In a baby-pink room in a mental hospital somewhere in Philadelphia sit three men who believe themselves to be superhuman: David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a blue-collar security-system installer and vigilante; Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a former employee of the Philadelphia Zoo with a fantastical multiple-personality disorder; Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), alias “Mister Glass,” a comic-book expert and Mabuse-esque evil genius who has spent the last two decades in an almost catatonic state. Facing them sits Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), incredulous stand-in for our suspended disbelief, who has made it her job to convince all three that they are suffering from extreme delusions of grandeur. Still, she noticeably hedges her bets by insisting that Dunn, who claims (among other things) to be almost indestructible and unusually strong, remain chained to a metal plate that is bolted to the floor.
The scene comes around the midpoint of M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, the concluding part of what’s been referred to as his “Eastrail 177 trilogy,” named after the deadly train derailment that sets the plot of his beguiling modern fairy tale Unbreakable (2000) into motion and provides the backstory for his bugnuts low-budget hit Split (2016). The trilogy is supposed to be Shyamalan’s take on comic-book sagas of caped superheroes and megalomaniacal villains, though the first two films are only tenuously related and work perfectly fine as standalone films. Unbreakable is an eerie what-if version of the classic superhero origin, with Dunn as its convincingly reluctant superman; the ending (which still kills this writer) is one of Shyamalan’s best, revealing Price as a criminal mastermind. Split, by comparison, is an unabashed B-movie, a subterranean and self-reflexive psycho-thriller that mines Crumb’s one-man-show of alternate personas for manic inspiration. Now, in a madhouse that we, perhaps inevitably, read as a metaphor for the author’s imagination, three of his best characters wait for their chance to escape into the real world. His old enemies, the naysayers (depicted in Glass as a conspiracy of well-dressed diners), are trying to dupe them into thinking that their powers are just tricks. The film opened at No. 1 at the box office, but reviews have been iffy.
It’s hard to overstate what a big deal Shyamalan was in the years that followed the success of The Sixth Sense (1999), or how hard his reputation tanked after The Lady in the Water (2006) and the misunderstood drive-in homage The Happening (2008). He made his name telling stories of the fantastic with an occasional dollop of realism, an oblique style, and a pop mythology that was exclusively his own. Realism generally meant that the stories took place in Philadelphia or in the nearby sticks and that we got a good sense of what the characters’ kitchens looked like; mythology meant fate. By the late 2000s, he had become the butt of groan-worthy jokes about twist endings and inflated self-regard. Then came The Last Airbender (2010), his worst film, a misguided foray into big-budget fantasy; the gun-for-hire project After Earth (2013); and the low-budget soft comeback of The Visit (2015), the start of his ongoing collaboration with the prolific horror producer Jason Blum.
Shyamalan’s skills as a director had a way of shining through even some of his weaker films (as in parts of After Earth), just as the hits betrayed his contradictions: he is influenced by the suspense-building of monster movies, though his own taste in monsters leaves a lot to be desired; he evokes Spielbergian gee-whiz, but is most in-his-element as a chamber director; he can get affecting performances out of his lead actors, but writes dialogue that is anything but naturalistic. The alien-invasion-as-home-invasion movie Signs (2002) is probably the movie that best exemplifies this. It is equally moving, dopey, and witty, a mix of domestic drama and drive-in fare distinguished by the purity of its visual storytelling and elided action—a flashlight on a cellar floor, a reflection in a TV, a climax where most of the action is suggested by cutaways. A post-9/11 movie through and through, it was probably the last studio blockbuster to presume that American moviegoers had questions about God.
One obvious hurdle for Glass—and, by extension, the Eastrail 177 trilogy—is the comics angle. Unbreakable hit theaters well before the superhero movie boom, at a time when the genre was still associated with camp—its highs represented by Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, its reputed lows by the Joel Schumacher Batman sequels, with various movies that tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to cash in on the Batman films’ success somewhere in between. Generally, superheroes of the Batman ‘90s and early 2000s wore black rubber or black leather, which made Dunn’s drab green poncho seem like a rejoinder. It suggested both a more grounded realism and a deeper appreciation for the graphic boldness of comics art.
Unbreakable was (and remains) a sad film, with the central relationship between Dunn and Price framed equally by subtle comic-book visual influences and by the drabness of the City of Brotherly Love. But it wasn’t what one would call a comic-book nerd’s movie; the putative deconstruction of tropes and archetypes is mostly bunk, and has more to do with Shyamalan’s own story values, the twist structure as a life philosophy of symmetrical traumas and triumphs. At its most platitudinal, it tells us that our broken pieces are in fact part of a cosmic jigsaw. It is almost always about the characters learning their place in larger story. Perhaps it’s inevitable that a writer-director who thinks of the universe as a script should see his own vocation as being next to godliness. Similarly inevitable that in Glass, he ends up trying validate the worldview of the character who most resembles a filmmaker—that is the manipulative and self-aware Elijah Price, Mister Glass himself, whose orchestration of the Eastrail 177 accident makes him the sinister demiurge of the overarching trilogy narrative.
Another contradiction: Though he often makes self-deprecating jokes in his films, Shyamalan is sore about criticism. This is perhaps more obvious in Glass than in any of his movies since The Lady in the Water, especially when it comes to Dr. Staple, whose role it is to sow seeds of doubt not only about the plausibility of the characters’ powers, but also their mass appeal. The message seems to be: My stories are special and will speak to you, the audience, if the cynics stop getting in the way. It is not one of his more appealing subtexts.
It should be noted here that Unbreakable wasn’t marketed as a superhero film, but as a supernatural thriller along the lines of The Sixth Sense. That aspect of the story came as a surprise to anyone who went to see the movie in its opening weekend. The same goes for Split, whose connection to the earlier film was only revealed at the very end. Which is important, because Shyamalan’s whole career has been built on toying with audience expectations. I’m not just talking about the famous twist endings of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Compared to the creepfests of the late 1990s and early 2000s, his films looked understated, tightly controlled, and humanistic; they weren’t reliant on gore, extensive special effects, or oozingly dirty post-Se7en production design, and their protagonists’ backstories and home lives actually mattered. You could take your kids to them. For a lot of millennials (myself included), being scared shitless by the ghosts in The Sixth Sense and the birthday party video in Signs were formative experiences.
The audience expectations that Shyamalan addresses in Glass are different. We have conditioned ourselves—perhaps a little too well—to take comic-book movies seriously. Measured against any given Marvel event movie (of which Glass often resembles a Gothically protracted parody), his latest looks unsophisticated and geek-lite. Its pronouncements on the subject of heroes and villains are dubious. Its plot isn’t gratifying—that is, it’s a lot of set-up, the title evoking not only the Price character (absent for the first stretch of the movie), but also the overall hall-of-mirrors vibe and the numerous surveillance cameras and TV and computer screens of the mental hospital. It can’t seem to figure out what do with Dunn or the various returning cast members (Spencer Treat Clark and Charlayne Woodard from Unbreakable, Anya Taylor-Joy from Split) it throws into the mix.
But despite its longueurs, Glass offers something we never see in contemporary tentpole comic-book movies: a stylized, color-coded, largely visual world, a reality of angles and camera moves. Shyamalan movies often resemble storyboards in motion (sometimes at the expense making real-world sense), and it doesn’t take much of a leap to liken his frames to comic-book panels. From its opening scenes to its finale, which is perversely staged in the hospital’s parking lot, Glass operates in graphic terms, trading plausibility for impact. (What kind of comic book store has separate “heroes” and “villains” sections? Who signed off on putting Dunn and Crumb in locked rooms directly across from each other?) Many examples are found in the unconventional action sequences, which resemble no one else’s and seem like a corrective to today’s special-effects spectacle, even during the anti-climactic battle royale. In the sequence where “the Beast”—Crumb’s cannibalistic, apocalyptic, metahuman alternate personality—takes on some hospital guards during his escape through a basement tunnel, Shyamalan lets the fight play out-of-focus in the background of a close-up on Price, scooting along in his wheelchair with a look of sinister determination. When the Beast dukes it out with Dunn against the side of a cargo van, he cuts to the interior of the vehicle, the metal crumpling with each hit as two onlookers cower inside. When he attacks a policeman, Shyamalan shoots the scene in two point-of-view shots through the cop’s Plexi riot shield. Unbreakable had these moments, too—notably the climactic fight between Dunn and a killer in an orange jump suit, directed as a 90-second-long master shot, the camera gradually rising from a low angle to the implied ceiling and then straight through to a top-down, God’s-eye-view.
But as in Split, which marked his first time working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Shyamalan seems to be emboldened, always looking for the most memorable way to stage a scene. Of course, the last decade has taught us to watch superhero movies mostly for the character development (though interesting villains remain in short supply, outside of Black Panther), the overstuffed and overlapping plotting, the ostensible political subtext, extended deliberations on the hero's duty—maybe the odd mammoth, splash-page special effects shot. There's none of that in Glass. As far as Shyamalan is concerned, the value of the comic-book world is its simplicity, its apparent naïveté, its visual language. Perhaps, as is often the case with his work, he's really talking about himself.