Glass Movie Review: A Dense But Profoundly Moving Meditation On The Hollywood Superhero Legacy

M. Night Shyamalan’s film is not a superhero origin story. It is THE superhero origin story
Glass Movie Review: A Dense But Profoundly Moving Meditation On The Hollywood Superhero Legacy

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Samuel L Jackson, Bruce Willis, James McAvoy, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark

Most of Glass is located in the windowless rooms of a psychiatric institution. Each room contains a personality in search of an identity. This is a noisy place to be in. Three of its primary faces – one hero, two villains – are convinced that they are highly evolved. Immortal, unpredictable, superhuman even. But there is a new voice – a doctor, a human, whose sole purpose is to convince these characters that they aren't as unique as they think they are. She specializes in treating people who think they are superheroes, in deconstructing delusions of grandeur. She speaks a lot. There is conflict, compromise and plenty of reasoning – words, explanations and theories dart about, often repetitively and obsessively, like breakthrough sentences looking for the right grammar. Ideas jostle for baggage space in the train of thought.

A closer look might reveal that these rooms represent the clashing compartments of director M. Night Shyamalan's brain. Arrogance and dreaminess is beset by self-doubt and introspection. The voices are rooted in different corners of Philadelphia – the source of grand underdog mythology like Rocky Balboa and, to an extent, Shyamalan himself. Internal dialogue can be occasionally messy and indulgent and unentertaining. But it is also beguiling, especially when faith goes to war with logic. When wild, unpredictable art does battle with cold, clear-cut science. And, most importantly, when the walled-off privacy of the comic-book panel squares off against the publicity of the modern camera.

Glass, the final film of the EastRail 177 superhero trilogy, is sort of a "coming out" movie for the shadowy characters of Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016). The first one, Unbreakable, starred an unremarkable family man coming to terms with his superhuman strength; even after he finally embraced it, he did it quietly, privately, so that he could operate within the unrestricted blind-spots of the human gaze. As a "vigilante" in a raincoat, not a nut in a cape. The second one, Split, starred a disturbed young man with dissociative identity disorder coming to terms with the evolved state of supervillainy; he does this in the basement of a zoo, privately, so that nobody but his victims can witness his transformation. As a serial-killing "mad man," not a flesh-eating creature. Elijah Price, a delusional mass-murdering psychopath who swears by the templates of the comic-book universe ("This would be the moment a confused thought bubble pops up over your head"), is the only man who believes in them. He went to great lengths to convince David Dunn of his theory in the first film, and this time, he seduces Kevin Crumb with it.

He calls himself Mr. Glass, a classic comic-book alias, but you can sense he doesn't like the fact that the nicknames of the other two – "The Overseer" and "The Horde" – have been derisively coined by a generation that has grown up on generic superhero movies, and not actual superheroes. The two are identified in context of human flaws ("crazy man" "security guard"). For average people of the internet era, they are parodies and merely collateral damage of our divided times. Which is why subtext of Glass is twofold: It is based primarily on a man who wants his 'creations' to come out of the shadows and prove to the world what they already know. He is, in essence, a storymaker who wants his words to convert, and come alive for, cynical audiences. For the cameras, for the human eye.

The relationship between the protector and his mortal subjects is a given in the archetypal superhero universe. The suspension of disbelief is already embedded into the equation; superhumans exist and humans have already accepted this concept of imbalance. Glass shatters the glass wall between them; it attempts to examine the psychological ramifications of discovering a form of higher beings in this age. It depicts, sometimes clumsily like a densely packed Nolan plot, but often sharply, just what it might take for outsiders to be recognized, to be seen, in today's times of instant judgment and derivative imaginations. Do they have to be seen to be believed? If so, will we believe only if they are "captured" by cameras?

The communicative power of the camera, the naked eye, is a recurring motif in Glass. Early on in the film, old David Dunn, the unbreakable hero, is engaged in a cinematic struggle – rain, empty factory, music, the works – with The Beast, the unbreakable manifestation of brokenness. They move like superhumans when nobody is watching. Suddenly, they are stopped in their tracks by a police force flashing strobe lights (emulating the flashbulb of old-fashioned cameras) at them. The score disappears, almost as if they were snapped out of a daydream. Shyamalan designs this moment in a way that makes them seem as if they lose their mojo, their private identity, as soon as they are watched. The strobe light is in fact used to control which of Crumb's 23 personalities takes the light. If you think about it, Dunn's mental gift – of being able to visualize crimes as soon as he makes physical contact with the perpetrators (imagine the chaos in his mind if he were to stand at an Indian railway station) – also occurs in the form of security cam footage being shot from a high vantage point. The psychiatrist, too, similarly records their behaviour and images to study their delusions.

Glass depicts, sometimes clumsily like a densely packed Nolan plot, but often sharply, just what it might take for outsiders to be recognized, to be seen, in today's times of instant judgment and derivative imaginations

Despite the film's geographically disorganized open-air face-off in the final third, the presence of humans on the scene are inversely proportional to the ferocity of the other-worldly battle – meta commentary, perhaps, on the orgy of VFX incoherence that plagues today's MCU and DCU movies. Perhaps the most significant nod to the psychological holiness of plain sight is the integration of social media into the redemption arc of the climax. People peering into glass screens, in shock and awe, willing to believe the veracity of what is shown to them over what they might have seen themselves.  

That's when it becomes clear. Glass might be the sequel in a particular trilogy. But it is effectively the prequel of every superhero movie ever made. The Ground Zero of Cinematic Universes – only, this universe is constantly at odds with the cinema of it. Because, for what it's worth, M. Night Shyamalan's Glass is not a superhero origin story. It is the superhero origin story.

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