The third part of M Night Shyamalan’s “comic-book” trilogy, initiated by Unbreakable in 2000 and followed belatedly by (secret) sequel Split in 2016, sees the director – who has a track record of doing the unexpected – deliver a typically untypical clash of the titans. A word of advice: watch Unbreakable if you never have, if only to get up to speed, though it is slow-burning compared to today’s Marvel and DC extravaganzas.
Lest we forget, Unbreakable was released a year after the mega-bucks success of The Sixth Sense. It generated neither the box office nor the plaudits of that supernatural blockbuster, but Shyamalan’s subtle, emotionally rich deconstruction of comic-book mythology – nine years before the film version of revisionist masterpiece Watchmen – earned a cult reputation over time and a yearning from fans for a sequel, which proved to be Split thanks to a surprise post-credits cameo from Unbreakable hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis).
Indeed, Shyamalan wastes no time in cutting to the chase here, as Glass begins by revisiting the wicked, wicked ways of Split villain Kevin Wendell Crumb (played once again by James McAvoy), who is known as The Horde due to his multiple-personality disorder. In his clutches are four cheerleaders, who are doomed to be sacrificed to his serial-killing persona, the Beast. However, Willis’s durable do-gooder – now garnering unwanted nicknames like the Tiptoe Man and the Overseer – is on his trail.
The much-anticipated battle between the duo is a doozy, but the result is they are locked up in a psychiatric hospital supervised by Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), where Dunn encounters his old brittle-boned foe Elijah Price aka criminal mastermind Mr Glass (Samuel L Jackson) – the Luthor to his Superman.
There’s a One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest quality to this section of the film. Paulson is not quite in the Nurse Ratched bracket, though her determination to convince her patients they are delusional and not extraordinary triggers plenty of unnerving self-doubt. The fact the trio’s outside help – Dunn’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark, all grown-up), surviving Crumb victim Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Price’s mum (Charlayne Woodard) – are powerless to extract them from incarceration in cells specially constructed to neutralise their abilities doesn’t bode well, either.
As in Split, McAvoy has a ball flitting between Crumb’s 24 personalities while Jackson and Willis are comfortable with their yin and yang dynamic. If anything, there’s not nearly enough of Willis (who’s excellent); his David Dunn is the emotional anchor who supplies the humanity in the midst of Shyamalan’s musings on the trappings and tropes of the comic-book art form.
Nevertheless, there’s a buzz when the traumatised threesome is eventually in a room together for group therapy. And the moment you hear “that sounds like the bad guys teaming up” is a great nod to classic comics of the past, and thrusts the story towards its Götterdämmerung-like finale.
Glass may be flawed but it’s still a thoughtful tonic to today’s all-action superhero sagas. Whether it’s the end or a stepping stone for the franchise, in the end I guess it will be up to the audience and the box office.
Glass is released in cinemas on Friday 18th January