'Glass' Is M. Night Shyamalan's Bold, Beautiful Middle Finger to Superhero Movies

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Our main characters, trying to figure out the twists. | Universal Pictures
Our main characters, trying to figure out the twists. | Universal Pictures

Glass doesn't go the way you think it will. Of course it doesn't: This is an M. Night Shyamalan movie. The one thing everyone can agree on about Shyamalan is his love of sneaky third-act twists, the more the merrier -- by the end of his latest, there are at least four. But, still, if you're expecting Glass to stick to the same notes as the superhero movies we've grown accustomed to in the years since Shyalaman's own Unbreakable, you're in for a surprise. Shyamalan has other ideas.

To recap: David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is an indestructible man, having survived a catastrophic train crash that clued him in to his strange superpower. For 19 years, he's been roaming the streets stopping petty crimes, keeping his identity concealed by wearing a rain poncho. Choice shots of his imposing, cloaked figure backlit by open doors and frosted windows are particularly striking. Meanwhile, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), otherwise known as Patricia, or Hedwig, or Dennis, or Barry, or any number of other split identities clamoring inside his head, keeps his compulsions sated by kidnapping those who have been untouched by sin (usually teen girls) and attempting to feed them to his final, most terrifying identity: The Beast.

Dunn and Crumb finally meet when Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) spirits both of them away to a mental facility, where she keeps them in locked rooms and explains that she has been given three days to convince them that they've been suffering from delusions of superheroic grandeur for their entire lives. There's no such thing as superheroes, only a very new, very fascinating form of hallucinogenic mania, she tells them.

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Dr. Staple has bitten off more than she can chew. | Universal Pictures

And she can be very convincing. What if, she asks Dunn, who is also blessed with the ability to see people's intentions just by touching them, he is merely an extremely talented observer, like Sherlock Holmes? What if, she asks Crumb’s various identities, their patron terror The Beast is just gifted with the abilities of a very strong man? Her only problem: She's also included in her intervention one very brilliant, very depraved fragile-boned would-be supervillain (Samuel L. Jackson), who goes by the name of Mr. Glass.

It's difficult to go into too much detail without spoiling the tastiest aspects of the plot. Shyamalan, with his surprise trilogy, has proven himself a master worldbuilder, and yet his heroes remain firmly entrenched in a very real-world version of reality. A green-screened, CGI light show this is not. McAvoy's character seems the only one aided in any way by a computer, which lends itself to a few stick-in-your-brain shots like The Beast climbing up a wall, his fingers and toes crunching into the concrete, and galloping on all fours across a field like a dog (the human body should not be able to DO that). McAvoy's vamping and lisping and all the other mesmerizing ways he contorts his face and posture for each of Crumb's 23 identities needs no technological assistance. 

The first half of the movie is an intricate, handsomely directed build-up with a careful attention to detail and set design. Dunn's cell is outfitted with pipes full of pressurized water, which he believes to be his weakness. Crumb's door is guarded by a strobe light that forces another identity to come forward if the one presenting gets too rowdy. The main characters' first meeting is held in an austere pink room, carefully matching Dr. Staple's immaculate and maddeningly pastel wardrobe. Dunn's son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) returns to the fated comic shop, and Split's heroine Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) follows close behind, their investigations lit by neon signs proclaiming "HEROES" or "VILLAINS."

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The comic shop is back. | Universal Pictures

The twists, when they come, are what will make or break the movie for lots of people. Superhero comics nearly always build to some sort of dramatic, no-holds-barred conclusion, and Glass is no different, driving each of its characters toward a final face-off, teased repeatedly by comics-obsessed Mr. Glass himself. "The collection of main characters," he drawls, when all of the main members of Glass's cast assemble to watch the final confrontation (or, as Mr. Glass would dub it, "the showdown"). Never a particularly subtle director, Shyamalan gives you all the clues you need to figure out most of his third-act twists, provided you know what you're looking for.

At a certain point during Glass's finale, I was reminded vividly of what is possibly the best scene in any modern superhero movie: In Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2, after Peter Parker singlehandedly stops a train from barreling into an abyss, he faints. Like a wounded god, he's carried hand over hand by the passengers whose lives he just saved and placed on the floor of the train, where they all look upon his face before promising to keep his identity a secret. In Shyamalan's view, blockbuster studios (one of which Glass boldly name-drops mid-movie) have trained us to expect the epic and ignore the profound. But, as Casey reminds the characters of Glass at one point, when Superman was introduced to the world in Action Comics #1, he couldn't even fly. And yet, the world believed. It's never the sound and color and fight scenes and laser light shows that matter; it's what superheroes mean to a world who so desperately needs them.

In Unbreakable, Mr. Glass -- then known as Elijah Price -- was motivated by the idea that he could create superheroes, bringing Dunn's more-than-human traits to the surface. Now, in the conclusion of Shyamalan's Eastrail 117 Trilogy, Glass wants the world to see his handiwork. It's not enough for them to exist: The rest of the world needs to believe. "It's an origin story," Glass says firmly, while planning his pièce de résistance. It's unfortunate, perhaps even tragic, that the only way he can do this is by becoming the enemy, goading the heroes out of the shadows for the world to see, to prove that there is still something on this earth worth marveling at.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.