Director M. Night Shyamalan returns with Glass, the final installment in a superhero trilogy preceded by Split (2016) and Unbreakable (2000). Glass boasts of a more grounded take on superheroes than the big-budget capers from Marvel and DC that have become mainstream in the last decade. However, its over-reliance on expository dialogue and unwarranted twists fails to capture a true sense of realism, resulting in a storytelling experience that is neither dramatic enough to be entertaining nor human enough to have lasting emotional impact.
Glass unites the casts of Unbreakable and Split and pits them against a third opponent in the form of a doctor who claims to be able to cure people who believe they have superpowers. Nineteen years after David Dunn (Bruce Willis) awakens his super-strength in a terrible train accident, he patrols the streets of Philadelphia as a poncho-clad superhero, with radio support from his now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Meanwhile, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) continues to prey on teenage girls while his 23 multiple personalities trade control of “the light”, and await the day that the superpowered predatory 24th personality, The Beast, will manifest again. David tracks Kevin to the the abandoned factory where he is holding his latest victims hostage, but their fight is cut short when police officers subdue both of them and take them to a mental institution. There, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) informs them that she has been given three days to persuade them that they are normal people with delusions, instead of actual superhumans. Mass murderer Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) is being kept in the same facility, and with three supposedly super-powered individuals in the same building, Dr. Staple’s tenuous plan to cure them all appears increasingly impossible.
For a film aiming to be realistic, Glass relies too heavily on unrealistic elements typical of big box office movies. For example, the facility designed to hold murderers is conveniently understaffed, and the doctors are allowed to operate on Mr. Glass without his consent, as this raises tensions. In addition, a major conflict introduced in Glass is whether or not the main characters genuinely possess superhuman abilities. Dr. Staple’s admission that they are all merely delusional sounds convincing at first, but after giving it some thought, trying to tell people who can climb upside-down on ceilings and bend steel that their abilities are all within the realm of natural human capabilities seems implausible. Without spoiling it, the big twist at the end raises more questions than answers, and further detracts from the supposed realism of the film.
Glass’s realism is also bogged down by awkward dialogue throughout the film, such as the grating insult hurled by a comic book shop owner at Joseph. “You better not be one of those Hello Kitty perverts,” he deadpans. Meanwhile, Mr. Glass’s need to point out every element of the conflict grows increasingly heavy-handed as the film progresses. He explicitly calls the battle between David and The Beast a “showdown” and then proceeds to define what a showdown is, describes Kevin’s past as his “origin story”, and even at one point refers to a trio of supporting family and friends as “the main characters.” These meta references might have worked in a film that doesn’t try to be grounded, but in a gritty story like Glass, it feels like Shyamalan is hitting audiences over the head with concepts that they should already be familiar with.
One of the most disappointing elements of Glass is how it reduces Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), the protagonist of Split, to a supporter for the man who literally ate her friends and tried to eat her too. From a storytelling standpoint, this was obviously a choice made out of convenience so that each of the main characters had someone close to them to witness their climactic battle. For Mr. Glass and David, it’s a family member. For Kevin, it’s his victim, one whose sudden Stockholm syndrome seems to have been written in solely so the rest of the plot would appear cohesive.
The film isn’t completely without merit, however, as it explores areas which more traditional superhero films gloss over. Glass asks the intriguing question of where the line between human strength and superhuman ability lies, and in doing so presents the age-old question of “who can be a superhero” in a new way. In addition, unexpectedly humorous moments peppered throughout the otherwise gloomy film help propel the slow-paced second act forward. McAvoy’s talent and range deserve special praise, as he cycles through multiple personas in the span of just a few seconds each.
In the end, Glass falls flat because of its overemphasis on subverting expectations and its clunky execution of an otherwise compelling theme. Without dedicating any time to humanizing its characters in depth, audiences will find it difficult to know who to root for at any given time. Glass aims big and delivers a promising cast and intriguing setup, but under the weight of an awkward, uneven script, the film ultimately shatters.