Twist-obsessed Shyamalan contorts his storytelling into the kind of pretzel logic that alternately resorts to indulgence in outlandish implausibility and too-convenient coincidence.
Over the past two decades, the ascension of comic book characters from pop culture novelty to the apex of the mainstream has reached a point where even the much-maligned Aquaman has achieved box office gold. When M. Night Shyamalan’s shadowy, compelling sophomore effort, Unbreakable, hit theaters in 2000, the X-Men had just made their first appearance on the silver screen, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had yet to explode into ubiquity and Christopher Nolan’s first gritty take on Batman was still a half decade away. Eschewing the camp and ostentation so inherent to 20th century superhero movies, Shyamalan crafted a brooding origin story of everyman David Dunn (Bruce Willis) wrestling with the mounting evidence of his virtual indestructibility. Meanwhile, brittle-boned Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) waxed philosophical about comic books depicting ancient truths about superhumans that modern society had long forgotten, the mystical reverence with which he approached comics not requiring too arduous a suspension of disbelief given that, at the turn of the millennium, movie studios weren’t pumping out a new superhero movie every other week.
Defining our chaotic modern world in terms of rigid superhero tropes works far less effectively in 2019, and Shyamalan’s Glass, the culmination of his long-gestating Eastrail 177 Trilogy (which includes 2017’s psychological thriller Split), ultimately sags under the weight of its own ponderous self-seriousness. Though it’s named after Elijah’s supervillanous identity – whose cringe-inducingly hokey self-introduction as “First name ‘Mister,’ last name ‘Glass’” is actually repeated again later in flashback – this overexplanatory film actually offers far less insight into his malevolent character than was found in Unbreakable.
Heavy-handed exposition also saps some of the energy from James McAvoy’s impressively acted reprising of his dissociative identity disorder afflicted serial killer from Split. Referring to his collective multiple personalities as “The Horde,” McAvoy’s monstrous Beast persona too often manifests, this oversaturation making him far less frightening than his climactic emergence in the prior film. With that said, the Beast’s early appearance does make for a thrilling hand-to-hand combat scene with the ominously poncho-clad David in full grizzled vigilante mode. But as the action heats up and the full superhuman potential of both hero and villain begins reaching heights only hinted at in their respective prior films, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) arrives on the scene to throw cold water on the whole thing. (She does this quite literally in the case of David, whose kryptonite – in true Shyamalanian fashion – is none other than a little H₂O.) A psychologist who specializes in the treatment of patients whose delusions of grandeur involve convincing themselves that they possess superpowers, Dr. Staple restrains the two men – in cells fitted with high-powered hoses in the case of David and persona-shift inducing pulses of light in the case of the Horde – in the same facility where a heavily-sedated Elijah is locked away. In the ensuing days, she goes to great lengths to convince the three men that their demonstrable superpowers are merely tricks of their minds.
This external source of doubt feels forced and far less profound than the internal conflicts in both Unbreakable and Split, and superfluous tangents clutter the story in a way that makes Glass feel less like a culmination than an inessential crossover. It’s interesting to see so many side characters, depicted by their original actors, reappear – including a now full-grown Spencer Treat Clark as David’s son Joseph and Charlayne Woodard reprising her role as Elijah’s nameless mother (despite Woodard actually being five years younger than Jackson). But too often these characters feel shoehorned in, with Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the lone hostage spared by the Beast in Split, going to preposterous extremes to connect with the true original personality obscured by the Horde.
An unwieldy and woefully unfulfilling third act notwithstanding, Glass captivates in many stretches and offers glimpses of a potential it only barely sniffs, but the twist-obsessed Shyamalan contorts his storytelling into the kind of pretzel logic that alternately resorts to indulgence in outlandish implausibility and too-convenient coincidence. By intertwining the paths of these three troubled supermen, he jumbles up what made each of them so intriguing in the first place, reducing them to the kind of reductive archetypes Elijah treats as his saints. The film is at its best when Shyamalan injects levity, most often delivered through McAvoy’s perpetually nine-year-old Hedwig persona, just one of many impressive turns as nearly a dozen different characters who were less amusing and more chilling in Split. Glass is at its worst not when it’s unintentionally funny, as in a muscle-rippled McAvoy awkwardly roaring in a climactic scene, but when it’s dreadfully serious, an approach that dooms its exposition-laden conclusion to near ludicrousness.