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The True Showdown in ‘Glass’ is Doubt vs. Faith

Written by on January 22, 2019 

The fundamental problem with anticipation is that what we see as an active engagement with something is actually just the uncontrollable force of our own desires filling a vacuum. When we say that we are looking forward to receiving or experiencing something—a gift, a date, a new piece of art—what we perceive to be a vote of confidence and support is actually just a selfish hunger based off what we believe we will receive. We anticipate a present because we suppose that when we unwrap it the gift will be something we want. We anticipate the date for the promise of a fulfilling romantic encounter. We anticipate art because we hope to receive from it the same things we received from the artist’s previous works. Looking forward to something is a judgment on what came before, and is more of a curse to the promised “next” than the leg-up we assume it to be.

This is all a long-winded and perhaps too-cerebral way of saying that if you are one of the many who had been anticipating Glass as a follow-up to Unbreakable, you may have been disappointed. If you are one of the many who anticipated Glass as a follow-up to Split, your disappointment may have been less, but still present. Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan—a man whose career will someday make a great FX Networks original series for all of its ups and downs—created a movie that moves at its own speed, exists to fulfill its own goals, and seems to have given only enough consideration for what fans may have desired from it so that it might subvert that expectation. Glass is less interested in being a sequel to Split and Unbreakable than it is in being the Scream of comic book movies—with a dash of Shutter Island thrown in for good measure.

Beginning three weeks after the end of Split, and 19 years after the end of Unbreakable, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is now a vigilante superhero known as The Overseer, helped in his crusade against street-level crime by his son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). The duo is currently on the hunt for Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), whose animalistic alter-ego The Beast has been kidnapping and cannibalizing young women since his emergence. A common Marvel or DC film might make this game of cat-and-mouse the whole of the film, but Shyamalan is less interested in watching two strongmen fight than in exploring what makes these characters tick psychologically. Thus, after their first bout, both men are captured by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychologist who specializes in treating those with delusions of being superheroes, who has already taken over the treatment of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who prefers his self-selected moniker “Mr. Glass.”

At this point, what had promised to be a duel between good and evil becomes a much murkier and more interesting battle between belief and doubt. Rather than having to struggle against one another, The Beast and David have to struggle against themselves, their own uncertainty about their place in the world and the authenticity of their gifts. Dr. Staple, in an attempt to “cure” the two men and keep them out of prison, slowly chips away at their sense of self, attempting to peel back layers of self-mythologizing in order to find the mundane truth at the foundation of their lives. Shyamalan has, in effect, made a movie where the hero and the villain are both on the same side, the side of wanting to believe that something spectacular is possible, and the antagonist is the system—and the people with the system—attempting to keep everyone from believing that there could be something more.

It may seem insane for a movie to spend so much time trying to convince two super-powered beings that they are normal, especially to an audience who has seen their genesis and know the truth of their conditions. However, much like the full arc of the narrative of the film itself, this mind game isn’t meant for the audience; it is meant for the characters. The tension for the audience isn’t whether or not Dr. Staple’s hypothesis is right, it is whether her injections of doubt will be successful in poisoning these two into abandoning their gifts.

The film’s biggest narrative coup, however, is when the true hero of the piece emerges in the form of Lex Luthor-style supervillain Mr. Glass. In a story in which doubt, discouragement, and renunciation are the greatest evils, the man who stands up for faith, confidence, and glory is the ultimate champion. Though his methods are morally reprehensible, resulting in death and destruction, Mr. Glass is the only person whose faith never flags, and who is actively working to help those around him embrace and fulfill their true potential. Jackson, who is clearly having a ball playing a physically weak but intellectually powerful villain, is the heart of the movie, the one who we hope to see succeed. His giddiness and steely certainty in his own plotting are infectious.

All the while the most important people in these men’s lives—Anya-Taylor Joy as Casey Cook, Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s mom, and Treat Clark as David’s son—provide commentary on the proceedings based off of comic book tropes. Rather than looking at this as the work of someone out of step with our current boom in comics literacy, I prefer to view it as the pure point of the film, the true apotheosis of what was begun in Unbreakable. Comics, in the world of Glass, aren’t just pulp fun, but rather the outlet for our subconscious yearning for what we know to be true. Holy texts pointing us toward the truth, born out of our Jungian collective unconscious. In a world in which we are fairly drowning in comic book movies, these observations can seem a little tired and obvious, but to the characters in the world of Glass, these are the signs in fulfillment of a prophecy, the necessary steps to be taken in order to usher in a new world. A world of heroes and villains, united by their possession of singular gifts and talents.

Walking into Glass, it would be forgivable to believe that the climax of the film will be David fighting The Beast. The previous decade-plus of superhero movies would lead us to believe that was so. By the end of Glass, however, it is clear that the ultimate victory won’t be dictated by the outcome of the fight, but rather the existence of the fight itself. After a whole movie with not-so-subtle hints at the most likely setting of the climactic battle—a large modern tower that recalls both Nakatomi and Stark Tower—the muted and ultimately aborted final conflict happens in a parking lot. The possible cost in life and property, the very means by which other films like Avengers and Justice League measure their stakes, could not possibly be lower. And yet in no other film is the existential purpose of the fight so ultimately meaningful. Plotted to fulfill the dictates of the comics medium, the “showdown” becomes the ultimate goal, the evidence required to prove to the world that the impossible is possible.

So at the end, even when David and Kevin and Mr. Glass (who probably prefers that name to Elijah) are all dead and their loved ones are left standing confused in the ashes of the admittedly micro conflict, it might be easy to feel betrayed. Dr. Staple is shown to be a member of a secret cabal whose purpose is to suppress the existence of super-powered individuals. Her attempts at “therapy” were actually a pilot program at gaslighting people into doubting their gifts to keep them in line. That we have never heard of or seen hints of this group before makes their victory feel like a cruel trick, but really they are just the most concrete form of a universal force anyone who has ever tried to do something great has felt before.

Most importantly, though, this group did not win. Their purposes isn’t to kill heroes or villains. Their purpose is to hide the truth and keep people from meeting their potential beyond what the cabal deems to be acceptable, and they failed. Mr. Glass—again, the titular hero of this film, despite his seemingly evil mien—wants to show the world what can be done, what is real and what is possible, and his master plan is a success. David and Kevin have died, but not before scoring the only victory that truly mattered; embracing and accepting and demonstrating their true power. Mr. Glass has, over the course of 19 years, gone from super-person finder, to super-person recruiter, to super-person promoter, and his life’s goal is fulfilled. The people left behind, those who supported and understood these three men both, get to use their legacy to usher in a whole new universe.

In our world, where superhero films are supposed to be about the good guys defeating the bad while setting up the next chapter, to see such an amorphous, existential, and ultimately morally anarchic objective put on screen feels revolutionary. Of course, any revolution will have its dissenters and detractors, not to mention those who fight in the name of the status quo. All the same, given the creeping homogeneity of the usual superhero fare, it would be a mistake to damn or belittle Glass for trying to show us something truly special. Regardless of what one may have been expecting, it would be a mistake to call this movie a failure—it’s simply possible that you didn’t realize the real battle it was fighting all along.

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