'Glass' and the Weight of Expectations

The 19-year wait for a sequel to 'Unbreakable' and 'Split' is in a way akin to the wait for 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'
Universal Pictures
'Glass'

[This story contains spoilers for the Universal thriller Glass.]

The last two decades have been a roller coaster for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. He was a breakout success with his first major film, the 1999 psychological drama The Sixth Sense, receiving an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay and best director. After that, his next two films, Unbreakable and Signs, were decent successes with critics and audiences; from that point, though, he went through a rough patch for a decade. Films like The Village, The Last Airbender and After Earth only served to make his name a warning sign for many audiences, as opposed to a reason to pay for a ticket. So it was a pleasant surprise when Shyamalan turned things around in the last couple of years with the Blumhouse Productions films The Visit and Split, both of which earned positive reviews and strong box office returns. He’s since used that second-wind cache to make a big gamble on both Unbreakable and Split with the crossover sequel Glass. However, in so doing, Shyamalan has spent it all on on a losing bet, at least when it comes to the critical response.

The setup for Glass is simple enough, and tantalizing to fans of the previous films: David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) from Unbreakable, and Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) from Split, have all wound up in the same mental hospital, where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) will try to convince them that none of them have superpowers. Meanwhile, Elijah and Kevin, the latter in his Beast mode, are going to try and break out and wreak havoc on Philadelphia, with only David to stop them, in part to prove to the rest of the world that superpowered individuals really do exist. The prospects of these three going head-to-head are fascinating — even the idea of David and Elijah encountering each other again was truly thrilling — so the fact that there’s barely any payoff on this setup is truly disappointing.

Die-hard fans of Unbreakable likely know that Shyamalan had been planning to make a trilogy out of his basic idea, and essentially only told the first act of the larger story in that 2000 film. Nowadays, when a filmmaker or studio wants to build out a franchise, they use the first entry simply to set up the future films. Unbreakable, though, works primarily as a one-and-done film and didn’t try to plant seeds for an obvious sequel. When it ended, the presumption was not that David and Elijah  would fight again, but that David might simply have his hands full with all sorts of evildoers in Philadelphia. Whatever intrigue there was for Glass was based on that 19-year gap in between films.

The opening of the new pic suggests something more exciting than what happens by the end. Dunn is back on the ground, still taking down bad guys, and there’s something close to a genuine thrill to see Willis on the big screen again in an action-heavy role. It’s akin, in some ways, to watching Harrison Ford return as Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; getting to see a well-known star return to a familiar part after decades is something that offers an extra dose of excitement. (And unlike his work in the Die Hard franchise, Willis hasn’t returned to this role at all in a long time.) Of course, the Force Awakens connection goes a bit further; Ford’s a big part of that J.J. Abrams movie, but it was also his last Star Wars film, as he dies a heroic and emotional death near the end. Seeing him do all the PR for the pic, it was almost as if Ford agreed to do Force Awakens specifically so he could be killed off for good.

(To reiterate the warning at the top of the post, there are spoilers below...)

In Glass, Willis is unfortunately not in nearly so much of the film, emotionally or physically. (Fans of Split, rejoice: This is basically a Split sequel, and McAvoy is very much the lead.) In the final act, after David and Kevin have both been freed from the hospital, they have a final battle that ends up deadly for...well, everyone from the other films. Elijah is mortally wounded by Kevin, after the latter man learns that the train crash Elijah caused also killed Kevin’s father. Kevin, in turn, is shot and killed by the cops, who then also kill David. (The bigger reveal is that Dr. Staple works for an evil organization trying to hide all existence of superpowered individuals, and the supposed cops attacking our leads are working for her.) It’s not just that David dies at the end of Glass, and it’s not just that he dies because of his hyper-weakness to water. It’s that David dies by being shoved into a literal puddle in a parking lot by a previously unknown baddie. At least when Han Solo died, there was more weight to the death, in circumstance and killer.

It’s hard to know if Glass could have ever paid off on the promise of 19 years of waiting, of hopes that Shyamalan might return to a film that had accrued a cult fan base over nearly two decades. Certainly, though, a version of the story might have worked had it not primarily been about trying to dissuade superheroes from thinking that they’re superheroes. Jackson gets a slightly meatier role than Willis (even though Elijah doesn’t even talk for the first 70 minutes of Glass), but both leads of Unbreakable are ill-served by this long-in-the-offing return from Shyamalan. A more cynical person, watching the end of Glass, might wonder if the person who made it just wasn’t a big fan of Unbreakable anymore, which is itself quite a letdown.