[This story contains spoilers for Glass]
It is in the bowels of a mental institution that the pieces finally start to come together. James McAvoy’s The Horde, is pushing a purple-clad man in a wheelchair, Samuel L. Jackson’s Mister Glass, down a dim yellow hall. This particular sour lighting gives off a feeling of sickness. These two men are surrounded by it. Sickness and something else. A group of guards approach them. McAvoy stops, casually removes his shirt, and walks towards the camera, towards the guards, calmly declaring “I believe. I believe. I believe,” like it’s a mantra. He bares his teeth, the sinewy muscles in his neck tensing as veins crawl down his bare back. The Beast has been unleashed, and a comic book archetype is made flesh and given new life in a world that’s only a slightly distorted mirror image of our own. In 1978 we were asked to believe a man could fly, and now, forty years later, M. Night Shyamalan is asking us to believe something else.
Superheroes have become one of our most predominant cultural touchstones. One only needs to be half aware of the current pop culture climate to see that stories of superpowered beings dominate our cinemas and television screens. These stories are our new mythology, a means of understanding who we are and how our values have shifted. Like the myths of so many ancient societies, these are the tales of the gods down here, fallible and ruled by impulses not so different from ours. We have comic book shops that act as modern alters to these characters and stories, and darkened screening rooms that become crowded with patrons who desire to share in a communal experience, to see the faces of gods and believe, however briefly, that all of these fantastic elements are real. M. Night Shyamalan understood this growing mythology, this church of superhero spectacle, long before the majority of Hollywood caught on. He was deconstructing our superhero stories before superhero cinema had even entered its current height, giving them all the weight of scripture.
We hear so much today about superhero movies aiming to be grounded, but none have accomplished that quite like Unbreakable (2000). Security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis) isn’t who we would think of as the modern equivalent of Superman. He’s bald, depressed, caught in marital struggles and a job he feels no passion for because it only reminds him of what he gave up. Alliterative name aside, David Dunn is ordinary. He’s us. Even after the train crash, the event that connects what Shyamalan has dubbed the Eastrail 177 Trilogy, and David discovers his inability to be harmed and his super strength, his problems don’t go away. There’s no moment of glee for Dunn over his newfound abilities, only an increasing awareness that he can wake up and no longer feel sad, and that he has the potential to be something greater, a potential given credibility by comic art dealer, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson).
“It’s hard for many people to believe that there are extraordinary things inside themselves, as well as others,” Price says.
We can take this notion of “extraordinary things” at face value as superpowers, but to go deeper is to become aware that Shyamalan is talking about a sense of self in the spiritual sense, an identity that is unique in its association with a higher power. In an interview with The Independent in 2008, Shyamalan said, “all my movies are spiritual and all have an emotional perspective.”
In broad strokes, Unbreakable is about two men finding their identity through each other, within the confines of comic book archetypes, the superhero and the supervillain. Tim Burton explored a similar conceit in Batman (1989), and Sam Raimi later in Spider-Man (2002), both opting for a much showier execution than Shyamalan. X-Men (2000), released the same year as Unbreakable, similarly plays on the history of two adversaries that were once friends through Magneto and Xavier. Even if Unbreakable’s revelation is familiar to viewers, it remains unique because the film isn’t playing on the existence of comic book movies, but rather comic books themselves. We’ve seen comic books in other superhero films, but with the exception of Logan (2017), they are not given the weight of importance they have here. As a result, Unbreakable puts its faith in the comic book, rather than in the comic book movie. It would seem from the way characters talk about superheroes in this world and the glimpses we get of comic book shops, that comic book movies don’t exist in this world. The film’s shot construction, purposeful use of color, and even the length of scenes are all Shyamalan’s means of invoking the history of the comic book page, the urtext, one highlighted by the hieroglyphs in Price’s office.
In the same interview with The Independent from 2008, Shyamalan was asked what his personal philosophy was. He responded, “Know yourself. Whether you're a housekeeper or a painter or a lawyer you will be doing a good thing for the world if you know yourself. You're not pretending and not hiding and can give off an energy in the things that you do that is infectious and positive. I think we all get into trouble when we try to pretend that we're not who we are.”
There is the suggestion within the film that Dunn and Price are modern representations of something ancient, part of an identity motif that comic books didn’t create, only captured in the same way that myths have managed to tell stories of floods, and the trials of gods as twists on the historical truth. Price is given his first comic book by his mother, a limited edition, a discovery that holds the same purpose as the burning bush or the golden apple of knowledge within the context of Shyamalan’s universe. Comic books are treated as cultural artifacts, ones with totemistic qualities that awaken Price and Dunn without changing them, only reminding them who they have always been. As texts, Price and Dunn are drawn to these comics out of fear, a need to know themselves and find a deeper meaning within their lives, to be assured that they are not mistakes and that their lives have value – a result of craft rather than random circumstance. This isn’t so different from many of our needs for religion, a desire for guidance out of the fear of immorality and mortality.
“It’s alright to be afraid, David, because this part won’t be like a comic book. Real life doesn’t fit into little boxes that were drawn for it,” Price tells David right before he takes on his first mission with a newfound belief in himself. Fear and belief are the touchstones of Shyamalan’s filmography and we see him exploring the relation between these concepts over and over again, more often to great effect than not. The idea of forming an identity through fear is taken even further in Split (2017), as Shyamalan considers how the emotion provides the evolutionary motivation that forms the foundation of our identities. Split, which didn’t announce itself as a follow-up to Unbreakable until the very end, is seemingly the supervillain movie. While other studios were considering how comic book villains could work as protagonists on screen, Shyamalan did just that, and he did it in secret through a horror movie. But Split isn’t as simple as a supervillain movie. Where David Dunn and Elijah Price only had to deal with finding a singular identity, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) is faced with the possibility of many, not fitting neatly into the box of superhero or supervillain, but being both and neither at the same time. He is a physical manifestation of the line in poet Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” that says “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Crumb’s history of abuse and dissociative identity disorder have made fear his weapon, a means to pave the way for the next step of human evolution through the broken. “The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice,” he says. What’s most interesting about Split is that it doesn’t overtly rely on comic book familiarity. Shyamalan’s shot construction still references the split structure of the comic book page, but those rules and terms that Mister Glass explained so clearly, as his name suggests, are absent. This absence of comic book texts goes back to the idea just under the surface of Unbreakable, that these characters are ancient archetypes that comics only captured an approximation of but didn’t create. They don’t become who they are because of comic books, they only better understand who they’ve always been through comics. Crumb’s failure to understand himself, to see the Beast for what it really is, is a result of not having the sacred texts of comic books to go by.
Split’s consideration over the struggle of self is larger, and perhaps less grounded than Unbreakable, but the result is no less spiritual. “The Light,” which determines which of Crumb’s personalities gets to come through, is an expression of a search for identity, a search for guidance. This is ultimately found through the power of Casey Cooke’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) empathy and recognition that they are both searching for the same thing, and a means to escape their histories of abuse. Casey Cooke, another alliterative name, saves Crumb briefly, but more importantly saves herself. While Dunn and Price realized who they are at the end of Unbreakable, Crumb and Cooke only make the first steps towards that realization, and thus set up the groundwork for Shyamalan’s finale in Glass.
It’s a mistake to go into Glass thinking that we’re going to get explosions, city-toppling battles, or traditional costumes. A lot of superhero movies have made it easy on us, delivered clear stakes and spectacle, but the comic book medium is so much more than that and if we’re to take it seriously as myth then we have to start thinking about it through new lenses. Shyamalan’s trilogy, particularly Glass, is an invitation to do just that. Most of Glass lives inside the thematic power of Price’s line from Unbreakable, “now that we know who you are, I know who I am.” It’s a story of discovering or reaffirming one’s identity by way of providing identity to others. Glass is the extrapolation of everything that has come before, working within the realization that the core of these superhero and supervillain stories are built on legacy, from character to character and creator to creator. It’s the only medium that places such an emphasis on passing the torch, both within the pages and outside of it. In Shyamalan’s film, superpowers aren’t simply defined by what amazing abilities these characters can do in the moment, but what their amazing abilities allow them to leave behind.
Once Glass finds Dunn, Price, and Crumb institutionalized under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), Shyamalan tries his best to make the audience, along with characters, believe that these individuals are suffering a delusion – one that has manifested itself as special abilities. For a while, we almost believe it. Is this the big twist Shyamalan has been building towards for 19 years, that these films weren’t superhero movies under the guise of psychological thrillers, but psychological thrillers under the guise of superhero movies? Staple chips away at the faith we’ve placed in comic book characters, questioning identities. If these men can be unmade then they have no power over each other, and as a result, no sense of self. While Staple deconstructs the superhero/supervillain within the hospital walls, outside Casey Cooke, Joseph Dunn (Spencer Treat Clark), and Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard) return to the pages of comic books like apostles or monks, each seeking answers within on how to save these men, and reaffirm their identities against the sickness of doubt.
Shyamalan doesn’t stop there. During the final battle it’s revealed that Staple is part of a larger organization, one that seeks to rid the world of superhuman individuals in order to maintain balance. Shyamalan uses Staple to play off of the relatively modern comic book conceit of shadow organizations, like DC’s Checkmate, that lead a crusade against a burgeoning faith in superpowered individuals. But this trilogy was never about three individuals. David Dunn, Elijah Price, and Kevin Wendell Crumb all meet their deaths in the film’s climatic moments, fittingly paving the way for Casey Cooke, Joseph Dunn, and Mrs. Price to take on their legacies, be it as a hero, a villain, something in between. The film hints at where these destiny’s might lie through shot construction with Casey on one end, Joseph on the other and Mrs. Price in between. By ending with the possibility of new heroes, new villains, and a new mission, Glass provides a clear expression of the evolution of comic book storytelling, showcasing the shift from superheroes facing off against supervillains to superheroes fighting institutions and organizations.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 Trilogy is a translation of comic book mythology through the exploration of human pain, the things that break and things that don’t. The mythology of superheroes is the mythology of man, a story of our unique broken states giving way to unbreakable spirits. Shyamalan has created one of the great superhero trilogies of our times, because it’s not about them, the superhuman other. It’s about us. Shyamalan is ultimately asking us not to believe in the figures in capes and domino masks who shoot energy blasts from their fingertips, but to believe in ourselves by looking inwards. Mythology and spiritual awareness are worth nothing if they don’t lead to change. These stories should change us, the way we see the world and the way we see our ourselves, shattering what we think we know and discovering the super human quality that makes us unbreakable.