Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson
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Do superheroes really exist? That’s the question at the heart of M. Night Shyamalan’s unexpected, unlikely comic book trilogy – a triptych of three unusual tales about people with unusual character traits. There are no points for guessing Shyamalan’s answer, and the thrill of Unbreakable and Split lies in seeing him warp genres to show it, reworking conventions and expectations to create compelling proof that the impossible is possible, that people can bend steel, can walk on ceilings and can transform their own physical appearance. Shyamalan’s cinematic universe is one of belief in, and celebration of, the extraordinary – part magical realism, part fanboy fiction.
It’s a fun combination that, at its best, offers a new perspective on familiar comic book tropes. Shyamalan grounds powers in his universe with emotional gravity and rational explanations, making the most unlikely thing just about explicable with a straight face – an achievement that, if you embrace it, opens up a whole world of amiably goofy genre fun.
That approach reaches a climax with Glass, which brings together David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) and Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) for a showdown. That crossover event, though, is less one of action and more of ideas, and that decision – partly determined by budget, perhaps, but entirely in keeping with Night’s philosophy – will likely impact whether you like Glass or not.
After an initial glimpse of Dunn at work with his son (Spencer Treat Clark, returning from Unbreakable), Shyamalan scales things back, seizing the chance to revisit the possibility of these superheroes not being so super after all. He does that by introducing Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who works at Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Hospital, and brings them together to argue that all of their apparent abilities are a shared delusion. The only problem is that we’ve already seen that they’re not, and asking us to forget the endings of both Unbreakable and Split is a bit much – not least because it’s done so with some fairly clunky expository dialogue.
Paulson, fortunately, is never less than enthralling in any film, and she brings a intriguingly sinister air to her scientist, backed up by the high-security nature of her facility. That mood spreads throughout the film, with Shayamalan building up the atmosphere with colour-coded costumes and set design. It’s a shame, then, that the script doesn’t quite live up to the visuals; while it’s sweet to see Dunn’s son as idealistic as ever, the return of Mr. Glass’ mum is less effective (Charlayne Woodard is given some of the worst lines) and Anya Taylor-Joy, reprising her role of Casey from Split, feels underused.
Look past the logic holes needed to get to the point where our trio can properly interact, though, and once Glass hits its stride, there’s some interesting and fun conflict to be found. That’s true both physically, with McAvoy and Willis squaring off against each other convincingly, and mentally, as Mr. Glass’ scheming brain serves up some twists and turns. McAvoy, in particular, really shines as he shows us even more of Kevin’s personalities – one plot device involving some flashing lights is like watching the world’s best audition tape from an avant-garde acting school. By the time Shayamalan lays his cards fully out on the table, you wish he’d done so much sooner, not only to skip over some of the repetitive material but also to delve into his mythology further still; even at its weakest, this world is something that you want to explore in more detail. That belief in the extraordinary, which made Unbreakable such an inviting story, hasn’t gone away. As a conclusion to a comic book trilogy, Glass is uneven. As a reminder that doubt can be the most dangerous enemy of all, it still has some power.