When M. Night Shyamalan followed his breakout hit The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable (2000), the reaction was bemused. Why would a filmmaker who found fame with a supernatural suspense drama want to make a movie about superheroes?
But, viewed from the vantage of nearly 20 years later, Unbreakable seems like a natural development of Shyamalan's career. Using the same moody, almost lugubrious tone that worked for him in The Sixth Sense, the writer-director presented superpowers as something uncanny: Like ghosts, they're an eruption of the unknown into our world.
The superheroes of Marvel and DC blockbusters are many things, but they are not uncanny. For that reason alone, Glass, Shyamalan's long-belated sequel to Unbreakable, is worth a look. Ironically, though, it proves to be as confused and overstuffed as its big-budget brethren.
Shyamalan has given himself the unenviable task of fusing the restrained drama of Unbreakable with the over-the-top pulpiness of Split (2017). The latter film introduced viewers to Kevin (James McAvoy), whose dissociative identity disorder has endowed him with two dozen personalities, one of which is a superpowered serial killer called the Beast.
While the Beast cuts a swath of terror through Philadelphia, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the blue-collar protagonist of Unbreakable, has been using his own powers to deal out vigilante justice. When he scents the Beast's trail, we tense for a classic hero-villain matchup. But wait! Enter the authorities, who capture both men and hand them over to Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who runs what has to be the least secure psychiatric facility on the East Coast.
Staple has been treating Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), the fragile criminal mastermind who helped Dunn discover his abilities. Unlike Price, the good doctor insists superpowers are a delusion, and now she has two chances to prove it.
Anyone expecting blockbuster action from Glass will be disappointed. For most of its run time, the movie is a mad-scientist psychodrama set inside the institution, with no clear protagonist and shifting stakes. While Dunn starts as our hero, he fades into the background as Staple's treatments, Glass' schemes and the Beast's florid antics take precedence. With Kevin's many personalities demanding screen time, the movie soon feels nearly as crowded as Avengers: Infinity War. Dunn's presence ends up being more of a sentimental nod to Unbreakable than a necessity.
In short, Shyamalan throws out the screenwriting manual with Glass and goes for broke. He stages the first head-to-head meeting of his three leads in a gigantic petal-pink room, using odd angles to keep us off-kilter. He glosses over implausibilities and gleefully subverts expectations. He gives McAvoy free rein with his verging-on-comic performance and makes Jackson a de facto narrator who breaks the fourth wall to put the action in comic-book context.
Shyamalan still achieves a few genuinely unsettling moments, such as when we see the Beast cross a field in a way more suited to a jackrabbit than a human being. In general, though, if Unbreakable made its mark by sneaking superheroics into the sober confines of the prestige drama, Glass takes place in a world more suited to panel drawings.
Glass does have something in common with its predecessor, though; as it stumbles to a surprisingly moving conclusion, it's indisputably its own thing. I've never been a big fan of Shyamalan, but years of watching focus-grouped movies have given me new respect for him. Here, even when his plot points shatter under cursory examination, his love of storytelling is transparent.