This one’s deep in the weeds. Shyamalan has deliberately tossed aside everything that was promised by the film’s marketing campaign and instead created what might be an absolute masterpiece but also might be hacky garbage. How you decide that will depend completely on your feelings towards the execution and how you see the film’s delivery on the promise of a plan masterminded by “first name Mister, last name Glass.”
I’ve wanted a sequel to Unbreakable for years (hell, I really just wanted another good Shyamalan movie). I first saw it in a dingy dorm room at 1am and became an instant devotee, considering it one of my favorite comic book movies all these years later because without it we would have none of the grounded superhero films. Nolan’s trilogy took this premise and tried to keep it close to the ground, but it still had to keep the premise of it’s billionaire vigilante that violently attacked the street-level criminals while combating larger-than-life characters, all of which had no superpowers. Shyamalan’s now-completed trilogy goes out of its way to ground the fantastical without ever pretending that it’s anything but. A security guard who is virtually indestructible, a man with brittle bones whose mind functions at much higher levels than almost anyone else, and a body that contains two dozen distinct personalities with distinct body chemistries, all of these people are forced to confront themselves and question their abilities despite containing actual superpowers.
The film opens within weeks of Split and gives us David Dunn, now running a security company with his son, Joseph, as he pursues The Horde (aka Kevin Wendell Crumb). He’s become pretty efficient as a nighttime vigilante, using his gifts to find and capture criminals while evading the police with nothing more than a rain poncho. The public has even settled on a name for him – The Overseer. This first third of the movie spends a lot of time giving us what we want, allowing audiences the chance to see The Beast emerge and at last do battle with Dunn’s silent, glowering warrior archetype. It’s a fun and exciting bit of acknowledgement for fans of Unbreakable and Split, and it enjoys reveling in the premise. Shyamalan can’t do action on-camera very well but he plays to that here, using the idea of these two as brutes instead of ninjas. They’re super-people, but they aren’t automatically good fighters that put on a long display of choreographed ability. They just beat the shit out of each other and I loved every bit of it.
After this, however, is where most people are going to be alienated. The response to this film has been lukewarm with critics and audiences, many just not willing to dive down the academic rabbit hole of comics. I had a hard time at first with the way the pacing ground to a halt, but after a few minutes I acclimated and went along with Sarah Paulson’s character of Dr. Ellie Staple to really examine what kind of film this was. The marketing promised these three super-characters locked in an institution together and on this it delivers.
I get it, I do. One of the major complaints about this film is that so much centers on James McAvoy’s performance while Samuel Jackson and Bruce Willis take a backseat and that is a valid argument. I get that it slows from the ramping action to become something more easily compared to a dissertation, a lecture on the relevance of comic book culture and whether or not our current obsession with it is healthy. That’s not the thrill-ride that Split promised, but it might be what an audience deserves. And I’ll honestly state that so many will not like the final act, where it flies away from the entire idea of a blockbuster showdown and goes in a wild direction that deliberately eschews what people think they want. But that’s what so many of the most interesting auteurs are capable of.
I’m keeping it brief this time because I just can’t talk about the spoilers here, it’s too surprising. And that’s the strength of the film. We get 4-5 superhero films a year that are fun, but follow mostly the same premises. They’re exciting and full of thrills, but few are really able to completely pull the rug out from under you like this. Glass is messy, it’s not always well-executed, and there are some moments that are so bluntly lobbed out there that I rolled my eyes, but by its conclusion it forms a cohesive statement. It makes several in fact, statements on subjects ranging from childhood abuse to superhero culture to fandom. Above all else, though, this is a statement about expectations. Shyamalan has gone for this before, using Lady in the Water to talk about giving people what he envisions instead of what he thinks they want. He’s done this again, but instead of placing his own genius front and center he took a world people love, one of heroes and villains from the pages of a graphic novel, and has used it to subvert what people are expecting and show them the vision in his head.
I won’t call this a rousing success, but I’ll call it a fascinating piece of art that is so audacious, forcing me to admit I am falling into the camp of those that adore it. Normally execution is the key to my love for a film, but with this it’s a mixture of the sheer brashness this thing coupled with the fact that I’m just happy to see Shyamalan working at this level again. After a decade in director jail he finally began to reemerge with 2015’s The Visit, and this is the culmination of his comeback. No matter what you think about this film, it earns the respect of the audience and after letting it sit for a few hours I cannot do anything but defend it. There are problems, there are horribly delivered lines of shoddily written dialogue, and the pacing is all over the place, but I believe that this is the first film of 2019 that is truly worth your time. Shyamalan apologists, myself included, will be going to bat for this film for years and this time…I think we’re right.