‘Glass’ is a film that will almost assuredly divide critics and general audiences – a growing trend among films in recent years, it seems. While I can’t speak to the overall genesis of this divide – well, I can speak to it, but this review is neither the time nor the place for that long-winded rhetoric – I can provide what my personal insight is for the, pardon the M. Night pun, cinematic split for ‘Glass.’
This film, to me, seems infinitely more about the journey than the destination; this is something that doesn’t always sit well with those who watch films with a critical eye, as the classic narrative device of “introduction – story – conclusion” is skewed in a way that values the first two parts substantially more than the third. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Glass’ has a conclusion, and it’s a very bold and very firm conclusion; it’s just not a very satisfying one.
Before I dive too deep on the film’s structural duplicity, a quick spoiler-free overview of what ‘Glass’ is looking to deliver to you on-screen. The film picks up its action shortly after the conclusion of the events shown in 2017’s ‘Split’ – viewers will recall, of course, that that film ended with a surprise appearance from the character David Dunn, originally of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 film ‘Unbreakable.’ What we have in ‘Glass’ is a stitching of the two movies’ narratives together: when Dunn discovered that he had superhero-like abilities, a discovery made with the morbid help of Samuel L. Jackson’s “Mister Glass” as the ostensible villain of the original tale, he decided to spend his days as a mild-mannered owner of a home-security company and his free time as a low-key superhero vigilante, helping people around the city of Philadelphia when there were petty crimes and other small-scale threatening issues. To borrow from the premise established in ‘Unbreakable’ of comic books providing a parallel for things that happen in real life, Dunn is filling a hybrid role of Batman and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Yes, I know they’re from different comic-book publishers – the allegory holds.
For 19 years, Dunn has operated in the shadows, being dubbed “the Overseer” by the public and performing heroic deeds on such a small scale that he was able to largely stay off the manhunt-level radar of local law enforcement. In ‘Split,’ however, a new character was introduced into the equation: James McAvoy’s multiple-personality killer-with-a-supernatural-strength-advantage known as “the Beast” (leader by default of the other personalities, collectively known as the Horde), nee Kevin Wendell Crumb. The Beast is a threat far larger than any Dunn has faced before, and the characters get their first face-off early in ‘Glass.’
The confrontation is cut short, however, by the arrival of law enforcement under the guidance of psychologist Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who is confident that she can cure both of these men of what she believes to be delusions that are manifesting themselves as their “superpowers.” She remands the pair to confinement at the psychiatric facility where she is also treating Mister Glass – ostensibly the same facility that he was taken to, per post-movie ‘Unbreakable’ screen text, after his first showdown with Dunn. All 3 characters have been brought together; in classic comic-book fashion, the crossover showdown is set, and the climactic battle is all but assured.
Like most stories of the comic-book world, the devil is in the details for ‘Glass.’ The amount of exposition the film has to provide for the viewer is simply staggering; Shyamalan is attempting to meld together narratives that were seen on screen seventeen years apart (you could have left a screening of ‘Unbreakable,’ went home with your significant other and conceived a child, and that child would now be old enough to drive you to the theater for your screening of ‘Glass’ … think about that), so the inherent challenge is large to begin with. Couple that with the fact that ‘Unbreakable,’ in its day, was a heady examination of the comic-book genre in a time where films about comic books were neither as ubiquitous nor as commercially bankable as they are today, and you’ve got a recipe that calls for a generous dose of over-explanation.
This is essentially the sole reason for the existence of Paulson’s character throughout most of the film, and watching her scenes are an extreme disappointment in the narrative context. In the performance department, she does well enough with what she’s given, but her performance is nothing of standout note; this is also the description I would give for Jackson and Willis’ performances as well. They all just seem to exist in the film, reading lines and reacting to situations in an average, “expected” fashion. Only McAvoy’s performance is truly a stand-out here; as he did with ‘Split,’ he brings an amazing energy to the interchangeable personalities that come and go as they fight for access to “the light” in Kevin’s brain.
Another parallel that ‘Glass’ shares with comics is the aforementioned emphasis on the journey at the expense of the destination. Most comic-book series will go on for dozens of issues, each issue featuring its own little contained story under the guise of a larger, over-arching narrative – but the “bigger picture” is never the primary focus, and it’s usually not what sells the books. The same holds true with this movie; the story is grand, and the excitement of seeing characters from different properties meet is palpable – but the climax is an afterthought and clearly was secondary to the “event” of the film itself.
This is where I believe many people, critic and average viewer alike, will have the biggest issue with Shyamalan and ‘Glass,’ much like most of his recent work. As a fiction writer myself, I prefer to first create a “big idea” or driving force as a conclusion of a tale, and then work backwards to make the story service this (hopefully) satisfying conclusion. This, I believe, is what Shyamalan did early in his career, with the surprise endings of such classics as ‘The Sixth Sense’ and ‘Unbreakable,’ among others. In the process, he became labeled as the “Twist Ending Guy,” and whether that’s what he wanted his legacy to be or not, this is what he is known for by the masses. Somewhere along his career path, however, it seems that he shifted from writing his endings first into moving to a more “this sounds like a cool premise” type of starting point and then shoehorning an ending onto his story – a “twist ending,” because that’s who he feels he has to be, but an ending lacking the punch of his earlier work, because the climax was no longer the primary focus.
This, in my opinion, is the biggest sin of ‘Glass’ – a conclusion that is not worthy or in line with the 19-year history of this franchise. Credit where credit is due: Shyamalan has created a climax to this film that definitively closes the book on Mr. Glass, the Overseer, and the Beast. It feels, sadly, that the conclusion given does a massive disservice to what was established as the core being of all three characters.
Like many a final issue of a long-running comic book series, the tying up of the threads in ‘Glass’ feels incredibly disappointing when compared against the adventure that the story has taken us all on over the years. It’s a poor final taste to be left in a viewer’s mouth; general audiences sometimes have the ability to see past this, as they’ve enjoyed the journey so much, but for more critical viewers, the destination is such an unfortunate result that it will permanently taint the entire franchise experience.