Edwin Arnaudin: His career left for dead after a series of confounding flops that played like bizarro versions of his initial hot streak, M. Night Shyamalan returned to…well, maybe not greatness, but quality B-movie status in January 2017 with the dissociative identity disorder thriller Split. In addition to the feat of James McAvoy juggling 23 personalities — a good number of which we get to see — my favorite part about the flick was the tag scene, which sets him on a collision course with Bruce Willis’ David Dunn from Unbreakable, my favorite Shyamalan film. Were you likewise excited by the prospect of blending these two narratives?
Bruce Steele: In the ever-growing and ever-annoying universe of movies that refuse to capture or kill the bad guy because they want to make a sequel, Split justified that craven conclusion by the last-minute introduction of Dunn. So, yes, I was intrigued by the notion of a joint sequel. And the first 15 minutes of Glass, with Dunn stalking Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), pretty much lived up to expectations.
Edwin: And then?
Bruce: And then everyone gets trapped in an asylum with chatty but beautifully coifed psychologist-sadist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) and the movie drags to a halt for about an hour. There's lots of talk, explaining What This Movie Is About, but not a lot of the kind of suspense that drove both Unbreakable and Split. Were you entertained during this plot hiatus?
Edwin: I was because I could feel this “down time" building to something big. Kevin and his multiple mental entities known as The Horde — including the dangerously strong and newly unleashed one called The Beast — situated across the hall from his equally powerful (if not more so) antagonist David under dubious security with brittle-boned evil mastermind Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) playing opossum a few doors down? Yes, please.
Bruce: Maybe. But it felt to me more like we were in the green room than onstage in the show. Everything about this movie seemed smaller than its predecessors, from what was at stake to the action sequences to the inevitable "twists." Even the sets were rather dull. I don't want to spoil your "something big" at the end, as unexciting as I found it, but I can say that the various "hidden" plots struck me as ho-hum, laughable or both. Of course, you have to take comic books more seriously than I do to really connect with all the blather unleashed by Glass.
Edwin: Shyamalan has never been a great writer of dialogue and some of the pseudo-intellectual comic book insights from Elijah and his mother (Charlayne Woodard) are particularly painful to the ears. Nevertheless, Dr. Staple is able to articulate notions about self-delusion among people who think they’re gods among men that double as potent commentary on how the world (and mainstream cinema) has become obsessed with superheroes in the almost 19 (?!?!) years since Unbreakable arrived mere months after X-Men kicked off the sustained craze. Did that element do anything for you?
Bruce: It might have, 19 years ago, before Heroes on TV, seven more X-Men movies and so on and on. In 2019, Shyamalan's self-serious musings on whether comic book heroes can be real and What That Means just seem tired and woefully underdeveloped. Frankly, I thought it diminished his previously impressive main characters. Kevin, especially, was such a mercurial force in Split. Here he seems like a circus act that McAvoy pulls off with great skill but without any surprises. I think the Kevin of Split would have dispatched Elijah's overconfident Mr. Glass is a hot minute.
Edwin: I think the message is at peak relevancy today with the ubiquity of the MCU and whatnot, so I disagree that it would have made an impact in the comic book movie desert of the Unbreakable era. As with your beloved (har har) Avengers: Infinity War, I view Glass as a culmination of the lead-in films’ promises of a Good vs. Evil showdown, so perhaps I was similarly more willing to overlook certain flaws along the way. The three leads have to share screen time somewhat equally, so neither is going to receive the level of attention they did in Round 1. But as next chapters for their characters, all of whom have evolved in the interim, I found their inevitable collision course frequently thrilling.
Bruce: I could have used more thrills, as Shyamalan seems to acknowledge with a teased grand finale that veers in a different direction. The movie reminded me of the constricted second half of World War Z, as if it had been concocted to replace something grander that didn't work or wasn't in the budget. As for a Good vs. Evil showdown, I think the totems are too shrunken and the final venue too pedestrian to achieve a collision worthy of their original invention. Sadly, Willis has little to do after the first act, and Mr. Glass's supposed blossoming in the third act was like a carnival barker who thinks he's the trapeze artist: He might dress the part, but he's still all bark and no skills. Among Shyamalan's many "twist" endings, this one struck me as the least original and the least exciting.
Edwin: I like that Shyamalan plays with expectations for the climax — because, really, whatever one imagines after Elijah sets the scene is leagues better than the results this modest production could have crafted. The face-off’s eventual setting and its repercussions fit with his theme of relatable heroism/villainy, whereas almost anything bigger would have been incongruous. And it makes sense that David would take a backseat to Elijah’s return to glory, spurred by his fascination with Kevin as a means of achieving his ultimate goal. I just could have done without the characters spelling out what was happening — but it’s been a while since Shyamalan trusted his audience enough to figure things out for themselves.
Bruce: That's certainly true. I would like to give a shout out to the three supporting players, one for each main character: Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, from Split, was a warm presence in her few scenes; Woodard has a campy good time as Elijah's mother; and Spencer Treat Clark, who was a young boy in Unbreakable, has some nice moments reprising his role as David's son, now grown. It was pleasant to bring together all these disparate characters together as a more-or-less unified front. I just wish they — and the rest of the cast — had more to do. It's fine to critique superhero movies in the context of a superhero movie, but it's got to be entertaining in the meantime. For me, Glass barely reached a C-minus.
Edwin: Well, I was plenty entertained and think others who have been anticipating the melding of these two storylines within modern-day Philadelphia will be similarly pleased. After some time in the penalty box, it’s encouraging to have Shyamalan back in the ranks of respectable filmmakers. I give his latest effort a solid B and look forward to whatever he cooks up next.
Grade: C-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Universal Pictures)