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Glass

Posted January 19, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Unbreakable was a movie long before its time. The modern cinematic superhero genre was just getting started in the year 2000, so of course nobody at the time would have had any idea what to do with it. But now we’re living in the Age of Marvel, with fun, fast-paced, action-packed superhero movies in every bright color imaginable. Against all of that, such a dark, moody, deliberately paced superhero deconstruction makes a far more compelling counterpoint. Granted, it’s still a superhero movie without the special effects, fight scenes, or power fantasy aspects that make superhero cinema so entertaining. Still, it strips the superhero genre of its more “childish” and superficial aspects to see if anything is left worth salvaging, and that’s an experiment with merit.

Still, Unbreakable‘s biggest problem is that it was an origin story without a sequel. It’s a beginning without a middle or an end. It’s an origin of nothing. Until today. Or about three years ago, depending on how you count.

Writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan has said in recent interviews that The Horde — collectively the 24 different identities all played by James McAvoy in Split — was originally the main antagonist in Unbreakable. I refused to believe that bullshit until I actually saw the climax of Unbreakable and thought “Hm. A psychopath who chains up women. This looks familiar.” In any case, a superhero movie without an obvious supervillain works far more effectively as a deconstruction, and The Horde is such a multifaceted character that they damn well needed their own movie. Moreover, our DID-afflicted maniac is hyperactive and unpredictable by design, which wouldn’t have meshed very well with the more measured tone of Unbreakable.

What baffles me is that Shyamalan obviously figured out that pitting these two characters against each other was a terrible idea… and then, twenty years later, he did it anyway!

At the opening of Glass, the eponymous Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson once again) is still locked up in a psychiatric ward, so clearly faking dementia that I won’t even pretend that’s a spoiler. The Horde is still on the loose, still chaining up young women they deem as “impure” because they’ve never known true suffering. As for David Dunn (played once again by Bruce Willis), he’s gone to start his own home security company, though his wife (that would be Robin Wright Penn’s character in the previous film) has died between films.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention David’s son (Joseph, played by a returning Spencer Treat Clark), who’s running the security company with his dad. We’ve also got Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard, reprising her role), who still comes to check in on her son every week or so. Last but not least is Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy, back again) who’s moved into a foster home after sending her abusive uncle to prison. Funnily enough, she seems to be getting on well in high school and she’s landed a job at the Philadelphia Zoo. We even follow-up with Shyamalan’s cameo role in Unbreakable and learn what he’s been doing for the past couple of decades, as if anyone cares.

So where does the plot come in? Well, it turns out that David did indeed go on to act as a kind of superpowered vigilante after the events of Unbreakable. And The Horde is still chaining up young women. Two and two make four. But right when Dunn and The Horde engage in a terribly presented action sequence, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) shows up out of the blue with a cadre of police officers, ready to take our superpowered characters into a psychiatric ward. Incidentally, the very same one where Glass is still residing.

As much as I love Sarah Paulson and I give her full credit for doing her best with what she has to work with, this character was wretched from start to finish. For one thing, this is the woman who keeps our three leads locked up in a psychiatric ward, grinding the movie to a tedious slog. I’m sure the filmmakers were going for the more slow-paced and contemplative feel of Unbreakable, but it doesn’t work when the three main characters are all itching to take each other apart — and that’s what we all paid to see! — but it can’t happen because this one character is standing in the way.

More importantly, Staple is the skeptic who’s trying to debunk the notion of superpowered individuals. She’s trying to convince them — and the rest of the world — that there’s nothing special about them, and their perceived powers are simply delusions. And it doesn’t work because we know she’s wrong! After three movies with these characters, we know for a goddamn certainty that these powers are real, and Staple is wasting everyone’s time holding back the plot with her misguided drivel.

Put it this way: You know that one scene in Ghostbusters (1984), when the main characters are under arrest and Walter Peck is in the mayor’s office, directly accusing them of running a scam with nerve gas and light shows? Imagine if that was the entire second act of the movie.

To be clear, I get what the filmmakers were going for. Shyamalan was clearly intent on crafting a movie about exceptional people who could do great things and inspire countless millions if it wasn’t for the small-minded mediocrities dragging everyone down to their level. This is not an unfamiliar topic in superhero cinema (The Incredibles, Watchmen, Captain America: Civil War, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice come immediately to mind), and it totally could have worked here. The problem is that through Staple, the subject is explored in the most blunt, brain-dead, outrageously implausible manner.

But then Glass finally stops faking his dementia right before the third act, and that’s when things finally pick up again. After all, this is a character built from the ground up to embrace comic tropes and stereotypes to an unhealthy degree, and he’s played by Sam Motherfuckin’ Jackson. If anyone can argue why the exceptional among us should step up and defy all naysayers, and really make the material soar, it’s this character and this actor.

What’s even better is the interplay between Glass and The Horde. After all, Glass is a character who built his entire world around the good/evil dichotomy of comic books just so he could figure out his place in the world. The Horde, meanwhile, is another freak trying to figure out who they are and what they’re meant to do. Put the two together and sparks fly pretty much immediately.

Such a damn shame we couldn’t have those characters without David Dunn, because he’s next to useless here. The best we get is a climactic scene in which he questions Glass’ sanity and learns to believe in his own powers again. That might have been compelling if we hadn’t already spent a whole movie going over that, and Dunn has been out fighting crime in the twenty years since! And again, Staple is so thoroughly unconvincing that I had to wonder why Dunn would take her word seriously at all.

As for the Dunn/Horde interplay, there really isn’t any. They’re impossibly strong men who engage in terribly staged action sequences because there’s nobody else who can beat them. Except that we already have Casey, who’s already beaten The Horde in her own way and she’s perfectly capable of doing it again! Last but not least, Joseph is pretty much wasted in this movie and he’s not capable of doing much. (Though Spencer Treat Clark is gamely trying to do his best with what screen time he’s got.) Dunn’s family was his primary motivation in Unbreakable, and without it, he’s got nothing.

I suppose I should also mention Glass’ mother, who… shows up, I guess?

It’s the cast that really makes the film worth watching. There are so many wonderful talents in this movie and they’re all doing their absolute best to salvage this material. And I do want to give bonus points for the ingenious use of unused Unbreakable footage for flashbacks. I was also fond of the visuals, particularly in their color-coding: green for Dunn, yellow for the Horde, and purple for Glass. But any points I give, I have to take right back for the hamfisted score and the slapdash “horror” elements that mesh far better with Split than with Unbreakable.

I feel kind of bad giving Glass such a negative review, because it’s certainly ambitious if nothing else. Say what you will about Shyamalan, but he’s never done anything halfway and he’s never settled for the boring and predictable route. Plus, the performances are solid across the board (in particular, James McAvoy is leagues better here than he was in his own movie), and there is some genuinely good superhero deconstruction stuff going on.

Alas, the movie is more broken than not. The big climactic plot twists don’t make a lick of sense, the fight scenes look ridiculous, and the entire second act is driven by a boring, preachy blowhard. If the filmmakers were trying to make a thoughtful and methodical film like Unbreakable with all the pseudo-terror thrills of Split, they only succeeded in proving how the two films are incompatible, with an end result far lesser than the sum of its parts. For a movie that sold itself on the clash between Dunn and The Horde, they don’t fight in any kind of satisfying way, and that has to be a dealbreaker.

If you’ve already seen both movies, you may as well stick around to see how it all ends. Otherwise, don’t bother.