparably broken. Just when the movie puts them all together, Shyamalan kills them off.
When Shyamalan made Unbreakable, he was coming off the massive success of The Sixth Sense. But even then, making a movie steeped in comic-book history and myth seemed like a big risk at a time when the X-Men franchise was just starting out. 2019 is a much different time for comic books and comic-book movies. In 2000, Unbreakable was unexpected and off-kilter in fresh and exciting ways. Now, the payoff to that film is largely disappointing because it doesn’t feel like Shyamalan had much interest in the prevalence of comic books over the last two decades.