“In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero…“
Since Samuel L. Jackson uttered that resonating line in Unbreakable, moviegoers have been absolutely deluged in tales of superheroes and villains, many of which rebooted multiple times in that period with new takes on the familiar. In fact, little did we (or he, I reckon) know then that Jackson himself would star in many films that address such matters. For better or worse, we live in a cinematic age of heroes, and while Unbreakable felt then and now ahead of its time, its sequel, Glass, arrives as many admit the effects of fatigue with anything resembling the genre. We’ve seen so much of its kind that it leaves us with the question of “Is there anything left for this film to uniquely address?” I would say yes. Like Jackson‘s character, Mr. Glass, this film is “not a mistake”, even though it suffers from several broken parts and executes things in terrible ways.
Following Unbreakable, as stated, and Split, we find characters from both films colliding here in almost inevitable ways. Never apprehended in the aftermath of his own film, Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) has left a wake of death behind him, continuing in the abduction and murder of young teenage girls at the hands of his 24th personality, The Beast. His patterns of killing are studied and tracked by David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who in the years since discovering his powers and abilities, moonlights as a street-level vigilante with his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), assisting from afar. Both of these Philadelphia men were bound to collide, and when they do, it brings them into the custody of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson). She places them in an isolated wing of a psychiatric hospital…the same place Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), also known as Mr. Glass, is being held. Optimistically seeing that each can be healed of their delusions of power and might through her brand of therapy, she sets out to convince them it’s always been in their heads. Yet, if their power is indeed real, how can it be contained?
Believe it or not, I left much unsaid there, even in revealing more than I usually do. The acting of our three leads is top-notch. James McAvoy, who gets top-billing in a film that isn’t even named after his character, gives us even more personalities than before, believe it or not. Just when you think he couldn’t create another distinction, the screen flashes, and POW! He’s off again. The audience I watched it with took it all in with enjoyment, and there was far more laughter amongst the crowd than I anticipated there to be going into the film. Bruce Willis was better here than he’s been in years, and while that largely comes down to silent stares from his character, he continues a well-regarded character like David Dunn in an effective way. Samuel L. Jackson spends much of the film in silence, yet his eyes and mannerisms exude the intelligence of a mastermind. It’s a great return for his character as well.
Beyond the three, we have a newcomer with Sarah Paulson, and her soft-spoken character helps extend the world of this trilogy in new ways. In fact, I’d say, for the most part, she’s a great addition to this world. In a series of films where much of the enjoyment comes from what is said, there are long stretches where she alone speaks, and really, what her character says forges the foundation of this film’s story. Because much is told and not shown, I do think that people may become bored throughout with the philosophy of it all, but honestly, it is much of what she shares that I found the most thought-provoking. Characters like Joseph, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard) return in interactions with our main characters, but they themselves have reasons to be in the tale, beyond just these things.
As comics were looked at as cultural artifacts in the original film, that all extends to here as well, yet the examination of it all feels much more on the nose now. I don’t think that’s because we’ve thought too much about these things as moviegoers, but I do think it’s all in the way this film is delivered. I never detected an ounce of camp in Unbreakable, but it abounds here. Does such a tone allow for entertaining moments? Absolutely, and to be honest, marrying the mania of Kevin with the story began between Elijah and David had to result in a change of tone on some level. Still, it does result in an overall feeling of self-awareness where, for instance, the subtle motifs of the original film are reiterated here with actual neon signs.
All that said, if your idea of what comics at their best means them being told in campy ways, then this film increasingly nails that feel. As characters meet and interact, the film does evoke comics of the Golden Age and Silver Age, even amidst violence and mayhem that would typically feel at home in stories of more recent decades. The result is a film that feels messier as a result than its predecessors. While action scenes were almost non-existent in Unbreakable and violence sparingly used in Split, the film builds into a crescendo of action violence. As the film deals with inevitability as a theme, maybe an ending like this was as well, but it’s the twists on top of twists I leave unspoiled that transpire alongside all of this that really pulled me out of it all near the end. If a film is told in three acts, this one tightly held my focus for the first two, but it began to shatter in its closing. Still, in these closing moments, it provided decent resolution to (most) character arcs in the series, so as I review the film, I’m left with so many mixed feelings.
Contentwise, there was some of the expected language of a PG-13 film, and as mentioned, there is violent content as well. Aside from some lines from one of Kevin’s personalities (either a woman or gay man) to a male guard, there was no sexual content to speak of. Interestingly, I found the messages of this film correlating most of all the three films to matters of faith and belief, because those things are actual themes in the film. When our beliefs are questioned, do we crumble or endeavor to prove what we know to be right? It stirred up lots of food for thought, and as such, some of these things will be informing the FREE BIBLE STUDY I am writing for Geeks Under Grace, based on this film.
All-in-all, Shyamalan has made a career out of delivering twists, and with this film completing his only trilogy thus far, he seems to want to go out with a bang with twists for its twists. In the end, it is these things that make the film too self-aware and grasping for some sense of self-importance, something that Unbreakable and Split (to a lesser degree) earned on their own. While Glass maintained my attention throughout most of its runtime, its ending created a number of issues that robbed the film of my full enjoyment. With both of the other films, I began to like them more with subsequent viewings. That may prove the same here, but upon initial viewing, I am left with a film that ambitiously ties two stories together with mixed results. None of this is the fault of the actors or the execution of the filmmaking. That’s all top notch and noteworthy. It does, however, fall back on a recurring problem in Shyamalan‘s work in that his writing and twist ending just don’t always work out for the best, despite best intentions. It’s an imperfect film, for sure, but it was no mistake. I enjoyed most of it, and maybe in time, I’ll like it more.