Movie Review: Glass
By Matthew Huntley
January 31, 2019
Given that “Glass” is essentially a superhero movie—unique in the sense its characters have knowledge of superheroes just as we do, from popular media such as comic books, the cinema, etc.—I’ve no doubt it will be sampled by many ardent superhero fans and either be mildly lauded, admired and appreciated, or ferociously condemned, chewed up and spit out. This is the kind of movie whose maker must have known that what he was conjuring wasn’t meant to be liked by all and that it would either fuel division, arguments and resentment, or curiosity, respect and a new way of thinking about the genre. Whatever writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s intentions, “Glass” will surely jumpstart many conversations, theories and debates, and those in the superhero movie fandom will most likely have an extreme reaction to it, either positive or negative.
I’ve never considered myself an official member of this subculture, although I do enjoy superhero movies as much as the next person. They have a universal appeal and are inherently exciting for many reasons, but chief among them is they stimulate our imaginations and reignite our belief that we are capable of so much more than what we and others perceive—that we possess hidden gifts and abilities that are exclusive to us. Namely, they make us think we’re just as special as the heroes.
Interestingly, Shyamalan uses this heightened effect superheroes have on us for the premise of his film. Whereas most people relinquish the idea they too could have superpowers after reading a comic book or finishing a superhero movie, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a.k.a. Mr. Glass, does not. He’s long believed superheroes are real and their appearance in comics and movies are mere extensions of what real people actually saw or heard and that some humans have been held back from showing off their true potential, either physical or intellectual. In fact, Glass believes himself to be a superhuman mastermind—the classic villain in a real-life superhero saga, and the plot of “Glass” involves his carrying out a labyrinthine scheme to prove superheroes and their villain counterparts truly exist.
You’ll recall Mr. Glass character first appeared in Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” (2001), the relatively low-profile follow-up to his megahit, “The Sixth Sense” (1999). When “Unbreakable” underperformed critically and financially, many, including myself, assumed both its concept and characters were a one-time thing. But then Shyamalan pulled one of his signature twists: At the end of his 2017 psychological thriller, “Split”, he revealed *spoiler alert* the film’s main character, Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), lived in the same universe as Glass and David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the villain-hero pair from “Unbreakable.” In that film *spoiler alert*, it was revealed Glass, believing himself to be a real-life villain, deliberately caused a train crash in order to find his hero nemesis (Dunn).
Suddenly, with “Unbreakable” and “Split,” we had a new superhero series on our hands, and the key players were established: Crumb, an elusive kidnapper of young women with 24 different personalities, the most dangerous being an animal-like, deep-voiced wall climber known as “The Beast”; Glass, the aforementioned mastermind, intellectual and mass murderer who suffers from Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, meaning his bones are incredibly fragile; and Dunn, the seemingly mild-mannered, ordinary man who came to learn he had extraordinary strength and extrasensory perception, which allows him to see what crimes people have committed just by touching them. Dunn’s one weakness is water, but so long as he steers clear of swimming pools and the like, he’s able to patrol the streets of Philadelphia with the help of his now-grown son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). By day, they run a security store; by night, their combined efforts have earned David the moniker, “The Overseer.”
“Glass” takes place shortly after “Split,” with David and Joseph being on the lookout for the latest set of young women Crumb has kidnapped. When David makes physical contact with one of Crumb’s unassuming personalities, he’s able to see he’s keeping the girls—four cheerleaders—in a warehouse. David tracks them down and he and “The Beast” fight nearly to the death before they’re both arrested and taken to a mental institution at the behest of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients who believe they’re superheroes. This is the same hospital where Elijah has been residing ever since the events of “Unbreakable.”
Staple has set up each of the men’s padded rooms in such a way that controls their powers, and her prerogative is to show them they are, in fact, “normal people” and that superheroes aren’t real. She even gathers all the men together in one room for group therapy sessions to talk about their problems.
This plot development alone is an interesting one, because rarely has a superhero movie ever allowed the hero and villains to be mental health patients who talk openly about what it’s like to be a hero and villain, with their identities fully disclosed to each other. I also can’t think of one that suggests the hero and villains’ powers may be imagined or psychosomatic. It would have been really bold if Shyamalan ran with this idea even more and let the movie become more of a psychological drama rather than remain a traditional actioner, but we should be grateful it at least explores some new ground.
Whether Elijah, Crumb and David respond to Staple’s treatment, and who ultimately prevails, I leave for you to discover, but given that “Glass” is, at its core, a superhero movie—one written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan no less—if you suspect it’ll boil down to a sensational battle between the hero and villains, with a twist or two thrown in for good measure, you wouldn’t be wrong. You also wouldn’t be wrong if we get a long-winded explanation of everything that happens.
The value viewers ascribe to “Glass” will depend on whether they think Shyamalan’s particular take on comic books and superheroes is either bold, interesting and useful, or dull, trite and pretentious. I think it falls somewhere in between but leans toward the former just enough that it’s worth recommending. Yes, the presentation is sometimes slow and laborious, and it seems Shyamalan has once again allowed his ego to get the better of him, burdening the movie with excess exposition, either because he loves to hear his own words spoken by the characters and/or because he doesn’t think viewers are all that bright and feels the need to explain things to an undue degree. The climax gets especially tiresome as the film works to tie all the characters and plot threads together, going around and around (and around) until all our burning questions are answered.
That being said, I still found its answers intriguing and the movie’s overall take on our culture’s obsession with superheroes interesting, entertaining and emotional. I liked that each of the superhuman characters had a loving “normal human” counterpart—an everyday person to care for him, which speaks to the film’s strong message that no matter how weak, strong or vulnerable we may be, it’s in our nature to require love and acceptance, and that other humans are there to provide that love and acceptance. Elijah has his caring, protective mother (Charlayne Woodard); Crumb has Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), his would-be victim from “Split,” whose affection and empathy convinced “The Beast” to let her go; and David has Joseph. These supporting characters gave the film a stronger than expected heart and created genuine emotion while, at the same time, they kept the plot grounded. I also appreciated the film’s valuable, albeit derivative, message about the importance of always exposing the truth and that people shouldn’t be ashamed of who they are so long as they don’t bring harm to others.
“Glass” isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it does offer a somewhat unique take on the superhero genre that allows it stand out, which is refreshing considering just how many superhero movies there are and how much they recycle one another. It won’t be the last “self-aware” superhero movie and there will be better ones to come along, but as I watched it, I was intrigued, entertained and moved. More devoted superhero fans will pick it apart a lot more heavily I’m sure, either by overpraising it or castigating it to no end. No matter what camp you fall into, though, I say it’s worth your time because having any meaningful reaction to a film—positive or negative—is better than no reaction at all.