First, there’s little doubt that Manoj Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2001) is among the best films made in the last two decades. It is a personal favourite in the superhero genre. How things have changed though in this genre over the last two decades. The DC and Marvel films are, however, quite far removed from what Unbreakable did so effectively. The rapid proliferation of these ‘commercial’ superhero films means that it’s even more important to get meditative films like Unbreakable and Logan. In keeping with the spirit of the former films in this franchise — Unbreakable and Split — Glass avoids stepping into the crash-bang-wallop territory, but unfortunately, it gives you little of their emotional resonance. Examination of what indeed makes a superhero continues in this film, as Mr. Glass (Samuel Jackson) and Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) look to outwit each other with their diametrically opposite beliefs. For instance, one of Kevin’s (James McAvoy) personalities is a nine-year-old who can’t age any further, and while Ellie sympathises with him, deeming it to be a curse, Glass is all admiration for one of The Horde — Kevin’s superhero name — being able to view the world unblemished forever. Whose conviction ultimately wins? Is super-power simply a delusion?
Director: Manoj Night Shyamalan
Cast: Samuel Jackson, Bruce Willis, James McAvoy
These questions plague David Dunn (Bruce Willis) among others. As shown in his origins story in Unbreakable, he’s struggled to come to terms with his abilities, and so it would have been quite fascinating to see how Ellie’s ideas confuse him. Alas, there’s not a whole lot of that. There’s, however, plenty of time for James McAvoy to showboat as entertainingly as he did in Split. It’s a riot to see him shuffle between his personalities, as a consequence of his Dissociative Identity Disorder. Some familiarity with Split too is necessary, as it will help you at least get some sense of The Horde’s notions of impurity and the broken. No amount of familiarity with the previous two films, however, will help you understand how Ellie Staple’s organisation functions, or why director Manoj Night Shyamalan thought it fit to examine superheroes through her gaze. This choice really robs the film of the sort of emotional play that was such a big part of Unbreakable, and to a certain extent, Split.
I liked how Shyamalan looks to turn the tables on those expecting an action-packed union of The Overseer — David Dunn’s superhero name, The Horde, and Mr. Glass. But it’s neither a meditative foray into the fabric of superheroes, nor a dynamic union. Also, usually, I’m quite an admirer of painting characters in grey. Glass does a lot of that, but leaves you a passive observer, as it has three dislikeable characters at its centre. Save for David Dunn, the others are all homicidal, and a strong case can be made for why each of them is a villain by themselves. This probably explains why one of the characters sifting through the comics turns her attention to the Villains category so dramatically.
Glass is the most homicidal of the lot, and is designed to be a bit like Magneto — a senior figure looking out for his kind, hoping to liberate them from shackles of self-doubt. Ellie Staple too has the greater good in mind. But the problem surfaces when Glass begins to get romanticised. If he indeed is the ‘hero’ of this story and a liberator figure, what is the film really saying about his brutal methods? It seems to be advocating the dangerous idea that the end justifies the means. If The Beast is a superhero, with the suggestion that he’s an evolved human, what is the film really saying about Dissociative Identity Disorder? From potentially stigmatising it in the previous film, it seems to have gone the other side and begun romanticising it.
It’s also a film quite burdened by its own self-awareness. The nods to comic tropes begin feeling cumbersome. The quintessential Shyamalan twist is there — in fact, there are as many as three towards the end of this film. Even by his standards, you have got to say it’s probably one too many. One twist is a convenient coincidence, another’s about a character you get little insight into, and the final one seems to paint Glass as a hero. The film has neither the consistent entertainment that was on offer in Split, nor the emotional strength of Unbreakable. And yet, for all its shortcomings, I’m quite happy for this brand of superhero film being made. If Glass being an origins film is a hint, perhaps there’s more on offer? Consider me intrigued.
This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.