I was more excited for the return of Bruce Willis’ Unbreakable security guard in Glass than I have been for the return of most Marvel superheroes in their sequels. The simple reason? He’s new to me. As adaptations of long-existing properties, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s kryptonite is a lack of originality (as it is, perhaps more appropriately, for the DC Extended Universe). For M. Night Shyamalan, director of Unbreakable and Glass, originality is something of a super power.
OK, that may be exaggerating things. Post-Signs, Shyamalan’s output has been notoriously shaky. I’ll still defend The Village and Lady in the Water, but 2008’s The Happening was such a rude awakening to his weaknesses that I took a break from him until 2015’s The Visit (which wasn’t bad). The following year, his super villain origin story Split tiptoed back into the territory he established with Unbreakable. Now he makes it a trilogy with Glass, in which Willis’ David Dunn—operating as a vigilante known as The Overseer—and James McAvoy’s Split monster go head to head, to the delight of Unbreakable’s evil mastermind, Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson, sly as ever).
And so the Shyamalaniverse—as some have taken to calling it—has come into fruition. And I’m glad for it. I’ve liked certain Marvel films better than any of these three, but no MCU installment (by no fault of its own) can offer what Glass does: the experience of opening a comic book for the first time.
There is a lot of talk about comic books in Glass. Shyamalan wrote the screenplay, and he repeatedly has characters point out the tropes and devices he’s borrowing. Part of this is justified by the narrative. In Glass, The Overseer, McAvoy’s The Beast, and Mr. Glass all fall under the supervision of a doctor (Sarah Paulson) convinced that their claims of superior ability and intellect are delusions, inspired by a world overrun by comic books. It’s a good meta joke, especially given the MCU, but I do wish Shyamalan had found ways to visualize the comics connection rather than rely on laborious dialogue to do the work for him.
Glass captures the experience of opening a comic book for the first time.
Even if he over explains some things as screenwriter, however, Shyamalan the director is more than willing to employ clever bits of misdirection. We’ve learned that The Overseer’s one weakness is water, so his room at the mental health facility has been outfitted with dozens of spray nozzles. At a point of confrontation, Shyamalan cuts to a giant tank outside, forcing us to sit with the gurgling water rather than witness the action. (When he cuts back to the room, Dunn is soaking wet.) Similarly, there’s a great comic-book moment in which Glass and The Beast have teamed up to make an escape; while Glass rolls calmly toward the camera in his wheelchair, he partly obscures The Beast tearing apart security guards in the background.
Sleight-of-hand camerawork, not unlike what Spielberg did with the shark in Jaws, gives The Beast much of his unsettling power. The rest of it comes from McAvoy’s commitment to the monstrous. Those who saw Split know that McAvoy’s character harbors some two dozen personalities, and while I still find the switching among them to be more of a parlor game than a performance, McAvoy has created something deeply unnerving with The Beast. When he swells up to become this vicious, discriminating killer (The Beast believes only those who have suffered deserve to live, which is why he teams up with the sickly Glass), he ripples with menace.
And then there’s Willis, the superhero I wanted to see again. Since The Sixth Sense, the actor’s morose demeanor has been a good match for Shyamalan’s measured filmmaking style. I love the idea of The Overseer patrolling the Philadelphia streets in the rain while wearing his cape/poncho, his now-grown son (Spencer Treat Clark, returning from Unbreakable) serving as his “man in the chair” from the small-time security shop they run together. It’s a return to the lo-fi superhero sensibility Shyamalan established in Unbreakable, which was a comic book movie not by virtue of brand awareness or an overwhelming aesthetic, but by weaving fantastic tropes into an otherwise familiar story. Glass expands into something more recognizably comic booky, true, yet at its best the movie remains refreshingly idiosyncratic.