by Peter Dabbene
Ever since I walked out of the theater after seeing Unbreakable in 2000, the movie stood as one of my all-time favorites. I was (and am) a comic book fan, so the subject matter was right up my alley, but the execution surpassed anything I could have expected. In the years that followed, I jumped at every rumor of a sequel, lost hope as writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s fortunes faded in Hollywood, and regained hope with each stray mention from Samuel L. Jackson or Bruce Willis that they’d be up for another project.
Still, I watched Split with no suspicion of what was to come. Split was enjoyable in its own right, but when the “Unbreakable” theme music began to creep in toward the end of the movie, eventually revealing David Dunn (Bruce Willis) as a member of the same movie universe, I had to suppress a cheer. It was finally coming.
Though I was excited about Glass, my fervor was tempered by the memory of Star Wars: Episode I — the last time I waited 16 years for a sequel, I was awfully disappointed. What if Glass wasn’t good? While it would have been frustrating to never have a sequel to Unbreakable, a truly awful sequel might actually diminish the original movie.
As a movie series based on comic books, there’s a ready analogy here in every incomplete multi-issue comic book story that ever haunted a kid; back in pre-internet days, finding the conclusion to that two-parter that had sucked you in wasn’t always easy. You could go years, turning over the possibilities in your head, imagining the way you wanted it to end, before finally finding the sought-after issue in a bargain bin and wiping away all those imagined possibilities with something that often fell short.
As I finally watched Glass in the theater, there was much to reward the faithful: just seeing all of the main characters in action was a thrill in itself, and Shyamalan enjoys playing with viewers’ expectations in a way that always delights me — he forces movie-watching to become an interactive experience, rather than just a passive one, as the twists and turns leave you constantly reassessing where the film is headed (the same kind of reversal of movie norms that made 10 Cloverfield Lane so enjoyable). So, I wasn’t disappointed.
But there were also plenty of moments in Glass that threatened to derail the so-called “Eastrail 177 Trilogy.” The dialogue tends toward the expository and the unrealistic, even when it’s just a psychiatric facility worker attempting to explain Elijah Price’s presence in a hallway, saying that the door must have been left “ajar,” a word choice that’s much more likely to come from the head of a filmmaker than the mouth of an actual hospital orderly.
The film’s ending strains a bit in its twisting, and the classic James Newton Howard “Unbreakable” theme is, incredibly, almost completely absent from Glass, as the movie’s comparatively low budget apparently allowed for a three-name composer (West Dylan Thordson), just not the one everyone wanted.
The film’s pacing is slow at times, even as it’s overstuffed with interesting ideas and compelling character motivations that often get the bum’s-rush treatment. And, with the exception of James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde, the performances are adequate, but not outstanding. Accordingly, reviews for Glass have been mixed, leaning toward the mediocre.
Here’s what those reviews are missing, even though the films provide near-constant reminders — I’ve mentioned it in this review already, too: the Unbreakable/Split/Glass trilogy is based on comic books. Attacking many of the weaknesses I mentioned above is kind of like attacking the original Star Wars (A New Hope, if you must) for its sometimes cheesy dialogue, or wooden performances, or over-the-top plot — they’re part of the big, operatic package.
More to the point, some criticisms of Split ran along the lines of: “the psychology of split personalities isn’t being represented accurately.” But exaggeration, as well as exposition and eccentricity (and as Hedwig, Kevin Wendell Crumb’s nine-year-old personality, would say, “et cetera”) is all part of the genre, and Shyamalan is consistently faithful to that grand, dramatic, comic-book storytelling style.
Yes, there are many comic books today that have consciously broken out of the 1960s and 70s DC/Marvel model, or “enhanced” it to keep with the times. But Shyamalan embraces the tried-and-true format of comics without pandering; he acknowledges tradition, even in the alliteration of his character names (Peter Parker, meet David Dunn), but rather than simply mining old comic book storylines like many of Marvel and DC’s movie offerings, he’s created a captivating new story.
One key difference between the last decade’s crop of Marvel and DC films, and the Unbreakable trilogy, is the restrained use of humor in the latter. In Spider-Man comics, even when Peter Parker delivered wisecracks while web-slinging, humor was a mere character-building distraction from the main event; it’s why, as entertaining as the 1960s Batman TV show was, it’s not representative of the Batman that resonates with most fans (nor is Ben Affleck’s growly-Batman, but that’s another matter).
The Batman show was funny because it struck at the heart of heroic self-seriousness, courtesy of the late Adam West. But comics, despite the unfortunate connotations of their name, aren’t about one-liners or visual gags. Comics — superhero comics, anyway — deal in big, bold mythology. They embrace self-seriousness. They’re supposed to be ponderous, yet epic, ridiculous outside a comic-book context, but elegant within it. They deal in heightened emotions and grand ambitions, something that even Marvel’s most successful superhero films often lose track of, mistaking big CGI and global extinction events as substitutes for the power of a perfectly matched villian.
For as many successful superhero movies as Hollywood has produced, the Unbreakable trilogy still offers, to me, the closest film-approximation to the experience of reading a comic book. And even if Glass isn’t perfect, that’s pretty impressive.
Many headlines and clickbait links that emerged after the movie’s release proclaimed that Glass failed to “smash,” “shatter,” or “break” box office expectations. While indulging in some Glass-related wordplay myself, allow me to conclude: Glass is a mixed bag containing uneven, sometimes painfully pointed fragments alongside smooth, polished beauty. Sometimes Glass is too transparent, and sometimes it’s overly opaque. It can move at a pace that’s leaden, and includes a flashback that’s recycled from Unbreakable.
But, to be crystal clear — though it may not be a diamond, and its imperfections are obvious, the essence of Glass shines, reflective of a glossy comic book universe.