Unbreakable was only a modest box-office hit, so whatever plans Shyamalan had for future installments were forgotten, and the director moved on to other projects, some (Signs, The Village) more successful than others (The Happening, Lady in the Water). But with Split, he deployed one of his most surprising twists yet. This cheaply made horror movie, about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with multiple personalities who likes to kidnap and cannibalize cheerleaders, was actually a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, ending with a shot of an older David Dunn, getting ready to do battle with a new nemesis.
Split made some 30 times its budget, and so Shyamalan has delivered Glass, which unites David, Elijah, and the many-headed Kevin (dubbed “The Horde”), to face off against one another in a crossover that no one could have predicted. The result is a ponderously ambitious project that’s bound to infuriate all but Shyamalan’s most devoted fans, a 129-minute treatise on the nature of comic-book heroism and America’s seemingly unending fascination with these damaged champions. It’s a film that sometimes plays more as a rambling TED Talk than as a straightforward thriller. But, in this case, I admired Shyamalan’s overreach, even as the auteur laid meta-textual twist atop twist in the movie’s giddily loopy ending.
David, Elijah, and Kevin might not be the household names that Batman, Catwoman, and the Penguin were in 1992. But Shyamalan’s characters are all “broken” in one way or another, looking for some kind of purpose through the lenses of their alter egos. David resorts to vigilante justice, Elijah to mass murder, and Kevin to kidnapping people to satisfy “the Beast,” the most malevolent of his personalities. Horrified by these three disturbed Philadelphians, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) has them all incarcerated and brought to a mental institution, where she can interrogate them together, trying to get to the bottom of what she thinks are just comics-fueled delusions of grandeur.
At first, Glass plays a little more like Unbreakable. It tries to stay as down-to-earth as possible, with Staple claiming there are perfectly rational explanations for David’s and Kevin’s feats of strength and Elijah’s murderous tendencies, all stemming from violence the men suffered as children. But that half of the film is at war with the half possessing the zanier tone of Split, which was dominated by a vamping McAvoy shuffling among a dozen identities (including a preening schoolmarm, a petulant child, and a raging animal) in one body.
Read: Deciphering the bizarre twist ending of ‘Split’
What tone does Glass settle on? Silly or serious? It never really decides, just toggling between both, sometimes in the same scene. This is a film where Elijah can introduce himself by intoning “First name Mister. Last name Glass,” and simultaneously earn a laugh and a gasp. It’s a film that expects you to understand the intricacies of Kevin’s condition (if you haven’t seen Split since it came out, I’d advise brushing up on the basics), but also features a comic-book salesman who patiently explains to the audience that superheroes were largely invented with the release of Superman’s Action Comics in 1938. Glass is patronizing and broad while also feeling knotty and philosophical.