Even as M. Night Shyamalan twists go, the one at the end of 2017’s Split was a doozy. Up until its final minute, the movie plays like a gimmicky psychological thriller about a serial killer with multiple personalities, including one he believes to be a quasi-supernatural being called the Beast. But the final shot, which tracks down a diner countertop to reveal Bruce Willis reprising his character from Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, reveals that we were watching a sequel to that 2000 film all along, even though we didn’t know it.
There isn’t, and perhaps never has been, a filmmaker so thoroughly identified with last-act switcheroos, to the extent that Shyamalan’s penchant for twists became a crutch and then a joke. But Split’s reveal was a genuine jolt, in part because it followed another, more obviously twisty twist—that the Beast was, in fact, real—but mostly because it violated the way movies have come to work. The landscape is riddled with sequels, revivals, and reboots because the link to pre-existing properties makes the “new” ones easier to sell; making a sequel that isn’t marketed as one just leaves money on the table. But Shyamalan knew that word would spread, and it did, helping make Split the writer-director’s biggest hit in more than a decade. Shyamalan must also have known that Unbreakable, which was greeted with puzzled reactions as a follow-up to his career-making The Sixth Sense, had grown in reputation over the years, and that the world, and the movie industry, had shifted from treating stories about superheroes as nerdy indulgences to placing them at the epicenter of mass culture.
That’s the world in which Glass, the third movie in what is now an official trilogy, arrives, one in which comic book logic no longer needs to be smuggled in through the back door. We start this movie knowing that Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) can climb walls and bend steel when he’s possessed by the Beast; that mild-mannered security technician David Dunn (Bruce Willis) moonlights as a vigilante crime fighter sometimes known as the Overseer; and that Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), whose bones are so brittle they shatter at the slightest blow, is a criminal mastermind who prefers to be known as Mr. Glass. Little in the movie’s world seems to have changed. You can’t blame Elijah, who’s spent the intervening years committed to an insane asylum, nor Kevin, whose powers have only just emerged. (Glass, which explicitly takes place 19 years after Unbreakable, also begins only two or three weeks after the events of Split, which was explicitly set 15 years later. Movie magic!) In spite of David’s physical near-indestructibility and his ability to spot evildoers by merely brushing up against them, our hero has apparently spent the past nearly two decades going after small fry, chasing down muggers and viral video pranksters without ever straying far from his Philadelphia row home. Shyamalan drops in a few lines about David’s wife dying of cancer—Robin Wright apparently being too busy occupying the Oval Office to drop in for a cameo—but that doesn’t go far toward explaining why he’s never felt the compunction to, say, hunt down terrorist masterminds or depose murderous dictators. It’s as if Superman decided his greatest purpose in life was to write for a community newspaper. With great power comes great what now?
Superheroes’ dedication to fighting evil is usually more a question of ontology than of character, but the movie’s slapdash rationale for why David is still where he was in Unbreakable is indicative of how little thought Shyamalan has given to the passage of time. Split began as Unbreakable’s discarded third act, and the complete trilogy follows a familiar structure: The hero is introduced, then his antagonist, and eventually, inevitably, they fight. And despite the introduction of new elements, notably a psychiatrist played by Sarah Paulson who captures David and Kevin and tries to cure them of what she believes to be the delusion that they are more than human, Glass feels very much like a single act of a movie stretched out to feature length. Shyamalan has done slow burns before, but Glass is more than an hour old before Jackson gets to do more than drool and twitch his eyes. It’s as if Elijah’s sedatives are wearing off in real time.
The problem with Glass isn’t that Shyamalan hasn’t thought about what might have happened to his characters in the last 19 years. It’s that he hasn’t thought about what’s happened to the world. Unbreakable opened with a title card explaining what comic books are, which was unnecessary even then but seems absurd now. Battles between costumed heroes and all-powerful villains are the air we breathe, but for Shyamalan, comic book stores are still fusty enclaves run by socially awkward fat men into which pretty girls stumble hesitantly and ask for help. Unbreakable’s underpinning was the idea that extraordinary beings have been with us for centuries and comic books were ordinary humans’ way of processing their existence, but in Glass, when Elijah stops to point out how the story’s actions conform to comic book tropes, he sounds like the loud talker in the row behind you, whispering, “They’re about to fight.” Although he’s made three movies about them, Shyamalan doesn’t actually seem to know much about comic books, and he’s certainly got nothing to say about their journey to cultural dominance. It’s telling that no one in Glass ever mentions anything except comic books themselves. There’s no Marvel Cinematic Universe, no DC Expanded Universe; they don’t even seem to have Riverdale.
On a purely practical level, Glass is drawn-out and disjointed, with disparate plot threads (some of them leading to, yes, a perfunctory rug pull) that seem dictated more by its stars’ availability than narrative cohesion. (Willis disappears for a huge chunk of the movie and barely seems to have been present for the climactic battle.) But it’s also hard not to judge it against the movie it might have been. In 2000, Unbreakable felt like an anomaly, a superhero movie that steered clear of camp and dug into the genre’s bedrock. It could have been thrilling to extend that approach into 2019, where superheroes storm the multiplex on a monthly basis, and there’s no longer a need to laboriously explain the culture behind them. Unfortunately, it seems that laborious explanations are the part Shyamalan likes. He’s the evil mastermind detailing his plot for world domination, knowing that the villain’s monologue is a terrible cliché but unable to resist the urge.