[This story contains spoilers for the Universal thriller Glass.]
Comic books have a soft spot for clandestine organizations that yank strings, influence the outside world or conduct involuntary mad science experiments on innocents: See the graphic novel Kingdom Come‘s Mankind Liberation Front, or perhaps Department K, the outfit responsible for the Weapon X project that birthed Wolverine. So it goes with Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to 2017’s Split, itself a stealth follow-up to 2000’s Unbreakable.
Not content keeping things simple, Shyamalan introduces two parties steering the ship behind the scenes, beginning with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), first name Mr., last name Glass, playing catatonic from his padded cell in Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Research Hospital, masterminding events for the purpose of pitting his old frenemy, the nigh-invulnerable David Dunn (Bruce Willis), against Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), AKA the Horde, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder who can, change his body chemistry and turn into a pseudo-Mr. Hyde.
Then comes Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), allegedly a psychiatrist claiming to specialize with patients deluded into believing they’re superhuman, but actually an agent of a sinister group of societal elites devoted to monitoring superhuman and eradicating them if necessary; she tries to convince Dunn, Kevin and Elijah they’re all crazy, and when that fails, she calls in the cavalry and has them gunned down during the movie’s limp climax. Glass tells of naught more than that about her group beyond highlighting the symbol of their office, a black clover tattooed on its members’ wrists.
On paper, this sounds infinitely cooler than it is in practice. Shyamalan has Staple, Glass and subsidiary characters — Joseph Dunn (Spencer Treat Clark), David’s son and crimefighting assistant; Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the final girl of Split; and Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard), Elijah’s mother — clumsily explain the tropes the film plays with as part of his thuddingly self-conscious comic book deconstruction. Glass assumes its viewers have never read a comic and need their hands held, defining and conflating terms like “limited edition” and “limited run” from one line to the next, right up to the shocking finale, in which Dunn, Glass and the Horde die and the nameless organization’s plan to maintain humanity’s dominion over Earth comes to fruition.
Mr. Glass gets the last laugh from beyond the grave — anticipating his demise, he hacks the hospital’s cameras and sends the footage to Joseph, Casey and his mom, urging them to proliferate the truth online and thus expose the existence of superhumans to the world. Rather than triumphant, the ending feels deflated. Movies that kill off its primary characters should hit like a sucker punch. Glass contents itself with flicking its viewers’ ears. Shyamalan’s climax satisfies nothing but his overeager erudition and misses the elegantly inborn conflict that connects Unbreakable to Split on thematic grounds. If there’s a good movie anywhere in Glass, it’s buried under miles of misguided pretense.
Glass is as much a product of Shyamalan’s predilection for misdirection and mystery as of comic book traditions: The film walks well-tread ground, but being spun from whole cloth instead another author’s property, it feels refreshingly unfamiliar. Shyamalan delineates the relationship between heroes and villains, the long-established idea that the existence of a hero begets the existence of a villain, but Dunn isn’t Batman, and Crumb, or the Horde, isn’t (or aren’t) the Joker. They are, such as any comic book character can be, their own people.
But the addition of the shadowy consortium wreaks havoc on Glass during its hectic, overextended ending. By the end of Unbreakable, the audience believes in all things super. By the end of Split, that belief is reaffirmed in one of the ballsiest decisions any comic book adjacent movie franchise has made since The Avengers. By the end of Glass, Shyamalan’s personal one-upmanship has long worn out its welcome and undermined the exercise. Glass tries too hard to do what storytellers like Alan Moore have done so deftly since the 1980s: Pick apart the concept of the superhero by interrogating their function in popular culture.
That approach works against the film in two distinct but equally debilitating ways. The deconstruction is done with a wink and a nudge, then several more winks and nudges, then with full-on elbows to the kidneys. It’s not so much that Shyamalan’s conceit is “obvious” as it’s unaware of its obviousness, like a man walking down the street with his shirt tucked into his underwear. Worse, the deconstruction elides the baked-in moral incongruities between Dunn and the Horde, an accidental stroke of genius that Glass neglects to capitalize on. The movie audiences should have gotten never metastasizes in the movie Shyamalan actually made; he’s too distracted by the twist within a twist, that shadowy consortium, manipulating the plot for nefarious gains.
In Unbreakable, Dunn reconsiders his history with illness and injury after surviving a train explosion that kills everyone else on board; he realizes he’s never been sick a day in his life and, encouraged by Price, he discovers that he’s a bona fide superhero. In Split, Kevin and his legion of alternate personalities finally reach their apex and transform their host into the Beast, a brute possessed of superhuman strength; he embarks on a vendetta against “the impure,” people who’ve never known suffering. The calculus does itself. It isn’t even calculus! It’s basic addition. Dunn is immune to injury and illness. The Horde beefs with folks free from either. They’re fated arch nemeses, philosophically incompatible beings, each the other’s natural enemy. They’re destined to clash with one another. The conclusion here is simple: Let ’em fight.
But Shyamalan doesn’t quite do that. He hoodwinks and connives them into fighting instead, as if he needed to manufacture an excuse for Dunn and the Horde to duke it out. All he needed was to put them in the same film. Ultimately, Glass isn’t that film. It’s too obsessed with postmodern navel-gazing.