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No one cared about superhero movies when M. Night Shyamalan made Unbreakable. This was before The Avengers, Batman Begins, or even Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The premise of Unbreakable, that superheroes are real and comic books are faithful, albeit flawed accounts of extraordinary humans, was a potent one because Shyamalan imbued his characters with intelligence, sensitivity, and the heft of real-world consequences. Now there is Glass, a direct sequel to both Unbreakable and his 2016 psychological horror film Split. Shyamalan jettisons everything that made those films interesting—strong characters, a palpable sense of atmosphere, and a literate script—preferring to harp on his bitter delusions of cinematic grandeur.
Shyamalan wants his audience to be keenly aware of how his sequel fits into superhero mythology, so Glass has a distinct three-act structure. The first is perfunctory, a catch-up so we can see what the characters have been up to since the events of the previous films. It is also an excuse to get them all into the same spot, an insane asylum where most of the action takes place.
A psychiatrist (Sarah Paulson) has a special project: She wants to disabuse these disturbed, flawed men of the notion they are “super.” Both Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) and Kevin (James McAvoy) see themselves as villains—the former is a mastermind, while the latter has multiple personality disorder and his identity “The Beast” gives him raw power—and David (Bruce Willis) is a mild-mannered hero with superhuman strength. The psychiatrist’s plans falls apart, of course, so the final act in Glass involves a final showdown with these men and the people who care about them.
As Glass settles into its groove, with the three main characters in separate rooms, Shyamalan has a strange disinterest in any traditional genre payoff. Rather than imbue the film with suspense or stakes, it unfolds like an pseudo-intellectual exercise, with Paulson’s character needling our interest in the story, as both text and subtext. Maybe Shyamalan has a bone to pick with a cinematic landscape that abandoned him—arguably he was the first filmmaker to treat superheroes seriously—and now he wants to interrogate that idea. If this is a film about a maligned auteur grappling with his legacy, then Unbreakable fans are secondary in his mind.
You may notice that Glass was produced by Blumhouse, a studio that’s known for its tight budgets. Split used that limitation to its advantage, with most of the film taking place in a creepy basement. In Glass, it is easier to see where Shyamalan cut corners. There are frequent monologues, allowing the actors to work around each others’ schedules. Extreme close-ups are common, which is an artful way for Shyamalan to hide his limited canvas. Regrettably, the director has no gift for complicated choreography, so Glass’ fight sequences are downright clumsy. Even the location of the climactic showdown is a bait-and-switch, a commentary on how lesser directors have an opportunity to play in a bigger sandbox.
Unbreakable was a strong film because character studies surrounded the comic book proselytizing. Before David realizes he’s a superhero, the film is essentially a muted, ultimately affecting drama about a couple on the cusp of divorce, with their son as a hopeless bystander (Spencer Treat Clark, who was a boy during Unbreakable, reprises his role now as a young man). In Glass, however, Shyamalan leans into the meta-dialogue. Way too many actors are given clunky, expository dialogue about how this film fits into a superhero mythos.
At one point, Jackson weightily says to McAvoy, “So this is the part where the bad guys are teaming up,” and it only inspires more eye-rolls from there. Maybe Elijah would speak with this kind of clinical disinterest in humanity, but when the supporting characters talk about showdowns and origin stories, the film devolves into a celebration of its own ingenuity. If there were no comic book movies or TV shows between Unbreakable and today, Shyamalan might have had something here.
In spite of Shyamalan’s purpose, there is some actual entertainment in Glass. McAvoy is clearly having fun, reprising his seamless transitions between his character’s distinct accents/mannerisms, while Jackson recalls the menace and intelligence from Unbreakable. Willis may have been sleepwalking through recent roles, but now he somehow manages a simulacrum of a convincing actor. Unfortunately, their goodwill is all in service of a cranky magician who would rather show off his skill, instead of wow his audience.
Glass opens Friday in theaters everywhere.