Scalding Hot Takes: Glass (2019)
It sure did not take much to convince M Night Shyamalan that, despite what the reviews and buzz for the movies he made in between 2002’s Signs and 2015’s The Visit might suggest, a seemingly skeptical, it not downright hostile public was actually aching to be plunged deeper into the M. Night Shyamalan universe than ever before. Yes, friends, even further than the astonishingly self-indulgent 2004 television special The Buried Secrets of M. Night Shyamalan.
All it took was two modest back to back successes in the form of the nifty 2015 found footage horror sleeper The Visit, followed by 2016’s Split, to convince Night to toss his “humbled genre filmmaker” hat out the window and replace it with the beret of a pretentious Auteur.
With Glass, the world’s most expensive and ponderous fan film, Shyamalan brings together the disparate worlds of what is probably his best and most enduring film, 2000’s Unbreakable and 2016’s Split, a 117 minute long actor’s reel for James McAvoy that doubled as a different kind of super villain origin story, just as Unbreakable provided a similarly novel superhero origin story.
The sly genius of Unbreakable was that it did not become apparent how rooted it was in the mythology of the comic book universe until the end. It was a different kind of superhero movie released well before comic book movies and superheroes took over pop culture and we were suddenly inundated with superhero movies of every kind, from the giddy meta-textual satire of Lego Batman and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to the somber, Noir gravity of Logan.
Glass, in sharp contrast, posits itself at every turn as a “cerebral”, “intelligent” deconstruction of the well-worn mythology of the superhero and super-villain. It deludes itself into thinking that it’s doing the humble superhero movie a tremendous honor by giving it the leaden, somber, talky and weirdly narcotized M. Night Shyamalan treatment when in fact it’s doing it a tremendous disservice.
Glass thinks it’s too goddamn smart and special to be a regular superhero movie. So it spends much of its endless runtime delivering little lectures on comic book conventions and history and how they relate to the film’s characters, who almost instantly cease to make sense in any context outside of rote superhero mythology.
In the process Glass ends up mansplaining comic books and superheroes to an undoubtedly superhero-savvy audience that probably knows way more about comic books and superheroes than Night does. Night could be the biggest comic book buff in the world, bigger even than Kevin Smith, but it sure seems like his relationship with the genre is entirely academic, that he thinks it’s interesting from a Joseph Campbell, essence of storytelling level but on an emotional level feels, if not contemptuous towards the world, necessarily, then intellectually remote.
Night isn’t the only one who can Google “comic books” and “superheroes”, then implement the findings in his work. I also researched comic books and discovered the following:
Comic books are a thing that exists
Comic books frequently feature “superheroes”, powerful figures with extraordinary abilities
Sometimes superheroes are helped by younger protege figures known as “sidekicks”
Sometimes the bad guys in comic books rob banks
Sometimes the bad guys in comic books are mobsters.
Every year literally millions of comic books are sold, mostly to people who will never know the excitement of sexual intercourse.
Comic books are sold in comic book stores.
The good guys are called superheroes. The bad guys are super villains.
Sometimes the good guys and the bad guys do fights.
Batman is a comic book
Superman is also a comic book.
Spider-Man? You guessed it: also a comic book.
Superheroes aren’t real.
But what if they were?
Glass seems to exist in a world where the comic book movie boom never happened, where Marvel never released Iron Man followed by a series of zeitgeist-capturing pop culture events like Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool and Black Panther that brought b-list and semi-obscure superheroes beloved by nerds but unknown to the general public to the mainstream in the biggest possible way.
It’s almost adorable that Shyamalan thinks he needs to explain the basics of comic books and superhero a world utterly dominated by the field, that a 2019 superhero movie features multiple scenes of characters taking to the internet or going to one of those crazy comic book stores (Can you believe there are whole stores that just sell comic books? That’s one of several amazing factoids to be found in Glass) to figure out what the deal is with dead parents figuring prominently in origin stories or to learn how superhero mythology echoes human mythology about people with remarkable, seemingly superhuman gifts.
An even more checked out than usual Bruce Willis brings a Jeb Bush level of energy to the role of David Dunn, a humble security guard who discovers that he possesses superhuman powers and is more or less unbreakable. In Glass we learn that David, with the help of his somehow even more boring son/co-conspirator Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) has become quite possibly the world’s worst superhero, a glum, glowering, not terribly effective vigilante sort known to a public undoubtedly bored to tears by his antics as “The Overseer.”
The Overseer! M. Night Shyamalan thinks that’s a nifty name for a goddamn superhero. The Overseer! That sounds more like a fucking middle manager at Home Depot than a dude who fights evil and possesses superpowers. The Overseer has all the energy and excitement of a slow-moving grey mist.
I hope in the sequel, a resurrected Bruce Willis' The Overseer teams up with similarly boring, corporate-sounding middle age white dude superheroes The Comptroller, The Senior VP, The Accountant and The Invincible HR. They could take on wasteful corporate spending or The Joker.
The Overseer is a comically terrible name/conceit for a superhero, but I would feel differently if the Overseer’s catch-phrase was “You’ve just been overseen!” Unfortunately, it is not. He’s too boring for a catchphrase.
Basically, the Overseer wanders around looking depressed and old and bumps into people until he stumbles into someone his superhuman intuition tells him is a criminal. The Overseer literally bumps into MacAvoy’s character, who goes by many different names but who is collectively known and feared as “The Horde”, a collection of broad, actorly types, most notoriously “The Beast”, a figure of pure, primal, super-powered rage.
David and the Horde end up being held in the same facility as Mr. Glass, the real-life super villain Samuel L. Jackson unforgettably played in Unbreakable. Jackson spends many of his opening scenes in what we are supposed to believe is something approaching a catatonic state due to all of the drugs he’s on. It’s yet another astonishing miscalculation on the writer-director’s part: take the best actor in your film and keep from doing anything in the way of acting much of the time he’s onscreen.
Bruce Willis is in Glass. He seems to have remembered his lines and hit his marks but his soul and spirit are elsewhere. The actors playing pod people in various iterations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are livelier than Willis is here. Unbreakable featured one of Willis’ most challenging and best performances. There was a powerful element of moral ambiguity and quiet to Willis’ turn in Unbreakable as a seemingly unremarkable man discovers that he’s capable of more than he ever imagined and wrestles with the consequences of that discovery.
In Glass we already know what he’s capable of. He’s just a superhero, and an almost impressively shitty one at that. Willis isn’t melancholy, or understated or nuanced here. Nope, he’s just bored. Tuned out. Biding his time. The lights are on but nobody’s home. Barely awake.
If Willis under-acts to the point of seeming like a zombie, McAvoy chews so much goddamn scenery that it’s surprisingly that there are any buildings left in Philadelphia after McAvoy terrorized the city with a crazed overacting spree that finds common ground between Sally Field in Sybil and Simon MacCorkindale in Manimal.
There’s something deeply problematic and troubling, not to mention irresponsible about the way both Split and Glass treat mental illness as a gimmick, an excuse for a one-man Acting Olympics (these movies stop just short of giving McAvoy a Lifetime Achievement Award for Most and Best Acting in a Movie) and form of super villainy rather than as something real people genuinely struggle with, and not because they’re super-villains or have been tricked and manipulated by the odd variety of super-villain whose superpower is being real fucking smart.
At least Split mustered up some empathy for its protagonist/villain/anti-hero. It held out an iota of hope that the “good” personalities inside McAvoy’s tormented and way too crowded psyche might be able to overcome the formidable demons hovering over his shoulder at all times, imploring him to destroy.
In Glass he’s just another goddamn super-villain, albeit one seemingly more interested in showing off his mastery of a wide variety of different dialects rather than in taking over the world. Then he meets and joins forces with Mr. Glass and Glass becomes a super-villain team-up story more labored, convoluted and screechingly dull than we’re used to.
This leaves Sarah Paulson in the thankless role of Dr. Ellie Staple, a psychiatrist who specializes in people with “delusions of grandeur”, people who think they’re superheroes and super villains because (spoiler) they are superheroes and villains. Paulson plays one of those obnoxious cinematic shrinks whose job is to explain away all of the fantastical things we’ve seen with our own eyes, and while she’s at it to explain to the audience and all of the characters what happened in Unbreakable and Split respectively, what’s happening at every step in Glass, what’s happening in the world of comic books and what’s going to happen in the movie we’re watching.
If the good doctor had a superhero name/skill set it would be Exposition or The Explainer. Glass never stops over-explaining. It seems to take daft pride in being a superhero movie overflowing with overwritten, stiffly delivered and lifeless dialogue instead of those tedious fights and special effects and set-pieces you might find in superhero movies more interested in entertaining audiences rather than talking down to them, or hipping them to the basics of this crazy new thing called “superheroes.”
An astonishingly unsatisfying, inert sequel to both Unbreakable and Split, Glass serves as a dispiriting reminder of its creator’s myriad failing as a storyteller and a filmmaker. Unbreakable has the distinction of being a true anomaly in the world of superhero movies but Glass adds nothing to the genre. It’s less a worthy follow-up to what’s probably Night’s masterpiece in Unbreakable than an insignificant footnote, an aggregation of bad ideas limply realized by a filmmaker seemingly stuck in morose self-parody.
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