Regarded as a commercial come-down after the blockbuster success of The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural puzzle-box Unbreakable was unquestionably the work of a man ahead of the moment. Arriving in 2000, a comic-book movie fallow period between Tim Burton’s Batman films and the rise of the Marvel juggernaut, it was a new kind of superhero movie — obliquely tackling the genre with a savant’s nerdy passion, somber moodiness, and a notable lack of spandex.
After some humbling fallow years of his own, the director once hailed as the “Next Spielberg” has now returned to that film’s murky existential sandbox and Scotch-taped it to the biggest hit from the second chapter of his career, 2017’s Split, to create a wildly ambitious heroes-and-villains cinematic universe of his own. It’s hard to say whether Shyamalan’s timing is incredibly savvy or a bit opportunistic. What’s easier to say is that his new quasi-sequel, Glass, only half works.
The stars of the two previous films — Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and James McAvoy — are all back, bound together by their characters’ unique freakish abilities. Willis’ David Dunn, the lone survivor of a train crash who emerged without a scratch and the gift (or burden) of second sight, is still a hooded lunch-pail vigilante who can brush against bad guys and see their hidden evil deeds. Jackson’s Elijah Price (a.k.a. Mr. Glass), whose brittle, easily shattered bones sparked a fiendish obsession with comic-book tropes and a belief in his role as a mastermind, is hospitalized and in a vegetative state. And McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb, whose two dozen distinct personalities wage a war of good-and-evil inside of him, is on the loose, still taking young women hostage.
Shyamalan, who also wrote the film, sets the table of his latest picture with masterly efficiency, bringing these three antagonists together at a high-tech, high-security psychiatric hospital run by an outwardly skeptical shrink played with icy calm by Sarah Paulson. She tries to rationalize their powers away, telling them that they are all suffering from the similar delusion that they are real-life superheroes. And that what they possess isn’t a gift, but rather an affliction that needs to be cured. Of course, we know otherwise.
As a fan of both earlier movies (although I prefer the intellectual rug-pulling of Unbreakable to the grim, captivity-themed Split), seeing these three characters first assembled in the same room is thrilling. But Shyamalan doesn’t seem to know what to do with his dense mythology once he’s convened his long-awaited superhero loony-bin summit meeting. Instead of having his two earlier movies dovetail to create something deeper and richer, it quickly begins to feel like subtraction by addition.
As Glass progresses, you can sense Shyamalan spinning his storytelling wheels, piling on thickets of exposition and laying the groundwork for a climax that takes too long to get to. How long? Even one of the characters stops the story in its tracks to talk about the inevitable third act climax. Put into comic-book terms, Glass takes too long to get from one panel to the next. Only McAvoy, who seamlessly shuffles though his menagerie of creepy inner alter egos, including a monstrous, wall-climbing character called “The Beast,” jolts the film to life. There are a handful of terrific isolated moments, like a flashback of Mr. Glass as a child at an amusement park unsuccessfully trying to cushion himself on a herky-jerky ride with stuffed animals so his bones won’t shatter, but not enough of them. It’s a graphic novel that needs to be more graphic, less of a novel.
Like his on-screen characters, Shyamalan has always grappled with his own special gift (which may also be his greatest burden) — his talent for delivering a gotcha sting-in-the-tail surprise. That playful air of the unexpected is mostly missing from Glass. We’ve been here before, now there’s just more of it. Yes, it’s easy to be impressed by the world that Shyamalan has created and now fleshed out, but it would be nice if we were also moved to feel something too. In the end, Glass is more half empty than half full. C+