Glass and its superhuman connections
I wrote my look back at Unbreakable last week before seeing Glass, but allow me for a moment to pat myself on the back for getting closer to the heart of Shyamalan’s superhero trilogy than I ever imagined. Watching the three films in quick succession reveals them to not only be in conversation with each other, but also the cultural discourse around comic books and superhero films.
Watching Glass was a delight, even if it is ultimately more interesting than good. If Unbreakable and Split are the first two issues of a comic book, then Glass is the final four issues of a trade—88 pages of story—crammed into 22 pages. There’s a lot to chew on. But when others claim superhero fatigue or rile against the conformity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and then complain that Glass doesn’t measure up, I’ll laugh. I am glad that M. Night is still making his films, and swinging for the fences. There’s so many ideas in the film worth unpacking, but the twist is that he has made the first superhero film to truly defy expectations in years.
While Unbreakable takes visual cues and story structure from comic books, and Split expands that film’s exploration of identity, Glass doubles down on those ideas while also avoiding many of the tropes in the recent wave of superhero films. Unbreakable supposes that we can understand our place in the world by looking at our identity from a narrative point of view (something Shyamalan also explores in Lady in the Water, though far less successfully). Glass confronts that head on in the character of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who spends the second act of the film trying to convince our triumvirate David Dunn (Bruce Willis), Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson), and Kevin Crum (James McAvoy) that the extraordinary feats they believe they are capable of all have more reasonable explanations than superhuman abilities. She describes herself as a doctor specializing in an emerging field of study trying to help people who have superhero-related delusions of grandeur.
Shyamalan uses our expectations for a shared universe superhero movie against us. While we get 45 minutes or so of David Dunn facing off against Crum in a traditional superhero versus villain story, it quickly moves into something different. The film still has each of them facing off, as well as a new existential threat in Dr. Staple. Rather than build to a “blue light in the sky” level of threat, it keeps its characters in a single location for the rest of the film. Imagine if The Avengers ended with the fight against Hulk on the Helicarrier instead of New York? That’s Glass, getting more mileage about what these characters are thinking and feeling rather than trying to satisfy action beats.
The middle of Glass is the least traditional section of the film from a genre perspective, but there are plenty of examples of the same idea within superhero fiction. Psychiatric hospital dramas are often found in television and other serial superhero stories, which allow the narrative to be flipped, with a villain manipulating the hero into thinking that they are delusional. The best examples of this are the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again” and Batman: The Animated Series’ “Dreams in Darkness” but both of those have the benefit of being one installment in a long-running series of adventures rather than a trilogy capper. However, it is an interesting way to get at something that is at the core of many deconstructionist texts within the superhero genre.
I compared Unbreakable to Batman Begins, and it is somehow fitting that Glass shares more than a few threads in common with Nolan’s The Dark Knight. A central theme of that film is escalation, which Staple reveals to be the motivation of the unnamed conspiratorial organization in Glass (with shamrock tattoos on their wrists, so I am going to call them Shamrock...happy happy Halloween). With the rise of a superhuman individual, comes an opposite. The idea being that from Glass being a Very Smart Man, Dunn being Unbreakable, and Kevin pushing beyond the limits of Dissociative Identity Disorder, we eventually get to things like psychic powers, unimaginable strength, and more. Rather than forcing Batman into extreme measures when faced with the Joker, Shamrock aims to eliminate both sides to keep normal humans on top. That assertion of normal human superiority in the face of superpowers is the main theme of the X-Men comics, among others, but it is also at the core of the main deconstructionist superhero story. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
In some ways, everything goes back to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen in both a literal and thematic sense. To continue on the thematic track, Watchmen is a story about humans trying to put controls and limits on superheroes without realizing how impossible that will be. While the Congress passes the Keene Act to outlaw vigilantism, there’s no putting limits on the god-like Doctor Manhattan. But of course the villain of the piece is purple-clad Ozymandias, who violently reasserts the power of the superhuman by dropping a genetically-engineered psychic squid kaiju on New York City. His imagination is beyond anything the human characters in the book can even conceive to defend against. He does so in the name of ending the Cold War (I cannot help but think of M:I-Fallout, cribbing the same plan: “There has never been peace without first a great suffering. The greater the suffering, the greater the peace”), but the specific choice of using a creature designed to be otherworldly is a reassertion of the weird over that of normalcy.
Glass not only embeds the humans against superheroes narrative from Watchmen but also literalizes it. When we catch up with David Dunn, he is now operating a home security business. In a key scene, we see M. Night Shyamalan’s character buying a bunch of web-enabled security cameras (it also resolves a plot hole from Split by revealing his character is the same person from Unbreakable). Surveillance is a proxy for a superpower, used for both good and evil over the course of the film. David and his son (Spencer Treat Clark) use the cameras to help track down criminals in the pursuit of street justice, and David is even nicknamed The Overseer. Dr. Staple places hundreds of cameras all around the hospital so that Mr. Glass can be observed at all times. Glass turns this around on her by posting that same footage to the wider internet in order to reveal the existence of superheroes to the world by going viral (this is also foreshadowed by the younger Dunn having to explain to David the meaning of “I’m going to go Salt Bae on your ass!”).
This same thread also connects Glass to The Incredibles, and more specifically Incredibles 2. Mr. Glass’ theory (confirmed by Staple) is that superheroes are our modern myths–ways to explain the unexplainable–and while the villain of Incredibles 2 would seem to support the idea that Mr. Glass loves supers because he himself is a weak person, there’s even more to that here. What Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) gets wrong about superheroes in Incredibles 2 is that our love for them does not portend weakness on our part, Instead, they are a perfect metaphor for how humans can come out of traumatic situations stronger than they were before. Superman and Batman are orphans, Spider-Man has to watch Uncle Ben die knowing he could have prevented it, Tony Stark battles alcoholism, David Dunn almost drowns, and Kevin Crum was abused by his mother. At the core of Split is a child too scared to face the real world, ceding control to the other characters who have manifested to protect them (recent comic stories in Batman aren’t too far off from this idea as a mirror version of Bruce Wayne). The citizens of so many fictional worlds rely on superheroes to protect them from things they cannot possibly face on their own. While these threats are typically physical, M. Night Shyamalan has made them largely emotional in this trilogy. Not only does Glass have a deep sense of empathy for all of its characters–I wept for Kevin Crum–it also manages to push toward emotional and philosophical truth over that of genre expectations.
Unbreakable is about a sleeping man waking up, embracing his identity (and as we confirm in Glass) and saving his marriage. Split is about abuse victims trying to achieve a sense of control in their lives, and how that gets away from one of them. Glass is about coming to believe that your identity is not a mistake. Each of these films uses the superhuman as a way for us to deal with our own struggles in life. Each of us has our own struggles, whether they be with anxiety, depression, addiction, or something else. And each time we best these demons, we are super.