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Sometimes, one of the biggest hurdles a film can face in connecting with an audience is expectation. Typically, the creators and the marketing work very hard to set a certain expectation for the audience under the assumption that it can meet it. Sometimes films exceed expectation, other times they fall completely short. Who, ultimately, is to blame for a film not meeting expectations? I’d argue that it could potentially fall not just on the filmmakers and marketers, but sometimes on the audience at large, as well. This could especially be true in the case of a final entry to a trilogy that plays out similarly to its previous two entries but fails to meet heightened expectations of an audience.
Looking back on Unbreakable now, with nearly 20 years of hindsight at our disposal, it’s clear that M. Night Shyamalan’s take on superheroes in the real world was far ahead of its time. Hell, studios themselves have been trying to make gritty, realistic films that deconstruct the superhero genre for years since Unbreakable’s release, to varying degrees of success (but mostly not great). Unbreakable is a deliberately placed, sometimes mushy-mouthed tale of super-powered beings existing in our world. They weren’t able to leap tall buildings, they didn’t fly. But they were stronger than average, smarter than average, grounded versions of comic book archetypes. It was perhaps the one film in Shyamalan’s filmography that was not only embraced, but was also the one most tailor-made for a sequel, a sequel that seemed like it would never come.
Then Split came out in 2017, proving to be a return to form for the embattled Shyamalan. It’s a sharp, unnerving creep show with an amazing central performance and a fascinating mythology. It also contained one of the filmmakers best twists. As the effective thriller came to a close, some very familiar musical beats drop in, letting everyone who could remember in on the fact that yes, Split not only existed in the same universe as Unbreakable, but would be setting up a third film where it all comes together. All this to be said that Glass has been highly anticipated by many (including myself), and that expectations have been brewing and forming based on nearly two decades of imagining what a follow up to this world might be like.
Had I let the many years of superhero films guide my expectations of Glass, I may have found myself disappointed and utterly underwhelmed by the film. It is deliberate and talky, relishing in the ideas of comic book lore and stereotypes over action. It’s not flashy, lacks any true gangbuster action sequences, and it certainly isn’t a crowd pleaser. In a world of Iron Man, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, it’s easy to see how this might come off as a borderline dud that ‘fails to live up to expectations’.
But as a final entry in a trilogy that started with Unbreakable and Split, Glass fits perfectly into the series, celebrating comic books and their tropes while also solidifying and growing its own larger mythology.
Glass picks up three weeks after Split, 19 years after Unbreakable, with David Dunn (Bruce Willis) operating a home security business during the day with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and spending his nights as the vigilante known as The Overseer. After they manage to track down Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), David and Kevin are captured by the police and committed to a psychiatric hospital where Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) aims to convince not only them, but also Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) that their super-heroic inklings are nothing more that delusions. It wouldn’t be a Shyamalan movie without a handful of twists and turns, but getting into those would be spoilers.
Much like they have in their previous films, the returning actors on display in Glass carry over their characteristics, staying true to who they are even though the temptation may be there to better adjust them to the 2019 superhero landscape we live in.
Bruce Willis is as calm and deliberate as ever as David Dunn, allowing little flashes of humor and distress to seep through his seemingly unbreakable stoicism, although he’s featured less than you may expect. James McAvoy is a genuine force of nature once again, let off the leash to show even more of the 24 personalities that reside inside Kevin’s body. Samuel L. Jackson at first seems to have little to do, but gains more steam as his machinations play out, perfectly embodying a man desperate to have his beliefs be validated.
Newcomer to the franchise Sarah Paulson is solid as ever as the resolute Dr. Staple. Her character toes the line between acting as a foil to our seemingly super powered characters, respectively, and someone who is trying to genuinely help them out of mental quagmire of self-deception. Existing characters played by Ana Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark (does everyone have three names?), and Charlayne Woodard (nope), are all given a surprising amount to do, serving not only as supporting characters to the story, but as supporting relationships in the lives of Kevin, David, and Elijah, respectively.
Shyamalan reportedly turned down a much larger budget from Universal to make the movie his way, and for better or worse, it shows in the film. This is a small-scale yarn, much like Unbreakable and Split before it, and anyone expecting an effect-laden showdown a la every superhero movie ever should go back to those previous films as a refresher. As a filmmaker, he’s still as gifted as ever, using creative camera movements and angels to capture his characters, even if they’re just sitting in a room talking about comic mythology.
There are sequences in the film that are small, subtle, but still outright excellent. A reintroduction to David Dunn as he confronts two thugs, the initial confrontation between The Overseer and The Horde, and pretty much anything that lets McAvoy switch between characters in-camera serve as absolute delights from a filmmaking perspective.
The film certainly is structured as three distinct chapters, and while some audiences may find the changes of pace frustrating, to me they felt at home with the previous two entries. Glass starts out fast-paced, serving as the type of constantly moving thriller many expected. From their it pumps the breaks, putting all of our characters into the asylum seen in the trailers. It’s here where the film takes most of its time, purposefully moving along at a slower pace. It features scenes that echo Unbreakable, with characters discussing and dissecting comic book traits and if they do or do not exist in this reality. From there, the film kicks into its final act, featuring confrontations and twists aplenty that not only don’t go in the directions you may anticipate, but actively veer away from expectations.
That brings me to maybe my favorite part of Glass, and certainly what is likely to be the most controversial aspect of the film: it is NOT a crowdpleaser in the way any other trilogy finale has tried to be. I have a huge amount of respect for Shyamalan standing firm to tell his version of a story, as he straight up rejects where you may think he’s going with the story of these three. It is a film that is uninterested in giving us the big explosive set pieces, that knows what its audiences wants and then flat out refuses to go there.
Glass feels like it comes from a place of earnest from a filmmaker who has been in love with comic books his whole life, and loves waxing poetic about them in great detail, even if those around him already know the story. Unbreakable came at a time when comic books hadn’t boomed into popular culture, and therefore it feels a bit silly in hindsight as it explains the tropes of superheroes and villains.
Shyamalan is still that guy who loves comic books and wants to use the mythology to not only tell his story, but explain the parts of mythology that he’s cherry picking from. In a way, it reminds me of that friend that you have who is just such a massive fan of something that they can’t help but over explain everything, even if you’re on the level with them. It’s almost kind of sweet how thorough Glass is in its comic book loyalty, even if we already know the beats that they’re going for.
To his credit, with these films, Shyamalan has clearly established that it is not the conflicts of comic books he enjoys, but rather the concepts. He revels in his ideas rather than his action, and even his action is a means to further his ideas of his universe. Sure, sometimes this may put his characters behind his plotting. However I found it refreshing that the film is never really about the clashing of these characters, but rather their effect on the world around them.
In the end, Glass is 1000% the film that M. Night Shyamalan wants it to be, for better or for worse. His audience has had nearly 20 years to percolate, ruminate, and theorize what a full-blown return to the world of Unbreakable would look like. My advice to anyone is to revisit the previous films first before heading into Glass, as I think it will enhance your experience and reward you with a more complete feeling of the trilogy. Many reviews of Glass feel like they let years of excitement and baggage get in the way, and that’s both a bummer but completely understandable. To me, it serves as a fascinating, imperfect conclusion of an incredibly weird, unique trilogy from a talented, passionate filmmaker.
The Final Pop
Glass does not offer up the conclusion to Unbreakable and Split that many are expecting. It zigs when you think it’ll zag, and it goes off in directions that many may seem as ludicrous and disappointing, but I found surprisingly satisfying. Though not designed to be a crowdpleaser, its solid performances, talented filmmaking, and loads weirdness make this a fitting finale to the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. Or is it??
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