As you’d expect from the final installment of a trilogy that began in 2000 with Unbreakable, Glass has a decidedly retro take on superheroes. More retro even than The Incredibles, which was driven by the kind of design-driven Golden Age fandom that didn't really become a thing in comics until the late 90s. Unbreakable, on the other hand, was driven by the question that comic book readers were too smart to ask until the early 80s: what if superpowers were really real?
It's a question that's been long passed by in the real world - in part because the answer is almost always a bunch of grim & gritty clenched-teeth drama that gets boring real fast, and in part because these days movies firmly believe that "check out these cool special effects" is a much more interesting hook for a film. Which makes this film’s low budget world, where having superpowers means you’re just super enough to make your actions hard to explain away, feel either frustratingly limited or enjoyably off-kilter depending on your mood.
The opening sets up a big clash between multiple personality monster The Horde (James McEvoy) from writer-director M Night Shyamalan’s previous film Split and super tough guy David Dunn (Bruce Willis) from Unbreakable. But before we can get the big fanboy-pleasing fight we've all been waiting for since at least last year, things are rapidly short circuited as both superheroes end up in the same institution as Dunn’s evil and now heavily sedated nemesis Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson).
There things slow down a lot as Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) starts treating the trio for their “delusions”; those expecting a traditional superhero film may struggle with the plot-driven character study this turns into before things eventually get physical. Shyamalan scraped together the 20 million dollar budget himself (more control, plus more money for him if it hits big), but a few extra dollars wouldn't have hurt in this middle stretch - this is one massively understaffed mental institution, even if the lack of staff does turn out to have a (possible) explanation.
Likewise, the absence of big superhero effects is a part of the story, not a flaw, though Shyamalan's replacement for those effects - having superheroes go to a form of therapy that seems designed to convince them they're in a completely different movie - feels a little misjudged as the middle stretch drags on. Fortunately the performances are all good: McEvoy gets the lion's share of the story, while Willis starts out strong (and gives a solidly engaged performance) but fades into the background a little once Jackson's highly entertaining Mr. Glass starts making his moves.
Back in his Sixth Sense heyday Shyamalan often talked about having cracked the code for writing Hollywood hits, and while he never (to my knowledge) spelt that code out it's not that hard to figure out once you've seen more than one or two of his self-penned scripts. It's not so much about having a twist ending as it is an ending that recontexualises what's come before... which is pretty much the definition of a twist ending, only his don't really need to be a surprise to work (ie Signs).
So it's no shock twist to reveal that this is a film as much about the stories around superheroes as it is about having them pummel each other. The real fight here is about who gets to tell the stories that go with superpowers; that is to say, what context they're going to operate in. It's a battle between rival forces for what kind of twist ending we're going to get, either one that expands the possibilities of storytelling or one that shuts them down - though if Shyamalan really wanted to make this a metaphor for his career in Hollywood, he really should have put in a few more punch-ups.
- Anthony Morris