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With the release of 2016’s Split, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan pulled off his greatest twist yet: managing to create a successful shared cinematic universe that doesn’t belong to Marvel or DC. The secret to his success? Not telling anyone what he was doing in advance.
The climactic reveal of Split — that it took place in the same world as his 2000 film Unbreakable — was, in many ways, a classic Shyamalan reveal, in that it was something that no one saw coming yet deepened everything that had come before and added a new level that made a rewatch seem essential at the first available opportunity. And yet, it was also something audiences had seen earlier, in 2008’s Iron Man: a surprise indicator that the universe the audience had believed the movie existed in was actually far larger than it had originally appeared to be.
It was different from Iron Man’s Nick Fury tag, however; that was the end of the first movie in a cycle, and a statement of intent moving forward: There’s more to come. It was less sleight of hand and more a traditional cliffhanger of sorts. Split was something else; at once an Easter egg for those who remembered Unbreakable — a movie nearly 16 years old old by that point, with Shyamalan having made seven entirely unconnected features in between — and a promise that the story audiences had just watched was not only not over, it also wasn’t necessarily the story they’d thought it was all along. (A Shyamalan tradition, let’s be honest.)
The impact of Bruce Willis’ cameo as David Dunn was something that only worked as well as it did because it was unexpected, which speaks to the value of playing with audience expectations. Had Split been announced as the second part of a trilogy of movies that started with Unbreakable, not only would audiences be anticipating an appearance by Willis or Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass throughout the entire film, but they would have had expectations that Split be Unbreakable 2 in terms of aesthetic, plot and character dynamic, as well.
Announcing a shared cinematic universe ahead of time almost certainly dooms that universe to failure for those very reasons — individual movies are suddenly no longer just movies, they’re pulled apart as staging grounds for what is going to come next, with everything under analysis to the point where its quality as a stand-alone story is almost an afterthought. (This is arguably true for the people making the film as well as the audience; however, it’s literally their job to think about things like that.) Look at Universal’s The Mummy, as evidence of this — as an individual movie, it’s essentially forgotten, with all that anyone really remembers being its failure to launch the Dark Universe.
Split bypassed all of this by, simply, not telling anyone in advance what it was actually doing. It seemed like its own thing right up until the very end. Freed of those expectations, audiences could just enjoy it for what it actually was, instead of comparing it to their speculative anticipation and the movie they wanted to see in their heads — and, then, in the very final scene of the pic, the truth is finally revealed.
It’s not necessarily a trick that can be repeated (although, in many ways, the surprise appearance of David Dunn was reprised by a cameo at the end of Solo: A Star Wars Story this spring; an unexpected connection being made that few, if any, saw coming), but it is something that can be used as a model for filmmakers going forward to release them of some of the perils of universe building. After all, it’s hard to fail the audiences’ expectations if they don’t even know they should be expecting anything in the first place.
Shyamalan’s Glass is set to open Jan. 18, 2019.
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