If deeds do indeed speak louder than words, then Glass is little more than a quiet stage whisper. It’s a superhero film that swaps set pieces for monologues and a trilogy finale that actually has less plot and story than its previous two films combined. It talks a big game about comic book philosophy but fails to match its enthusiasm when it comes time to deliver.
And discussing the film involves discussing plot points for both of its predecessors, 2000’s Unbreakable and 2016’s Split, so consider yourself mildly spoiler-warned.
The opening of Glass features a stand-off between reluctant superman David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), who houses 24 distinct personalities inside his brain. David has been operating in secret as a vigilante called The Overseer, while Kevin’s super-human personality known as The Beast has been terrorizing Philadelphia. Both end up in a mental institution alongside self-proclaimed super-villain Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who calls himself Mr. Glass. They’re under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in treating people who believe they’re superheroes. While Dr. Staple tries to convince them that they have more mental illness than superpower, Mr. Glass continues his plan to prove to the world that comic books and the characters inside of them are real.
It’s not hard to see why Glass was made. Split, which turned out to be a secret sequel to Unbreakable, made a ton of money and gave writer/director M. Night Shyamalan some of the best critical responses in years. It was something of a redemption for the man that gave the world The Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender. But there seems to be no good narrative or thematic reason for Glass’ existence. It’s even talkier and more tedious than Unbreakable was, it contains none of Split’s tension or labyrinthine logic, and it fails to constructively build on the promises of either of them.
Even more egregious, it contradicts or retcons so much of the previous films that it almost comes off as shoddy M. Night fan fiction. It can’t even seem to keep its own painfully-restricted narrative coherent at times. The film takes place over the course of three days and is almost entirely set in the institution the main characters end up in, but it has so little forward movement beyond Jackson’s laborious speeches that it seems divorced from time and space entirely. It ends up giving the film a strange, exploitation-film vibe in more ways than one.
That would have been a welcome shift in energies if Shyamalan had grabbed that groove and run with it. It has all the hallmarks of a cheap genre picture from the 70s or 80s, including a lot of static camera angles, more dialogue than action, and the biggest-name stars reduced to glorified cameos. It even has a bit of the self-importance that comes when a former A-list director is reduced to making B-grade material. Again, all of that could have been assets instead of faults; it worked wonders for Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, after all. There are some bits of pop brilliance in Glass, from effective uses of color and light to a few sequences set in slow pans and skewed focus. The film that could have been shines through in these moments.
But Shyamalan is too much in love with the sound of his own voice, and he’s incapable of having any sense of humor about his work. Jackson’s Mr. Glass is a character that has not aged well at all in the nearly 20 years since Unbreakable. Glass, with his grandiose pontification on the importance of comic books, comes off as a creepy gatekeeper to comic fandom (#NotAllNerds). Shaymalan still films him in a bizarrely sympathetic light though, viewing him as an advocate for the potential of humanity since his mission is to push the superhuman potential of both David and Kevin. Of course, this seemingly ignores the fact that his actions in Unbreakable killed hundreds of people and that he’s willing to kill hundreds more to prove his point. But hey. At least he loves comic books.
To be fair, Jackson slips back into the character with ease and grace. Glass does not seem like a fun character to play, but Jackson makes it look like he is. Unfortunately, Mr. Glass himself spends half the film in a catatonic, sedative-induced stupor. Even then, he’s still more alive than Bruce Willis, who doesn’t seem like he wants to be there and sleepwalks through each and every one of his scenes. Given that David’s costume of choice is a stuntman-friendly, face-obscuring hooded rain slicker, which he wears whenever he does anything remotely heroic, it means Willis as an actor is almost a non-presence in a film where he’s playing the ostensible protagonist.
Both men are completely outpaced by James McAvoy, who isn’t as dynamic here as he was in Split but is still fascinating to watch every time he’s on screen. His ability to so quickly and completely shift personalities is astounding, even if those personalities seem more exaggerated and stylized than before. We do get to meet more of Kevin’s alters this time around, which is nice, but it also means we see less of his more compelling and established alters from the first film. McAvoy gets top billing during the film’s opening credits, and it’s easy to see why.
The film could have honestly focused almost entirely on Kevin and Dr. Staple and been a better experience. Sarah Paulson is always a welcome presence in virtually anything, and she plays Dr. Staple with a complexity and nuance that this neo-grindhouse misfire doesn’t deserve. She’s vulnerable in one scene, snarky in the next, chillingly efficient after that, but it all seems like logical extensions of the same character. It’s impossible to get a grip on her until Shyamalan up-ends all of Paulson’s professionalism with a series of painfully illogical and unnecessary reveals in the film’s last 15 minutes.
What makes the film especially frustrating, beyond Shyamalan’s inordinate fascination with his own work and his precious final-act twists, is that there really is nobody to root for in Glass. Mr. Glass is a misunderstood genius but also a mass murderer. Kevin is damaged beyond belief but too far gone into his illness. And David just doesn’t seem to give a damn. The closest the film has to a sympathetic character is Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey, who survived Kevin’s rampage in Split, but she’s given nothing to do and her innate radiance is wasted in a subplot that seems to exist only to confirm or deny internet rumors about her character.
Glass does eventually come alive in the third act, when we finally get an epic showdown between Glass, Kevin, and David…set in an abandoned parking lot. That kind of sums up the entirety of the film, which likes to talk about how important and dramatic it is but can’t seem to do anything practical to demonstrate its claims. Shyamalan has said in press junkets about his film that it’s the most grounded superhero film ever made. But even grounded stories can be colorful, dynamic, and well…super. Not every comic book hero needs to fly, but their stories should at least make the attempt.
FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-