Major spoilers for Glass. Duh.
Glass is not what I would call a challenging movie. To really challenge an audience, you need to force them into a mindset that they would not otherwise naturally adopt, to push them to accept things that they might not otherwise accept were it not for the influence of the story and the ones telling it. And really, what makes Glass unique isn't how it surprises audiences with monumental reveals that change previously established narrative concepts in typical M. Night Shyamalan fashion.
No, I would consider Glass to be a frustrating film, and not for the usual reasons Shyamalan filmmaking can frustrate. Sure, a lot of the man’s hubris and weakness for hackneyed dialogue is as baked into Glass as any number of his other films, but the key to understanding Glass is acknowledging that Shyamalan has specifically designed it to be a frustrating experience, building up the idea of the climax that his audience thinks it wants – or maybe just what he thinks his audience thinks it wants – before pulling that away like a gift we don’t deserve. He has created a film that begs us to hate it yet commands us to respect it, and parsing out what exactly about the film is designed to provoke us, as opposed to what are Shyamalan’s par-for-the-course issues, is what makes grappling with that frustration so fascinating.
Up to a point, Glass is a somewhat restrained, almost conversational film, in which Elijah Glass, Kevin Wendell Crumb, and David Dunn all struggle with the idea that each of them might not actually be so special, even though our vantage as an audience clearly undermines that hypothesis. It’s not just an issue of unreliable narrators, as we have two whole films worth of evidence that cannot just be retroactively waved away, despite Dr. Staple’s protestations and rationalizations that even within the framework of Glass feel naive. From a dramatic standpoint, it fits as a mechanism for the three leads to grapple with their solidified senses of identity, but it’s also a functional dueling ground for Shyamalan’s own sense of self-righteous certainty to take center stage. Shyamalan may want us to actually doubt the powers that have thus far been completely verified, independent of the powered characters’ limited perceptions, because he expects his audience to be so casually strung along. But maybe he wants us to grow tired of the doubt that prevents them from achieving their full potential, a feeling that is reflective of Shyamalan’s own fall from grace as cinematic wunderkind after the one-two punch of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable only to become commonly derided as a hack for the majority of his career. That’s the first frustration, minor in its establishment and doubtful in its intentions, but one that informs the rest of the film for just how messy these twists eventually become.
The moment when Glass probably loses a lot of people is right as Mr. Glass and The Horde escape through the basement level of the mental hospital, when Joseph Dunn, Casey Cook, and Mrs. Price have a round-robin discussion with Dr. Ellie Staple about the plausibility of their respective hero figures actually having the superpowers they claim to. The scene transforms into a tedious back and forth of characters explaining comic book tropes, archetypes, and story beats to one another, which undoubtedly is an expression of Shyamalan’s lack of faith in his audience’s ability to follow along. This is the most unambiguous frustration, one that firmly establishes the level of contempt Shyamalan has for the audience who he believes came to see just another superhero movie. If we give this ham-fisted expository theorizing the benefit of the doubt, its main function is to prime us for the anti-climax to come, an expression of the predictability of conventional storytelling that Shyamalan seeks to overcome not just in this film, but in nearly all of his filmography.
And, like it or not, the biggest frustration comes next. Mr. Glass has promised the audience (in dialogue delivered with barely more restraint than if he had stared down the camera lens) that the climax of this redemptive story of reclaimed superheroic identity is to take place at the top of the tallest building in Philadelphia for all the world to see. In the world of Glass, superheroism would be shown as a reality that Elijah Glass had predicted and willed into existence. However, as the fight takes place instead on the front lawn of the mental hospital, the plan, as we’ve been presented it, comes apart. It starts with the minor reveal that the origins of David Dunn’s and Kevin Wendell Crumb’s abilities both came from the train accident Mr. Glass had caused – a twist that is quickly overwhelmed despite acting as foreshadowing for the film’s true climax – but escalates almost absurdly quickly to a reveal that Dr. Staple is in fact an agent of a secret organization bent on wiping out people with special abilities, either through psychological manipulation or death.
And the latter is what our three leads get for their trouble. Elijah falls out of his wheelchair, shattering enough bone to kill him. Kevin and his two dozen other personalities fall victim to a sniper shot to the gut. David Dunn is drowned in a puddle by an anonymous soldier.
On the one hand, it seems somewhat foolish to expect the kind of spectacle Mr. Glass was advocating in a sequel to Unbreakable, a stripped-down subversion of superhero narrative that posits the potential reality of the superhumanly gifted without giving into the pageantry of it. To go so far as an all-out brawl at the end would be disingenuous to this trilogy’s roots, and if that’s the kind of conclusion you wanted or were expecting from twist-master M. Night, then maybe you deserve to have this particular rug pulled out from under you.
On the other hand, though, there’s something about this ending that feels like a giant middle finger to everyone who wanted this movie to exist in the first place, which can’t help but feel a little disingenuous given how much Glass (and Split, to a certain extent) primes us for a version of the continuing narrative that no one was actively clamoring for prior to the revelation that Unbreakable would spawn this trilogy. Unbreakable is a functionally complete film, and it was only after the stealth introduction of Split that the idea of the previously nonexistent series becoming a more fantastical version of itself was even in the collective consciousness. What Shyamalan sets up over the course of these latter two films could be considered yet another in a long career of narrative misdirects, but it also feels vindictive of the very nature of audience expectation in a franchise that audiences didn’t even know to anticipate.
Whether you’re on board with that will largely depend on how willing you are to ride along with that meta-narrative. Were you hoping to finally see David Dunn have his big hero moment in the light of day against an adversary worthy of his strength? Sorry, buddy, there’s another Marvel movie coming out in a couple months just for you, so why don’t you kindly fuck off and let the grown-ups talk. Were you hoping for this kind of subversion from the start because you’re on that Shyamalan wavelength? Well, good for you, but you’re going to have to sit through the lecture with the rest of the dunces before you get your gold star.
The last remaining question, then, is why. Why would Shyamalan go through years of trouble to re-establish two sequels to Unbreakable, only to aggressively refuse delivery on what he promises to do with those sequels? I think the answer lies in the film’s final moments. Mr. Glass never did intend to deliver on that promise of the skyscraper showdown, much as Shyamalan never intended to put it on screen. Instead, he delivered unto the successors, the sidekicks of the specials, the means of exposing the existence of the specials through the security camera footage stolen from the mental hospital’s obscene number of cameras. In this way, special individuals may learn that they are not alone, and that they can also step forward in their Randian excellence. Through this moment, Shyamalan is offering his congratulations to anyone who stuck with him and still appreciates the lecture. By following the purpose of his subversions, you are demonstrably worthy of considering yourself as visionary as he is, as special as Mr. Glass, David Dunn, or the Horde.
Is that an egotistic overestimation of Shyamalan’s narrative cleverness? Yes. Is it a condescending underestimation of a general audience’s ability to understand basic narrative structure? Oh hell yes. Do you have to like it? No, you absolutely do not. But can you say that Shyamalan didn’t accomplish what he set out to do? Well… that one’s a little harder to answer, but at the very least it’s commendable for its audacity.