More “Split 2” than “Unbreakable 2,” M. Night Shyamalan has finally produced his first direct sequel, the mash-up that is “Glass,” bringing together characters from two of his biggest hits. As the end of “Split” hinted, that film took place in the same universe as Shyamalan’s 2000 film “Unbreakable,” still his best work to date. The promise of the coda to “Split” is fulfilled in “Glass,” bringing together Shyamalan’s vision of the Freudian brain in the uncontrolled id of DID-afflicted Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), the regulating force of the super-ego in David Dunn (Bruce Willis), and the moderator between the hero and the villain in the ego that is Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). Once again, Shyamalan is playing with comic book tropes, adding his twists to monologuing heroes and villains who are remarkably self-aware of their own genre arcs. There’s a truly ambitious film buried in “Glass,” and I do mean buried. The problem is that Shyamalan can’t find the story, allowing his narrative to meander, never gaining the momentum it needs to work. Say what you will about “Unbreakable” and even “Split,” they had a propulsive energy that’s lacking here, at least partially because any sense of relatability is gone. “Glass” is a misfire, and it’s the kind of depressing misfire that hurts even more given what it could have been.
“Unbreakable” and “Split” have protagonists thrust into life-changing situations. The former told the story of David Dunn, the only survivor of a horrible train crash, who learned that he was more than human. The latter tells two stories—that of a girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, who returns here and is given woefully little to do), forced to discover her own strengths, and that of a mentally ill patient who may be more than your average person diagnosed with DID.
As “Glass” opens, we know David Dunn, now known in Philadelphia as the mysterious protector called the Overseer and working with his son (Spencer Treat Clark), is a superhero. And we know Kevin Crumb has a personality called The Beast that can climb walls and take shotgun blasts. And yet so much of “Glass” is devoted to trying to convince David and Kevin that they are not super in any way. In the pursuit of another twist ending, Shyamalan takes a narrative step back, covering so much of the same ground that the two previous films did instead of carving a new path. He’s so obsessed with ending on a gotcha note that he delays any sort of narrative interest until then, basically forcing his audience to tread water until that point. Think long and hard about what you know at the end of “Glass” as opposed to what you knew at the beginning and you’ll realize how hollow this whole venture has been.
Most of “Glass” takes place at Raven Hill Memorial Psychiatric Hospital. In what could be called the prologue, David/Overseer tracks Kevin/Horde down after the villainous man with multiple personalities kidnaps four young women, holding them in an abandoned factory. The two men fight, and one immediately gets the sense that something is not quite right. This showdown between two of the most memorable characters in Shyamalan’s history lacks the punch or creative fight choreography fans should expect. The pair head out a window and into the arms of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), the confident doctor who shuttles them off to the same psych ward that’s been housing Mr. Glass for almost two decades. Glass is kept in a deeply vegetative state in a room in the same wing as David and Kevin. Dr. Staple tries to convince all three that they are not really super in any way. David’s strength isn’t that abnormal and Kevin’s powers as The Beast could be explained away.
In the midsection of “Glass,” Shyamalan hits every beat more than once, almost joylessly. Paulson gives the same speech multiple times, and a bit with a bright light that can change which personality of Kevin’s dominates goes on forever ... and then happens again. Shyamalan is determined to cycle through the back stories of these characters, even employing footage from “Unbreakable” and “Split” in flashbacks as if he doesn’t realize that 95% of viewers have seen them. He seems so intent on the reveals of his final fifteen minutes that he forgets to take opportunities to make the nearly two hours before that interesting. Why is Raven Hill such a dull bore to look at? Why is Shyamalan determined to make another film about whether or not superheroes are superheroes instead of just building on the foundation he’s created? Imagine “The Avengers” retelling all the origin stories and then questioning whether or not The Hulk is really a superhero or just an angry dude.
There are glimpses of the crazy, ambitious movie that “Glass” could have been, and that’s what saves it from complete "Happening"-level disaster. Once again, McAvoy is giving it his all, even if he’s not getting as much back in return as he did last time (and is balanced by another half-hearted Willis performance in which I swear you can practically see him fall asleep). And there are just enough out-there ideas in “Glass” that it’s impossible to completely dismiss even if they don't come together. It’s that fine line between ambitiously clunky in a way that engages the viewer and just sloppy. I honestly kept trying to engage with “Glass” as a fan of Shyamalan’s early films, comic books, and movies that try to mash-up familiar genres in a way that makes a new one. I ultimately resigned myself to the fact that it’s not my fault that it’s broken.
James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb / The Horde / The Beast / Patricia / Dennis / Hedwig / Barry / Jade / Orwell / Heinrich / Norma
Bruce Willis as David Dunn / The Overseer
Samuel L. Jackson as Elijah Price / Mr. Glass
Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke
Sarah Paulson as Dr. Ellie Staple
Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph Dunn
Charlayne Woodard as Mrs. Price
Luke Kirby as Pierce