Continuing my usual timely coverage of all the latest pop culture behemoths, here’s my thoughts on January 2019’s GLASS.
For movie nerds, horror nerds, and comic book nerds, the film Unbreakable is a monument to the joys of closely-related but sometimes contentious fandoms. Premiering in November 2000, it entered the cultural zeitgeist at a peculiar time. Most comic book fans were still reeling from mid-90s in-theater atrocities like Steel and Batman and Robin as well as at-home assaults on decency like the Generation X and Nick Fury TV movies, while at the same time relishing their first glimmer of hope with Bryan Singer’s leather-daddied but largely comics-accurate take on X-Men. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was still a year-and-half away, and they’d have to suffer through attacking Hulk dogs and Nick Nolte’s over-acting before the Nolanverse and the dawn of the MCU and the ascension of comic book films into the mainstream. While perhaps not so much a harbinger of today’s cinematic comic book craze as a milestone on the road to mainstream respectability, Unbreakable scratched a certain itch for some strains of fandom and confirmed for others that this M. Night Shyamalan guy was somebody worth paying attention to, someone capable of elevating genre ideas and showing us all something new.
Like any deconstruction of superheroes, Unbreakable owes a couple bucks to Watchmen, but in terms of sketching out a realistic portrait of what superpowers might look like in the real world, it does its predecessor one better. For all its supposed “realism,” Watchmen still features non-superpowered characters wearing impractical costumes and kung-fuing guys with guns (presciently predicting the “real life superhero” craze that would become fodder for documentaries and “look at these pathetic assholes” journalism, wherein schlubby sad-sacks would don homemade costumes and lie about having extensive martial arts skills whilst patrolling real-life cities), a supposed super genius whose master plan rests on his assumption that all the Philistines around him wouldn’t remember that “Ozymandias” is the Greek name for Ramses II, and a blue-skinned god whose defining characteristic is his steadfast refusal to put on some goddamn pants already. Unbreakable read more like a thought experiment carried out by someone who was actually interested in working out how superheroes might exist with our world’s physics, and what’s more neatly solved the problem any superhero story has: how the hell are Batman or Moon Knight or Daredevil so regularly able to interrupt crimes in progress? Granted, the conceit of David Dunn reading people’s minds by touching them is fantastical, but could be explained as a inner delusion created to help filter his subconscious mentalism or perhaps some actual biological process. Still, the film presented a fairly convincing (and thoroughly entertaining) argument for the existence of superhumans. The influence of Unbreakable was far-reaching--shows like Heroes took the ideas of real-life superheroes and ran with them, while NetFlix’s MCU tie-in shows took the relatively short-lived success of Heroes as an excuse to rarely show its characters in costume.
The problem with being such an influential genre cornerstone is that revisiting the source material, in the wrong context, can make the progenitive work actually feel derivative of what’s come after it.
Which is probably the least of Glass’ sins.
The purpose of the rather lengthy preamble to this essay is to firmly illustrate the importance and relevance of Unbreakable, as any discussion of its sequel (skipquel?) must be heavily informed by an understanding of the source material. Glass is not its own movie, nor does it try to be. David Dunn isn’t established as a character in the film, rather we’re caught up through some truly stilted dialogue as to what he’s been doing for the last sixteen years--the “I’m going for a walk” exchange between Dunn and son of Dunn is awkward, and seems doubly hamfisted when one realizes it’s occurring in front of a cameoing Shyamalan himself. Similarly, Kevin Wendell Crumb and Casey Cooke simply show up, and if one hasn’t seen Split only a surreptitious, in-theatre Google search will catch one up in time to try to enjoy this movie. This is not to say that a Star Wars-eque screen crawl is needed; rather, this movie has firmly positioned itself as primarily for the fans of the first two, rather than it’s own thing (as the first two films were).
That’s an okay and even necessary approach for a sequel, but the first thing a sequel needs to do is justify its existence. A movie, by definition, has a beginning, middle, and end. Even a two-parter by design like Avengers: Infinity War fits this structure--scrap the to be continued title card and it’s a standalone flick that works pretty well (albeit a tad depressing). Because a movie, definitionally, has a beginning, middle and end, it’s also definitionally a story that has been told. Sequels must conjure up a new story for these characters (albeit running with threads established in the previous films, certainly) and must demonstrate that this is a story worth telling. What more must be said about these people, this world?
Shyamalan took an interesting approach here, using a stinger to reveal that the events of Unbreakable and Split took place in the same world, making Split a companion piece to the first movie. Glass is a sequel to both, in the same way the first Avengers movie was a sequel to the Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man movies. Thematically, the first two movies in the ad hoc trilogy pair well together--the first is the story of an ordinary man learning that he’s extraordinary, and the second is the story of a young woman learning to tap into stores of resiliency and courage she didn’t know she had.
The meta-problem with Glass is that it doesn’t share this thematic resonance. As a capstone to the first two movies, Glass illustrates the dichotomy between characters learning and characters growing, and not in a good way.
No one grows in Glass. Rather characters learn information about their world, about their own circumstances, but those revelations don’t lead to any personal change. David Dunn begins the movie as an aging superhero, determined to keep pushing the limits of the powers he discovered in Unbreakable. Kevin Wendell Crumb begins the movie as 23 separate personalities vying for supremacy. Elijah Glass begins the movie (partway through, strange for a movie named for him) as an apparently doped-up supergenius, secretly hiding his mood-altering pills and working towards his master plan.
When the credits roll, all three are dead, but none have changed in any meaningful way. Dunn dies as he lived, willing to fight for what he believes to be right but ultimately succumbing to the same Achilles heel that’s plagued him all his life--water. Crumb meets a similar fate, with the added subtextual wrinkle that his final moment of humanity is also a moment of weakness, which makes the viewer wonder whether he should have ignored Casey Cooke’s entreaties and kept eating cheerleaders. Glass is perhaps the purest distillation of the static nature of the characters--for the entire film he’s pulling the strings with his brilliant mind, and never suffers a second of real self-doubt. He knows his plan is going to work, and any indications to the contrary are mere subterfuge on his part, robbing him of any arc and any tension.
Worse still is Dr. Ellie Staple, the narrative adhesive that binds Dunn, Crumb, and Glass. Her character is something of a mirror to Glass--like Elijah, her “arc” is the shedding of her disguise, nothing more. In the end, at her core, she’s the same person we met in the beginning, only now we learn what she’s really been working on the entire time, just like Glass. Her goals don’t change, her worldview doesn’t change--just her methods.
This isn’t storytelling, it’s a Wikipedia entry with punching.
Contrast this with Split. Casey Cooke goes from frightened victim to empowered survivor, learning to manipulate Crumb’s various personalities. She befriends and exploits Hedwig, defiles herself to drive off Dennis, and ultimately confronts the Beast by turning the abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle into battle armor.
Contrast this with Unbreakable. David Dunn goes from underachieving security guard to a man who discovers he actually does have the ability to make a difference in the world, to answer the internal call that led him to become a security guard in the first place.
In the previous movies, both characters learn things about themselves and become better versions of themselves. Stronger versions of themselves. In Glass, the characters uncover information, not truths, and then die. Unceremoniously, at that.
Which brings us back to sequels, and how they need to justify their existence from a story perspective (financial justifications are obvious). What did we still need to learn about David Dunn or Kevin Wendell Crumb at the end of their respective movies?
Nothing. Their stories were complete.
Slapping them together in the same film is a gee-whiz flashbulb of a marketing idea that seemed brilliant, but also needed an actual story stapled onto its MTV Deathmatch-esque premise. The prospect of a dust-up between the two is certainly a fun idea for fans to comprehend, and such what-ifs have a long, storied history in the comics community, but on the occasions we’ve seen these fanboy fever dreams realized the results have been decidedly underwhelming. How many Mountain Dew-fueled arguments over whether Superman or the Hulk would win in a fight went down after hours at comic book conventions, and how deflated were the fans when a lackluster crossover like 1996’s D.C. Versus Marvel actually hit newstands?
With Glass, the subversion of expectation actually becomes the nullification of tension and thus the audience’s own enjoyment. Giving us the Dunn/Crumb main event about twenty minutes into the film was a bold choice, and one that largely failed. Sure, we get a reprise at the very end, but the fight is informed solely by the characters’ powers, which have been explored in the previous films. Neither character has grown over the course of Glass, and so when they square off again it’s just power versus power. Effectively, it’s the same damn fight Shyamalan showed us in the first twenty minutes.
In Spider-Man, Peter Parker has to learn to use his powers and make peace with his uncle’s death in order to defeat the Green Goblin. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has to divest himself of all Batmannery in order to find the strength to smash the League of Shadows. In Ant-Man, Scott Lang has to put aside his selfishness and fight for something bigger than himself in order to take down Yellowjacket.
In Glass, David Dunn learns nothing and fails, and Elijah Glass wins without trying. That’s hardly satisfying. The opposite, really.
That’s not to say that every superhero movie needs a happy ending or for the hero to triumph. Tragedy is not automatically incompatible with tights--see the Dark Phoenix Saga or Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil. Watchmen has something of a tragic ending--the sociopathically violent yet principled Rorschach refuses to compromise his ethics for the greater good (at least Adrian Veidt’s greater good) and chooses literal, rather than spiritual, death.
The difference between those comics and their film adaptations and Glass is that either the protagonist doesn’t die themselves (Daredevil #181), or there’s an ensemble cast that we’re invested in to absorb the shock (Wolverine and Cyclops/Nite Owl II, Laurie Jupiter, and even Dr. Manhattan). In Glass, there’s no clear protagonist (see above points about the lack of character arc), and the deaths of the characters who one could best argue are the protagonist have little impact. The deaths of Dunn, Crumb and Glass all feel relatively pointless, with only Glass’ having any kind of resonance and even then only in light of the final twist--there’s some nobility in his death, but only if one draws a flow chart.
The really frustrating thing is that there’s the seeds of a very cool movie here. With a few changes, the film could actually work. Like a simple embrace of the principles of character development, for starters. A large chunk of the movie (too large for some) is devoted to three-way therapy sessions with Dunn, Crumb, and Glass, moderated by Dr. Staple. This device is practically a cheat code for character development, and yet Shyamalan chooses to do nothing with it but gaslight the audience and undermine the credibility of his own previous movies. If Dunn took advantage of the sessions and the power-dampening device in his cell to confront and overcome his fear of water, the final fight between him and the Beast would have been that much more powerful. Imagine the Overseer and the Beast squaring off in front of the asylum, the lives of innocents hanging in the balance, and David Dunn is armed with not just his superpowers but the knowledge that he’s already triumphed over his greatest foe. When the fight takes him and the Beast into the conveniently-placed water tank, Dunn’s apparent weakness could become a strength.
Just like Casey Cooke in Split--a movie that actually works.
At the very least, a little character development would have precluded the possibility of Dunn being drowned in two inches of dirty water by an extra, which is such an ignominious fate that I can’t help but wonder if Shyamalan secretly and pathologically hated one of his best creations these last nineteen years. It might also have tamped down Shyamalan’s urges to throw a twist in at the end, logic be damned. Dunn’s murder happens in concert with the reveal that Dr. Staple is secretly working for a super-secret organization who’s been secretly making sure that superhumans stay confined to four-color newsprint for basically all of humanity’s existence. The reveal explains why she’s been such a horrible doctor for two hours, but the problem is that Glass exists in a post-Heroes and post-MCU Sokovia Accords universe. It’s an idea we’ve seen over and over again, but instead of wearing horn-rimmed glasses and accompanied by a silent Haitian man it’s got a silly shamrock tattoo.
Crafting a sequel to a movie that came out decades before is extremely difficult (see Indiana Jones, the latter-day Die Hards, Halloween 2018, etc.). As mentioned above, the movie has to contend with all the properties that were inspired by the source material. The logical or illogical extension of twenty-year-old plot threads might seem stale when compared to newer movies or TV shows so informed by said threads, and in this case it is.
The twist is boring. The character deaths aren’t satisfying. And the surviving characters are bland. To compare Glass to another Bruce Willis film, imagine if John McClane, Holly Gennaro, and the dad from Family Matters all bought it at the end of Die Hard, and hostage #4 randomly decided to go after the remaining members of the Gruber clan.
We’re living in an age where fans unrealistically call for mulligans on movies that just came out, The Last Jedi being the most prominent example. Ordinarily stuff like that makes me roll my eyes, but when I see a promising film screwed up this badly, it really makes me wish M. Night would pick up the phone and call a first-year film student to consult on an immediate do-over.
 As Dr. Ellie Staple argues in Glass, in one of the film’s better moments.
 Sometimes straight back into the Land of Implausibility, but still.
 A low point nicely illustrated by the Goodwill chic look of Iron Fist and the time Daredevil borrowed Jessica Jones’ scarf in The Defenders to fight a bunch of ninjas.
 The film’s timeline indicates it takes place weeks after Split, placing the film a few years in the past.
 Back when newstands were a thing--R.I.P.
 A series of pipes douse him with water if he gets out of hand, which made me wonder how the hell he showers.
 A really clunky name, and I’m kind of surprised there weren’t a deluge of think-pieces hamfistedly dissecting how “problematic” it is call yourself the Overseer when your nemesis is a black dude.
 I can’t tell if Shyamalan intended the shamrock tattoos the secret anti-super society wears as an allusion to the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang or like Halloween 3 or something.
 Which makes me wish Shyamalan pulled a Halloween 4 and had Casey Cooke start talking like Hedwig in the stinger.
 A kerfuffle which left me baffled. I’m still trying to figure out how detractors and defenders of the movie can get so worked up about a two-hour commercial for Disneyland.
 Unless I’m doing it--ex. Halloween 2018/what I’m about to say above.