When M. Night Shyamalan unveiled his original superhero film Unbreakable in 2000, the Hollywood landscape hadn’t yet been saturated by superhero stories and cinematic universes. The MCU wasn’t a thing, nor was the DC Extended Universe—even the DCEU’s universally acclaimed precursor, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, wouldn’t take off for another five years. And that’s why Shyamalan could get away with this opening Unbreakable with this:
It seems funny, looking at this in 2019, to open a film by informing your audience that comics are really popular. But this was back in 2000, and Shyamalan was navigating—and working against—an entirely different space. This would be unthinkable now, but Disney actually encouraged the director to steer away from Unbreakable’s comic-book leanings for its marketing strategy. The movie’s biggest twist is just how ahead of the curve Shyamalan was on this particular moviemaking trend.
Since Unbreakable, Shyamalan has had some ups (Signs, The Village) and some abysmal downs (The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth, Devil, Lady in the Water—OK, there have been a lot more downs) before going back to the basics with two low-budget thrillers with simpler conceits. The first, The Visit from 2015, saw two kids meet their grandparents for the first time—after which it didn’t take long for them to realize something was really off with grandma and grandpa. (Of course there was a twist.) The second, 2016’s Split, saw James McAvoy as a troubled man with an extreme (and potentially problematic) case of dissociative identity disorder kidnap and imprison three teenage girls to feed to his most sinister and feral personality, “The Beast.” But at the end of Split, we saw some concerned locals in a diner discussing the news of McAvoy’s character’s escape when Bruce Willis, once again playing David Dunn from Unbreakable, popped up to help a woman remember the name of the man in a wheelchair who orchestrated multiple terrorist attacks 15 years prior. And just like that, Shyamalan revealed that with Split, he had actually made a stealth sequel to Unbreakable. (This was, admittedly, a great twist.)
It took nearly 20 years, but on Friday, Shyamalan finally rounds out his makeshift superhero trilogy with Glass, which puts David Dunn (Willis), Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) together in a psychiatric ward and has them consider whether any of them really do have superpowers. Glass, like any proper final installment of a trilogy should, is informed by the films that preceded it, and continues the narrative threads they developed—while also broadening the cinematic universe’s scope to show how a handful of heroes and villains in Philadelphia play into a larger superhero world. If you’re curious how all these films tie together, haven’t seen the previous films, or you haven’t caught up with Unbreakable or Split in a while, here’s a guide for how Glass ties this unique trilogy together. Big spoilers—and signature Shyamalan twists!—below.
The foundational event of Shyamalan’s trilogy is the Eastrail 177 train that crashes and kills all of its passengers at the beginning of Unbreakable—everyone, that is, except David. David barely has any scratches on him after the catastrophic incident, which is the first of many hints—thanks to some clever nudging from Elijah Price and David’s son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark)—that he might have superpowers. Of course, the big reveal of Unbreakable is that the Eastrail 177 crash was no tragic accident: Elijah had orchestrated several terrorist attacks, including the train crash, in a bid to prove his theory that superpowered humans lived among us. Elijah was ultimately correct, albeit at an abhorrent and considerable human cost.
But the Eastrail 177 incident isn’t just the catalyst for David becoming a superhero and Elijah being revealed as a criminal mastermind: It is also at least partially responsible for Kevin’s own transformation into The Horde (the name given to all 24 different personalities residing in him). One of the biggest catalysts in Kevin’s life is that his father abruptly abandoned him one day, leaving him at home with an abusive mother. However, in Glass, we find out Kevin’s father was one of the many victims aboard Eastrail 177, with Shyamalan even going so far as to reveal he was in the same passenger car as David.
A little overly convenient? Absolutely, but Shyamalan loves a good twist—and this one reflects the trilogy’s belief that the extraordinary can be found anywhere, and within anyone. The Eastrail 177 crash is an awful event, yet one that affected hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area. The world has more than 7 billion people, and through one (comparatively small) event, three different superpowered people were created. (Yes, the trilogy posits—and Glass all but confirms—that Elijah’s power is next-level intelligence, and considering everything dastardly thing he does, that checks out.) Through this one incident, Glass suggests that in its world, people like David are just waiting to be found.
Technically, this reformed drug dealer—who, guess what, is played by M. Night Shyamalan himself—is the only character other than David Dunn to appear in all three movies. There isn’t really anything to glean from this—other than noting that M. Night likes to get his Hitchcock on—but it still counts as a connection, I guess. (Note: The character is categorized as “Jai/Hooters Lover” on Split’s IMDb page, while he’s just Stadium Drug Dealer in Unbreakable and uncredited in Glass, which clearly means he went from not liking Hooters to really liking Hooters, back to not liking Hooters.)
How Trauma Forges Comic-Adjacent Identities
Beyond David, Elijah, and Kevin merely having superpowers, the alter egos they assume are forged from the traumas that shaped them growing up. For Kevin, we learn, the myriad personalities manifested after his father never came home and he was subjected to his mother’s abusive behavior—The Horde was an extreme defense mechanism. Even The Beast, in its own twisted purview, considers itself Kevin’s lethal protector. (Among other things, The Beast can withstand gunshots, even if the rest of the personalities can’t when they assume control of his body.)
Meanwhile, Elijah suffers from brittle bone disease; he assumes the alter ego “Mr. Glass” because kids that bullied him growing up gave him this nickname, so he took something meant to deride him and making it the centerpiece of his villainous identity. And David, having survived a traumatic pool incident as a child in which he felt totally helpless (he considers water his kryptonite), has always felt the urge to protect people, which explains why he’s worked in security for most of his life.
The way these superhero personae are heightened responses to events is depicted in Glass not just through the actions of David, Elijah, and Kevin, but in the way their traumas affect the lives of the people closest to them. For Elijah, that person is his mother (played by Charlayne Woodard); for David, it’s his son Joseph, especially since his wife Audrey (played by Robin Wright in Unbreakable) has died; and for Kevin, it’s Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the only girl who survived The Beast’s onslaught in Split because she, too, was a “pure” victim of abuse. These three characters are the only ones with an innate understanding of why these people chose to be who they are behind the alter-ego visages—to others, they’re just the kind of broad caricatures you might see in a comic book.
By the end of Glass, it’s up to Mrs. Price, Joseph, and Casey to honor David, Elijah, and Kevin’s legacies and share their abilities with the rest of the world to prove the extraordinary can be found among us. In doing so, the film supports a character-driven approach to depicting heroes and villains, rather than bombastic overtures you might see in other superhero franchises, like the MCU, which has often struggled to make compelling character motivations beyond standouts like Erik Killmonger.
Philadelphia is Shyamalan’s hometown, so it’s unsurprising that he’d make the city the centerpiece for his Unbreakable trilogy. The one nagging thing about making such a small-scale superhero story compared to the larger universes formed by the MCU and DCEU, though, is the fact that it implies a handful of people with superpowers just so happened to congregate near Paddy’s Pub. This is not Philly shade, coastal bias, or anything like that—it’s just that Unbreakable posits that in a world deprived of superheroes, they all emerged in Philadelphia. The MCU, in contrast, showcases heroes from across the world—and even the galaxy. It’s the most pro-Philly thing to ever happen, outside of everything ever produced by The Ringer.
But Shyamalan’s intentions are made clear by the end of Glass. Superpowered humans isn’t a Philly-specific thing—the rest of the world has just been dealing with superpowered population control. Once again, Elijah was right in his belief that superhumans lived among us. What he didn’t anticipate was that there is a centuries-old organization whose primary goal is keeping superheroes out of the spotlight.
By the end of Glass, the film posits that this mysterious organization ensures that people with abilities like Kevin, David, and Elijah don’t become part of the public consciousness. There’s a reason people in the world of Unbreakable are reticent to believe someone like David has powers: This organization has managed this information so well for centuries that the mere possibility of superheroes hasn’t yet gone mainstream. It’s a fabric of comic book fables. However, Glass also ends by intimating that this is about to change, and that other people with special abilities like David will step into the spotlight in their own cities as heroes—or villains. As Elijah says, perhaps hinting that Shyamalan might want to make more superhero movies in this universe: “It’s an origin story.”
Three origin stories, to be exact, developed over nearly two decades by one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic auteurs. Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy is by no means perfect—he spends far too much time in Glass over-explaining the idea of superheroes to the audience, as if we’ve never seen a comic book adaptation before. But the filmmaker did conceive an idiosyncratic superhero universe unlike anything else, and like Mr. Glass, he was shockingly a step ahead of everyone in bringing that vision full circle.