I stumbled out of Glass, the third film in the M. Night Shyamalan superhero trilogy that began with Unbreakable, suspicious that I’d just been punked. The movie’s final act, a spectacular implosion of incoherent twists and turns that hijack a functional thriller and drive it off a cliff—playing off the wreckage like a triumph, no less—felt like it had to be a prank. A morbid extension, maybe, of the movie’s meta attempts to deconstruct the superhero-movie machine that has consumed pop culture in the 19 years since Unbreakable. (“Comic books are an obsession!” a character shrieks at one point, while another narrates superhero clichés aloud as they happen, with all the grandeur and insight of lines like, “The collection of main characters!”) A fake-out for sure, pointless but preferable to the confused mess I’d seen, to be unveiled as the ultimate “twist” before the real movie hit theaters today.
But denial is just the first stage of grief and I’ve since cycled through to acceptance. This whole movie, including its catastrophic ending, is real, and they’re charging real money to see it. People who loved Shyamalan’s sterling 2000 film Unbreakable and were tantalized by the surprise revelation at the end of 2017’s Split that both films take place in the same universe will show up to see reluctant hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis), his mastermind arch-nemesis Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), and the amalgam of two-dozen split personalities known as the Horde (James McAvoy) together onscreen for the first (and last) time. Many will leave disgruntled, others bamboozled, eye-twitching, and stupefied like the institution-bound title character. I left a conspiracy theorist.
Glass only muddles the ideas Unbreakable and Split surfaced about modern myth-making, trauma, and our minds’ capacities to manifest miracles. It takes its characters nowhere new. (It actively regresses one or two, in fact, insulting them before bowing out.) Shyamalan’s wicked humor, his knack for conjuring wonder and dread from the mundane, his stubborn commitment to zigging where you want him to zag—it’s all here. None of it saves Glass. It can’t seem to decide whether it’s a “fuck you” or a love letter to superhero movies and their audiences. It gestures vaguely at both, satisfying as neither. It does pull off a shock that might have been admirable as a stone-cold statement about IP-driven movie-making, except it’s executed with the lethargy of a deflating balloon, and just as devoid of meaning.
Then it tramples that moment with 20 more minutes of haphazard twists that jerk the whole thing in circles until it rams face-first into a wall. Roll credits. Cue the dumbfounded faces of every poor sucker at my screening wondering whether to stay for an after-credits scene. (There is no after-credits scene.) Glass disappoints so brazenly, squandering all its momentum and promise, that I keep wondering if it’s done on purpose. This is a movie in which a climactic moment hinges on a pothole. Most of it takes place indoors. Not a single building gets smashed, and the villain’s elderly mom explains to everyone what a “showdown” is—and then said showdown doesn’t happen. “This is where they would paint you with big eyes and bubbles of confusion above your head,” Mr. Glass sneers at one point. He may as well have been talking to us.
To be clear, none of this is fun-bad in execution, like, say, Venom. Nor is it some masterful defiance of blockbuster expectations, like Blade Runner 2049. It’s a weirdly lifeless experiment in superhero movie subversion that few involved—except for McAvoy, flying off the rails in every scene and loving it, it’s the best—seem to enjoy. But strangely, it doesn’t begin that way.
A brisk opening half hour brings heroes and villains together with refreshing efficiency. We learn that David has been running covert save-the-day missions with the help of his guy-in-the-chair, his now-grown son Joseph (played again by Spencer Treat Clark). He happens to bump into Hedwig (one of the Horde’s personalities, an impish nine-year-old) in the street, triggering a vision of the kidnapped cheerleaders he intends to feed the Beast, the superpowered, animalistic deity that counts as another personality. David storms in and fights the Horde until they’re both caught and taken to a mental institution where the fragile-boned Elijah has been sitting, catatonic, for almost two decades.
Here, they’re all under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, to whom I want to apologize for this mess), a psychologist doing her darnedest to convince everyone that superheroes aren’t real, comic books are a cult, and there are increasingly strained “logical” explanations for the freaky phenomena everyone keeps witnessing with their own two eyeballs. It’s a solid-enough setup, designed to hit all three superhumans’ self-doubt. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer did a variation on this, though more effectively.) Yet it stalls as Shyamalan can’t seem to find a way to weave all three plots together. He settles for having Dr. Staple pop in and out of each individual room in an endless roulette, while David and the Horde glower at each other from afar. Elijah sits in silence. This goes on for about an hour.
Still, the wheels have not come off yet. The Horde’s three dominant personalities—the exquisite Miss Patricia, tortured Dennis, and little Hedwig—talk a lot about true believers, and I counted myself among them, annoyed at the unfaithful around me audibly losing patience with Shyamalan’s vision. The writer-director has a gift for creating tension with little more than an actor, a long take, and a room. (Give him three actors and a room, like in the unforgettable kitchen scene from Unbreakable, and he can reduce you to sobs.) I was sure Glass was going somewhere until its final 30 minutes, when it practically devolves into an act of spite—at us, at superheroes, at Hollywood, who knows.
Shyamalan wants us to know that he got to this genre early; characters repeat the phrase “19 years” too many times to forget. So it’s strange that in Glass, he seems to forget what makes superhero stories (his included) endure. It’s not just the powers or the who-would-win. It’s also how people who choose to be good inspire us, and what those who choose evil tell us about ourselves. Glass tells us precious little about Elijah that we didn’t already know, save for a recycled deleted scene from Unbreakable. But it tells us a bit about his creator. Shyamalan can write a Stockholm Syndrome relationship between a teenage girl and a man in his 40s, and read it as touching. He can still undermine himself with a botched attempt to outsmart his audience. He might be the only auteur audacious enough to follow up a “comeback” by bookending one of the best entries in the superhero genre with one of the most painful.
He is still, for better and worse, uniquely himself.