2019 Film Essays

‘Glass’ Is a Superhero Movie for People Who Like Analyzing Superhero Movies

Hello. Welcome to Vague Visages Psychological Practice, where we determine how much of a geek you are. You can hang your Batman hoodie on the coat rack.

Now, let’s start with the basics. Have you ever spent hours trawling through plot devices and narrative cliches on TV Tropes? Do phrases like “deus ex machina” or “Chekhov’s gun” come up often in your conversations? Have you ever argued over whether a book or movie was “canon” or not? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you just might enjoy M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, Glass. It’s a movie for geeks, but it’s not the typical superhero movie targeted to geeks. There’s a little bit of action, but a whole lot of meta-narrative about storytelling.

Glass comes 19 years after the release of the superb Unbreakable, the first film in what has retroactively been labeled the Eastrail 177 trilogy. David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who had only begun to explore his powers (super strength, extrasensory perception) in Unbreakable, is now a part-time vigilante. At the start of Glass, he tracks down Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), a serial killer with 24 distinct personalities who, well, ate a few women in 2016’s Split. In the middle of a fight, Dunn and Crumb are apprehended and taken to a psychiatric hospital. There, joined by Unbreakable villain Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), they are psychoanalyzed by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), an expert in patients who believe that they are superheroes. Really.

It’s a silly conceit, and one you’ll have to give the movie if you expect to enjoy any of the affair, because that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Much of the second act involves lengthy discussions of superhero tropes, as Paulson attempts to knock some sense into Dunn, Crumb and Price, who she believes are suffering from delusions of grandeur. As a geek who has spent many an hour reading Wikipedia pages and random blogs exploring the minutiae of genre fiction, this kind of discussion appealed to me. I didn’t go into Glass expecting Avengers-level action. No, like Unbreakable and Split, Glass is a grounded, understated exploration of the genre. There are times throughout, however, where Shyamalan is way too on the nose, like when Crumb and Price team up (“That sounds like the bad guys teaming up”) or when a nurse happens upon Price in a restricted area of the hospital (“This is where they would paint you with big eyes and bubbles of confusion above your head.”) We get it, M. Night. We get it.

As is usually the case with superhero movies, the villains in Glass steal the show. Jackson is a delight as the cunning and ruthless Price, even if he’s catatonic for the first third of the film. Particularly captivating is McAvoy, who switches from one personality to the next in an instant, twisting his face and body to emulate that of a prim woman or a goofy kid (seriously, Hedwig should have his own spinoff. Et cetera.) McAvoy demonstrated this ability in Split, but a new mechanic where he changes his persona with the flash of a blinding light gives him the opportunity to switch between several personalities in quick succession, sometimes within the same shot. It’s remarkable to watch, like an evil version of Robin Williams’ rapid-fire impressions. Dunn’s story gets short shrift, however; it’s not the adventure one might have expected for the Unbreakable hero. And certainly missing are the quiet dramatic moments that the first film had to offer, the family drama. Glass has heart — you feel for everyone, even Price and Crumb at times — but it’s more of an intellectual exercise. It certainly delivers in the plot twist department, though. I mean, this is Shyamalan — what did you expect?

Appropriately enough for a comic book movie, Glass offers some engaging visuals. Along with some creative shots (upside-down, from under a water-filled pothole) the heroes and villains are represented by a unique color palette in both costumes and set design. It’s subtle and gives Shyamalan the opportunity to give each hero a thematic color — green (Dunn), yellow (Crumb) and purple (Price) — without putting them in campy spandex costumes.

Overall, it’s one of the strangest, most daring superhero movies out there. Where DC trades in grim realism and Marvel does the whole snarky, joke-a-minute thing, the Shyamalanverse (I guess that a thing now) is a flavor all its own, a world where superheroes exist, but they don’t wear capes and their lives are usually pretty awful.

So, are you interested in a superhero movie that consists mainly of drawn-out conversations in a psychiatric hospital? Do you mind characters pointing out, over and over again, how much the things happening to them are JUST LIKE OUT OF A COMIC BOOK!!!!? Then I recommend you see Glass, stat. This concludes our session. Don’t forget your hoodie.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.

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