When Logan saw the last breaths of a beloved character, there sprang a debate as to whether that film was the best comic book movie. It had a self-reflexive edge, as evidenced by the fact it was confident enough in the knowledge its audience had about its source material and influences to have its characters read comic books and watch Shane. In certain pop culturally-aware company, the question “Logan or The Dark Knight?” means bunkering down into a maelstrom of debate indicative of the hold the superhero genre has on modern cinema.
Yet both Mangold’s second-finest hour-and-a-bit (all hail Stallone in Cop Land) and Nolan’s third finest girl-in-the-fridge flick – don’t @ me, you know Memento and The Prestige are better – don’t actually have any claim to the crown: the throne has long been occupied by Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a film that came after the initial blockbuster era of straight-laced, pre-CGI capes n’ tights movies that included Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman. Where those movies were gargantuan Hollywood outings anchored by miraculously relatable turns by Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton, and given an air of bombast by Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson, Unbreakable was a sombre character study driven by the central conceit that superheroes exist in the real world. After The Sixth Sense, the expectation was that director M. Night Shyamalan would follow it up with another twist-centric pseudo-thriller, yet here he was, putting his main action scene right at the start, cutting away before it even began, then spending the rest of the movie getting Bruce Willis to act all sensitive. It worked because Shyamalan realised that, at their hearts, comic book movies weren’t about believing a man could fly, or that Jack Nicholson could hide a comically over-sized pistol in his trousers, but rather that the human angle was imperative. Unbreakable doubled down on that, and so wasn’t just about a man believing in himself, but also the fact that a father should always be a hero to his son.
Unbreakable existed for a while in a netherworld of dismissal, for some time merely being the film made between The Sixth Sense and Signs. Yet as the comic book resurgence became a full-on monopoly, the film’s nuances were rediscovered and longed for. You can see why; as entertaining as they may be, there is nothing in the Marvel or DC canon as affecting as the weightlifting scene in Unbreakable that finally bonds David Dunn and his ecstatic young son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Then, two years ago, when Split decided to run slightly longer than it needed to in order to feature the unmistakeable polished noggin of Willis furrowing his brow at news report on a rampage by a man with multiple split personalities collectively known as The Horde (a sublime James McAvoy), Unbreakable was elevated to classic status, and hopes were high. After years of misfires that seemed to be ending with the box office success of The Visit and Split, could Shyamalan’s rediscovered mojo tie up this unexpected trilogy in a glorious bow?
Beginning with a check-in on Willis’ older Dunn, now a widowed vigilante named The Overseer, the film cuts to the chase relatively quickly, and in so doing exposes some of the stylistic weaknesses it doesn’t quite shake off. The first showdown between Dunn and The Horde’s dominant personality The Beast starts off promisingly enough, but contains a few questionably staged shots that remind you this is from the director of action non-classic After Earth. Then, just like that, it’s over, and the two are taken into the custody of Dr. Ellie Stapler (Sarah Paulson), who also treats the near-comatose Elijah Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). Her mission is to convince the three that all 26 of them are dealing with a superhero delusion. Meanwhile, Dunn’s grown-up son (still Clark), The Horde’s final girl (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Glass’ mother (Charlayne Woodward) try to come to terms with the situation from the outside looking in. Yet Mr. Glass might not be as drowsy as he appears, and hey, isn’t that giant skyscraper the news keeps mentioning really perfect for the showdown scrap he’d need to convince the world heroes do exist?
If that paragraph seems rushed and crowded, please know that it’s also an accurate reflection of the first twenty minutes of Glass.
Overly-sensitive concerns about his character’s representation of mental health aside (he’s based on comic-book characters, not case studies), McAvoy is again on top form. His flitting between personalities is showcased in an unnerving scene during his initial incarceration when he tries to convince an orderly to pick up the dropped insulin one of him needs. Jackson eventually keeps up in the acting stakes, his character by necessity of the script not being very vocal at first, but he gets several movies worth of monologuing in by the end. Willis, however, seems to be either trying to stiffly replicate his subtle work from Unbreakable, or still sleepwalking his way through movies like he’s done for the last few years, as if he over-exerted himself pushing Joseph Gordon-Levitt off the screen in Looper.
In fairness, with the movie named after one character that exists because of a newer film that centred on the several personalities existing in another, there might not have been room for more Willis. It’s a shame, as a more active David Dunn might have stopped the last third taking (depending on your Shyamalove) either a daring or rather underwhelming turn that may dampen the impact of Split, and the legacy of Unbreakable. [Minor plot points ahead] This final stretch is where audience perceptions of Glass will break apart. Is the choice Shyamalan makes with the final showdown a brave, carpet-pulling twist in itself – it certainly is a middle finger both to the concept of Chekhov’s Gun and story structure in general – or a development so underwhelming it could easily be explained as a budgetary constraint? Your point of view might depend on how you feel when the lingo of metatextuality is dropped in to explicitly point out plot points and declare some events to be origin stories – which might not be what some viewers want to hear after twenty years and three movies. A second viewing might see the pieces fit together in a tidier way, however at first glance it certainly seemed as if one character’s backstory had been conveniently retrofitted, and another had suddenly developed Stockholm Syndrome. This is a shame, as the soul of the first movie and the genre focus of the second should have added up to a third film that more coherently broadcasts its themes. At least there are several accurate critiques of the hijacking of comic book culture by uncultured commercial interests: “Have you ever been to a comic-book convention?” one character incredulously sneers, before noting that these days they are used to sell teen soap operas rather than Frank Miller limited editions. So, the Shyamalanaissance is still just about in gear, which, personally speaking, is a good thing. With so many rent-a-kit directors churning out mid-level Hollywood schlock, someone with a grand plan and the trust of respectable casts to implement them in an esoteric manner is welcome. And, as muddled as the finale appears, at least it’s clear what he was going for. It’s a shame that, despite the nearly 20 years since the first film in this trilogy, the finale seems rushed at the close. Well, I guess Meat Loaf said it best…
Glass is currently out on general release