SPOILERS: I reveal all the details of Glass. Continue reading if you dare. Or if you don’t care about spoilers. Trust me, you’re not really missing much, but the warning is only fair.
Sequels are a difficult beast. I think anyone looking to make a sequel can attest to that. Especially if they’re following popular or beloved films which, let’s face it, most of them are otherwise why would a studio greenlight one? It’s tough to pick up a story and decide what happens next, especially if the original had an airtight beginning, middle and end, but we need to keep the cash flowing.
And hey, some sequels are amazing. Some say better than their predecessors. Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Blade Runner 2049, The Dark Knight, The Godfather: Part 2, Toy Story 2, The Empire Strikes Backs. These sequels work because it took themes and characters we loved and grew attached to and made them face new challenges, new lessons and new experiences by building off what came before and taking us in an exciting direction.
Hell, sometimes a director can come back to his previous work, years later, and do something really worthwhile. To use an example, Clerks 2 takes everything Smith learned as a filmmaker and allowed the characters, world and humour of the original evolve and mature in a really satisfying way. This can work, and work well. It shouldn’t be dismissed as worthless offhand.
Anyway, Glass is a worthless sequel. Here’s why.
Perhaps This Wasn’t as Great an Idea as I Once Thought
Like most people, I was actually interested in the idea of this film as soon as that post-credit scene in Split came up. That this was a sneak sequel (a sneakquel, if you will) to Unbreakable and would lead into a third movie was a pretty cool thread and I was wondering how they were going to pull it off. But, with the benefit of hindsight, this seems kind of against the odds of how both films played out in terms of story.
Unbreakable is about superheroes, but it plays out as a character drama. It’s about two men who do not realise their own potential, but do so through each other. This has the horrifying extra twist of David Dunn realising how far Elijah Price will go to realise this. The story goes from being about how you have the potential for a life you never even realised to the dangers of how far one can be pushed to find purpose.
Split, conversely, is a horror/thriller about a mentally unstable man who has DID, where one of these personalities is a monster. His life is contrasted to one of his victims, who was abused by her uncle. It’s essentially a story about the cycles of abuse and how those burdens, if unchecked, can turn us into monsters.
My point here is that these are not very compatible stories. Ignoring the tangible things that connect the tissue like being in the same universe-that’s fine. I mean thematically and narratively they’re worlds apart, they’re not even in the same genre really. In order to make a thematically cohesive film, you need to have a really deft hand to marry these concepts together. To pay off what both set up and make the film feel like it stands as its own entity and give us a satisfying conclusion.
And it…didn’t. It was more a sequel to Unbreakable that just happened to have the bad guy from Split on board. This was a hurdle from the gate. Especially as it’s coming from a creator who had never made a sequel before, especially to his own work (no, Split does not count). What did he decide to do, exactly, in order to play with this idea?
What is This Movie Trying to Do?
We start the film off with David Dunn from Unbreakable hunting after The Horde from Split. So far, so pretty much of the ordinary. And I actually do like how this film opens; it’s simple in form, but compelling nonetheless. After an intense, if awkwardly shot fight, our two characters are taken into a mental institution by Ellie Staple, Sarah Paulson’s character. And here the movie just…stops. For, like, most of it.
While the story is at a lull, this would be the perfect time to set up our thematic statement. However, the only thing we get from Glass is a restatement of the themes it went through in Unbreakable: are superheroes real? Thing is, we know this from the last two films. Why are we going over this again? And it’s not like the Staple is asking this while we know the answers-the film seems to act like this should be questioned. Dunn clearly starts believing this himself, but that’s just ridiculous because he knows it’s a lie. We shouldn’t be relearning this about superheroes in this quasi-universe.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to restate characters and motifs for audiences who did not catch the previous movies and want to follow. I think the opening few scenes do this decently. But there’s a huge difference between a reintroduction of thematic substance and spending most of your film asking questions that were answered in the other films. This is nothing compared where the movie gets its real kick in the arse: it’s structure.
Lol, Compelling Act Structure?! What is That?!
The best thing about a sequel is that you can rush through the reintroduction of characters and the world and go straight into telling something fresh. All the groundwork has been covered and you don’t need to dwell on how the everything operates in universe or who these characters are, just where they’re going. We have a film that has the groundwork of two entirely different films. We can go straight into the action, you would assume.
Now, a lot of times it feels like Shyamalan is trying to ‘gotcha’ the audience by playing to their expectations and then breaking them. That’s why the acts here feel so carefully delineated and almost feel like their own stories. We spend the shortest amount of time in the “movie” our audience expects, which is a showdown between two powerful super beings. This last…I’d say about 20 minutes of the 2 hour runtime. The ending last about half an hour. That leaves well over an hour in the hospital, where nothing really happens. We’re reintroduced to Elijah Price and he’s pretending to be medicate to manipulate the staff, and we keep being told that super powered beings are a delusion. That’s it.
Don’t get me wrong-a rug pull of making a movie a serious, contemplative mood piece instead of a beat-em-up superhero fare is not the worst idea. Making it a traditional action flick wouldn’t make sense for this world anyway, and there’s a clear disdain for that kind of formula embedded into the narrative. The problem is, well, none of this is remotely compelling. Our old characters get fuck all growth from their defaults until the end (oh, we’ll get to that ending!), and the new ones are static and underdeveloped. There are subplots with the orderlies and how they treat our super powered patients, but they’re so one-note and eat up so much goddamn screentime, it’s actually insulting how little they end up mattering.
This kind of forgets the golden rule of subversion; have a point. If you’re doing it just for its own sake, all you do is take what could at least be a fun concept and turn it into a dull, draggy mess. And the worst part was this wasn’t unsalvageable. Even if a lot of this is due to budget as to why the film is set on mostly one location, there are ways around this to tell a decent story. All of this would be easier to handle if we had something to levy the plot on. But we don’t. Because nothing is really happening in these looping moments. Especially when it comes to our cast
Our Protagonist is Behind Curtain Number Three!
I think a distinction needs to be made between a ‘protagonist’ and a ‘lead’. Though usually linked, they’re not always the same character. A protagonist is the one who guides the story through their growth and perspective. They’re our window into this world. A lead character is who the story is about, fundamentally. A great literary example of this is Wuthering Heights. The lead here is Heathcliffe, but the protagonist is Lockwood, who the story is told through. A more recent example is Mad Max: Fury Road. Furiosa is our lead, the story is about her, but Max is the protagonist.
I only bring this up because M. Night Shyamalan tends to makes these two separate in his movies. In Unbreakable, David Dunn is our POV and his growth into accepting his role as a superhero is what drives the story, he’s our protagonist. But the story is about Price, because it’s about discovering superheroes and he is the one fascinated by that. The Sixth Sense’s protagonist is Malcolm Crowe, but the lead is Cole Sear. Lady in the Water is about, well, Story, but the protagonist is Cleveland Heep. Split is about Kevin Wendell Crumb or ‘The Horde’, but the story is told through Casey Cooke. You get the idea here.
I’m not just saying this to look smart, like “Hey, I noticed a writing pattern that a filmmaker has, aren’t I brilliant?!?!?!?!?!”, it’s to outline a serious issue with the story told here. Glass is about the three “supers” (though Price is not a super powered being, but they just casually overlooks that). The thing is we don’t have a protagonist. We don’t even have the three of them sharing that spot because their growth does not really influence what’s going on. Dunn spends most of the film after the first act confused about whether he’s a super powered being or not until Price forces him to break out of a steel door. Kevin Wendell Crumb is just kind of slipping through his personalities with sparse glimpses of who he was before his abuse. This gives him more to do, but it’s honestly not realised until the reveal about his father. Elijah Price pretends to be sedated for way too fucking long, and most of his actions are behind the scenes and only really influence the story by the end. None of them motivate what’s happening, their characters do not impact the plot’s progression. Nothing else here does that, either.
Except, well, we do have a person that could fit in that slot. Pretty comfortably, even. It’s Ellie Staple. Think about it-her introduction completely changes the course of the film. She’s the one restating the fact that superheroes are not real. We get another tonal change once her real intentions are revealed. Her machinations inadvertently make Price’s plan come together. Now, you could say she’s the antagonist, and you may be right, but remember that a villainous character can still influence the story and it’s progression. The antagonist is the biggest threat to that, but that’s not what Staple does. She’s not a threat to the proceedings, she influences them along. The antagonist seems to be society in general, and she’s trying in her own twisted way to protect it. Even if she’s wrong, and the movie doesn’t agree with her, doesn’t mean her impact on the story isn’t that of a motivator and the themes are told through her character’s machinations and later failings.
Right, so, who is she? I mean ignore the bullshit revealed in the climax, who is she as a person? What does she want? What does she desire? Why should I care at all if she succeeds or fails? What got her so interested in super powered beings? Why is she such an important element that she causes so much change? Nothing. She’s a cipher to fill in the machinations of where the screenwriter wants these characters to be. And she is still the one motivating the story the most from its beat to beat moments until Price’s actions near the end of the film. Even if you want to view all this more traditionally and say she’s the antagonist, what about her makes her so compelling in that role? Hell, even after the rug pull, we still know fuck all about her.
A great thing about a sequel is that you don’t need to try that hard to create investment. If you did your job in the previous films, than this one should glide forward. Except we have three characters from the previous films who are inert, three supporting characters who just do minor machinations that help the plot later, and a character who influences everything the most who is a complete blank slate. This is terrible story building, and makes you wonder why the fuck are we following these people if they’re going to be inert for nearly all of it.
But they aren’t exactly inert throughout, are they? Okay, let’s talk about the final act.
The Fuck are the Irish?! Dat Ending
I’m writing all of this imagining you have seen Glass already. With this in mind, I am now going to write out every story beat in the third act in order to clarify just how bizarre the leap from the movie we were watching to the movie we end with is. Here we go, as neutrally as possible, the third act of Glass:
Elijah Price reveals to The Horde that he’s been faking sedation and wishes to plan an escape and expose super powered beings to the world. He tells The Horde that they’ll attack a newly unveiled plaza referenced constantly in the film. Calling himself Mr. Glass, he returns to his room, only to find that he had been spotted the night before and is being prepped for a lobotomy. Price anticipated this and disabled the drill. He unleashes The Beast, The Horde’s superpowered personality, and tells David that he must get to the plaza to stop him from blowing up the building and killing those inside. David breaks out intercepts The Beast and Price in the asylum’s car park. The two superpowered beings duke it out again, but is intervened by David’s son Joseph, who reveals to The Beast that Price was responsible for the train crash that killed Kevin’s father, the same one David discovered his powers in. The Beast attacks Price in a rage, critically injuring him. He throws David into a water tank due to his weakness to it, but then is shot by a sniper under Staple’s command. We find out that she’s part of some cult with clovers tattooed to their wrists who want to quell the fact that superpowered beings are real. David breaks out of the water tank, but is too weak to move and Staple’s men drown him in a puddle. Kevin takes control of his body and dies in Casey’s arms (there’s a weird quasi-romantic tension between them that wasn’t really there in Split). Price dies in his mother’s arms, having been told by the conspiracy to suppress these ‘gods amongst men’.
Staple deletes the security footage and tells the staff at the asylum not to reveal anything of what they’ve seen. After telling the secret cabal how successful the mission was, she walks around a comic book shop from Unbreakable and seen earlier in the film, and overhears a conversation about supervillain masterminds always having a secret plan. Then it clicks with her; when Price was walking around the facility at night, he hacked the security cameras to feed the footage to a private server. This footage was then emailed his mother, Joseph and Casey. The three of them meet at the train station where the infamous crash that started it all took place, and hold hands as their mass email gets discovered and talked about, revealing supers to the world. The. End.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Starting with the fact that the cult thing? Yeah, literally first time they’re even inferred to. We get absolutely no indication to them until about 15 minutes before the end of the film. They just come in, wipe out our leads and just completely shift our focus. But let’s even ignore that, let’s look at their plan.
Okay, so they want to neutralise the three “supers” without murdering them because she says to the Clover Gang that they’re not killers. Fine, this is a lazy handwave as to why they just didn’t kill them when they brought them in completely under their control. They’re going to lobotomise Price because he’ll never give up on his obsession. About as good as killing him, but fine. But their plan for Kevin and David is to gaslight them into believing they’re not super powered beings? David buys it cause he’s an idiot who forgot the last 19 years of his life, but Kevin is unstable and had DID. The minute one of his other personas, like the super powerful one, takes over, that’s it. Game over. Also, for a group that seems to lean towards pacificism, they seem to get their trained militaristic might on call pretty quickly. I guess this doesn’t negate the question of why the fuck didn’t they just kill them.
Then the fallout of that! All they do is wipe the security footage and make the staff promise not to say anything about the fight they witnessed. Like, not even under threat or anything. Almost pinky swearing in nature. It’s hilarious! How the absolute shit have these guys kept super powered beings under wraps for so long?! They talk about moving onto another town, so do they have a limited team that moves from place to place? Wouldn’t they have people on potential super exposures all over the world? How powerful are they? Why did it take them nearly two decades to take Dunn and Price down?! Do you see the issue with introducing such an important element of your story less than 20 minutes before the end?! It’s also really goddamn funny that Staple is just in the comic book store when she overhears this conversation that makes her realise what Price did. Why the hell was she in there?
Speaking of Price, lets talk about his plan. At this point he goes from ‘Incisive and extremely intelligent’ to ‘Can read the script’. He knows exactly how to trick the orderlies into pretending he is sedate, when and how to break into the security room, how to wire the cameras to feed into a private server that he can access and send a timed email to the loved ones of the three people that are targeted, etc. But hell, let’s just ignore all the convenience of this, hell we can probably ignore whether he was planning to be killed or not. The basics of his plan are that he is going to send a live video broadcast of a super-powered fight to prove that they exist. So what? Like, literally it’ll be dismissed as a hoax in about 20 minutes if it even went viral. Was Price planning on a day where Trump didn’t do anything that would take media attention away from the video?! Like, I’m expecting a sequel now where the three who leaked the video take on Captain Disillusion!
Oh, and I think the reveal that Kevin’s father was killed in the train crash in Unbreakable kind of speaks for itself. It’s a stupid, stupid reveal all to make some kind of point about the interconnectivity of this quasi-trilogy. It does not make Split fit more naturally into these two films, and it’s just a lame duck way of making everything feel more potent and relevant than it is. Terrible reveal.
This is the thematic shift, as well. We go from a treatise on whether these superpowered beings exist to talking about how the elusive “they” are stopping the great people from achieving greatness, and they should ignore all these and strike out as saviours. This is the message of Lady in the Water. With the critic and the self-indulgent casting of Shyamalan as the saviour writer. The difference here is that at least Lady in the Water had a more communal spirit to it? That the creation of a story was the work of many people to keep its legacy? Here it’s just ‘People out there are great and others are holding them back, fuck them’, and it’s so elitist and weirdly Randian. It’s also tone deaf to what we see in the story and ridiculously one-sided. What about people like Kevin Wendell Crumb? Maybe keeping people like him at bay is a good thing? Perhaps these are themes you should have explored, again, more than 30 minutes before the end instead of running on your heels for over an hour?
Most of all, it does what every sequel should not do; give an unsatisfying ending to characters we like. It’s deliberately going for the anti-climax, but there’s nothing really here that makes it just not feel rote and dull. I don’t get anything out of seeing characters I like die like this, not even anger. If you’re going to make a sequel, at least try to write it in a way that doesn’t make people feel underwhelmed as shit.
What Can M. Night Learn From This, Outside of Don’t Make Any More Sequels?
I guess if there’s anything to learn from this trainwreck (heh), it’s understand your world building and how you can move it forward. There are nuggets of an idea here, they’re just bogged down by indulgent padding and really unfocused thematic and character threads. And there are things that work here, mostly the acting from McAvoy and Jackson. I like that they got even more peripheral characters back in the cast, even Dunn’s son is played by the same guy who played him 19 years ago, that’s pretty cool. It starts off pretty decently as well, it just dovetails really quickly.
There are plenty of ways to make a successful sequel that picks up the world and brings it into another direction. Glass doesn’t, and it’s a textbook example of what not to do when making a sequel to two loosely connected stories simply by design. Not that this couldn’t work, but it needed a lot more thought and creativity then ‘Unbreakable in one location with a confused ending’.
No witty zinger or insightful note to end on. This movie sucks ass. 2/10