M. Night Shyamalan making a superhero movie trilogy ranks among the director’s strangest plot twists.
In Unbreakable, the invulnerable hero David Dunn, played by Bruce Willis, survives a massive train crash—that’s his origin story. Dunn’s post-traumatic malaise creates space for the delirious feud between Dunn and comics store owner Elijah Price, the latter slowly revealing himself to be a mass murderer with grand and colorful pretensions about being a supervillain. In Split, Kevin Crumb abducts three teen girls, and their captivity creates the space for Crumb to unleash his several personalities, collectively known as the Horde, which converge upon abused teenager Casey Cooke. Unbreakable and Split present their respective rivalries in closed, unsettling contexts. There are no world-ending climaxes. The resolutions are powerful, but small. These aren’t blockbusters, at least not ideally.
In Glass, Shyamalan expands the context, and the cast, to form a full cinematic universe. Finally, Dunn, Price, and Crumb share prominence all together. Cooke, too, returns, and here she joins Dunn’s teenaged son, Joseph, as well as Price’s mother in the mere-mortals gallery. More importantly, Glass introduces Dr. Ellie Staple, played by Sarah Paulson, a psychiatrist who detains Dunn, Price, and Crumb in a psych ward together and assesses their delusions (in her estimation) about their respective superpowers. Dr. Staple lives to disprove. She means to ensure that all three mythologies end with a whimper.
The setting reduces Dunn, Price, and Crumb to indigence. The psych ward is dim, sterile, and segregated; the orderlies are inept, paranoid, and abusive. Dunn goes unshaven and unwashed, though Dr. Staple threatens to flood Dunn’s cell with water—his only weakness—if he rebels. In a separate cell, Price has gone catatonic in his wheelchair, and the nurses exploit his immobility as a long opportunity to haze and neglect him. Crumb is shouting nonsense all the time, and he can’t take care of himself. Dr. Staple hasn’t hospitalized Crumb to treat or care for him. She’s hospitalized Crumb to prove his danger to others. Dr. Staple diagnoses her three patients, and two of them—Dunn and Crumb—begin to doubt themselves. They deteriorate in professional care. Dr. Staple’s only pseudo-medical success is keeping Dunn, Price, and Crumb locked away from a general population. The psych ward is the homeless shelter. The psych ward is the asylum. The psych ward is real enough.
The fundamental ideas are all well and good: All three movies consider how cruel and excessive comic book origin stories can be. In the best stretch of Glass—the middle, introspective act—Shyamalan turns the psych ward into a triage for the power fantasies at play. They’re all unhealthy, regardless of whether the superpowers are real or imagined. The superpowers are all designed to resolve personal trauma through blunt force. But then Glass abandons the ruminations on trauma as soon as the characters abandon the psych ward in the final act. In a Shyamalanian twist, one of the characters is revealed to be not what they seem, destabilizing the momentum the story seemed to be building, and so the endgame pits all three mutants (as it were) against homogeneity and genetic hygiene. At philosophical odds all throughout the movie, Dr. Staple and Price discuss comic books as modern mythology. Price finds comic books exhilarating. Dr. Staple finds them intolerable. They conspicuously avoid talking about Marvel movies, which suggests a universe alternative to our own; a culture where only a marginal fandom, including Price, would celebrate David Dunn or Mr. Glass. So Price can seem to be making arguments about a popular obsession that doesn’t canonically exist. Mr. Glass is Samuel L. Jackson, who also plays special-ops middleman Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “There was an idea,” Nick Fury famously tells the Avengers. But Glass imagines, “What if there wasn’t?” What if all the shadowy institutions recognized these “remarkable people,” so defined by fetishized suffering, as humans who need help?
Shyamalan’s three movies do amount to a unique and interesting outlook on power fantasies as serialized costume drama. The Deadpool movies clown superhero tropes; the Unbreakable trilogy disputes them and unglamorizes the superheroes themselves. Why, then, does Glass end with three concurrent, conventional climaxes that contradict and undermine the movie’s major themes and the trilogy’s most peculiar strengths? Why does Glass trivialize Cooke, whose own great trauma from Split goes unexplored and only briefly mentioned? There’s a point when Glass stops being a story about trauma and starts being a movie about superheroes. But only Mr. Glass ever took superheroes so seriously and on such bombastic terms. Originally—literally, in terms of origin—David Dunn was a sad dad with a raincoat. He fights a janitor. The stakes were much simpler. It was a different time.