Major spoilers for Glass below.
We deserve something better than the ending of Glass. We need something better than the ending of Glass.
In 2000, back before anyone could’ve predicted our present superhero boom, divisive auteur M. Night Shyamalan released one of the greatest superhero pictures ever made. Unbreakable managed to be at once an ode to, a commentary on, and a reinvention of cape-and-cowl fiction. At a time when the general public still saw metahuman narratives as a rarity (Blade and X-Men were the only successful ones in recent memory and the failure of Batman and Robin still felt fresh), the writer-director took a quantum leap forward and made a movie that was so subtly intelligent and emotionally resonant that it’s still more advanced than virtually every super-flick produced since then.
Unbreakable crooned to us the melancholy ballad of Bruce Willis’s David Dunn, a Philadelphia working stiff who miraculously survives a train wreck and, with the prodding of his adoring son (Spencer Treat Clark) and a mysterious, comics-obsessed stranger named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), comes to realize that he’s never been injured in his life, is unusually — though not ostentatiously — strong, and has a remarkable sense of intuition. There was no sci-fi mishegoss, no third-act battle royale, no epic special effects, no goofy quipping. It was a quiet tale, one that almost felt like a micro-budget indie, built on devastating performances from Willis and Jackson. It dared to lay bare the mechanics of superhero storytelling and ask us to pay close attention, rather than getting caught up in whiz-bang spectacle and self-referential gags. It had something to say: Superhero fiction can be beautiful and inspiring, but we should fear unhealthy obsession with it.
Oh, how desperately we require a message like that right now, what with our cinematic spandex glut. I was holding out hope that Glass would at the very least reiterate it, if not jump ahead once again and make commentaries I couldn’t even imagine. Instead, we got a campy, implausible, borderline incomprehensible wank that sparks joy only when one is laughing at how dumb it is. And its deficiencies are nowhere more apparent than in — surprise of surprises, given that it’s a Shyamalan film — the ending.
Before I go any further, I should say that I found the last 20-odd minutes of Glass baffling, so forgive me if I get a point wrong here or there. It’s somehow simultaneously formulaic and overly convoluted. After an hour and a half of us watching psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) attempt to convince David, Elijah, and Split’s sadistic dissociative identity disorder patient Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy, setting back the cause of destigmatizing mental illness by a century, but that’s a topic for another essay) that they aren’t actually superhuman while confining them in a mental ward, Elijah executes a plan that gets them out of their confinement and onto the front lawn of the hospital. Then things get silly.
Elijah has spent much of the film faking a sedative-addled coma, but has by now revealed that to just be part of his overarching master plan to … uh … make two dudes fight. He convinces David and Kevin to punch it out at a new, high-tech tower being built in downtown Philly. However, they never get past the institutional grounds. The pair have an eye-rollingly dull superstrength slugfest while cops haplessly attempt to break it up (why there seems to be zero effective security at this building housing dangerous criminals is beyond me). Elijah gets this stupid grin on his face and starts narrating the whole thing to no one in particular with genre-aware exclamations like, “A classic turn!” and “A collection of main characters!” Jackson is, to paraphrase Beck, phoning it in like he’s got unlimited minutes.
Meanwhile, a quartet of bystanders arrives: Ellie, David’s son Joseph, Kevin’s former victim Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and Elijah’s unnamed mother (Charlayne Woodard). (A side note: Jackson is 70 years old; the actor playing his mother is 65. Do with that what you will.) Joseph announces that he’s figured out that Elijah is responsible for the death of Kevin’s father, which briefly interrupts the fight and causes Elijah to do some more nonsense-monologuing about how he was trying to create a new superhero in the process of the death. Casey becomes a participant-observer when she attempts to reason with Kevin and get him to end the madness. (Poor Taylor-Joy, stuck playing a vaguely misogynistic “beauty tames the beast” character in the year of our lord 2019.) Elijah tells Kevin to throw David into a water tank — water is David’s kryptonite — and the two of them burst it open. I might be getting the exact order of events wrong here, but whatever, the whole thing is such a confusing muddle that chronology doesn’t really matter all that much. It’s just a bunch of loosely connected climactic events crazy-glued together at random.
A group of black-uniformed soldier types shows up and kills all three of our main characters by bullet or drowning. As they do so, the camera zooms in on little cloverleaf tattoos that they all have. Elijah’s mother had previously spouted some weird dialogue about how Elijah was always obsessed with a “limited edition” comics story involving a “final showdown,” and as Elijah dies in her arms, he says, “Oh, mama — this isn’t a limited edition. This was an origin story, the whole time.” It is unclear what on earth he is referring to, as anyone whose origin it could be is dead or dying at that point. He might be referring to a societal origin story, I guess, but we’ll get to that in a second.
Then the twist arrives. As David is shoved into a puddle for an ignominious death, we see a flashback in which Ellie addresses a secret society of cloverleaved individuals about her work with the trio. She then elliptically tells David that she’s working for some kind of group that wants to make the world fair by preventing the rise of superheroes, and that her initial, more humane plan was to simply convince them that they weren’t special and get them to stop doing what they do, but that it hadn’t worked out, so now they have to die. Well, mission accomplished.
… Or is it? In yet another twist, it’s revealed that Elijah had planned — or at least accounted for — this outcome all along, and that he’d secretly recorded evidence of everyone’s superpowers in the hospital. The footage is sent to his grieving mother, who concocts a plan with Joseph and Casey to distribute it far and wide to the public. As the film concludes, we see that triad of friends and family in the local train station. Elijah’s voice shows up as narration in the form of the email that he sent his mom and, while folks in the station get alerts on their phones about this new filmic evidence of superhumans and the TV news starts to report on it, Elijah rambles on about how “Belief in oneself is contagious” and “We allow each other to be superheroes” and “This is the moment we are let in on the universe.” Cut to the credits. (Alas, there is no post-credits scene where Jackson shows up as Nick Fury to recruit Jackson as Elijah for the Avengers Initiative.)
So … uh … what? Are we supposed to think that this newfound global knowledge of real-life superpowers is going to spark the appearance of even more superhumans? How would that even work? Do superheroes, like Peter Pan’s fairies, only exist if we believe in them? More important, why on earth should we want them to exist? We’ve already seen the nigh-unstoppable horrors that Kevin acted out — do we really desire more of that? Is this supposed to be a lesson about the importance of believing in yourself? Or the power of superhero fiction? If it’s the latter, I can’t help but get a queasy feeling in my stomach.
We already have far too much superhero material out there in the world and, as a result, myriad stories that essentially tell us might makes right and that the only real protagonists in the world are those who are somehow better than everyone else. As a result, the concept of the superhero, when handled poorly, is a deeply anti-egalitarian one, and it’s a dangerous notion to think we should all uncritically buy into it. It’s especially frustrating in the context of the Unbreakable-verse. The whole point of Unbreakable was that Elijah is wrong to be so fixated on fantastical stories of superstrong Übermenschen, and that such fixations, when taken to extremes, are actively harmful to one’s personal life and the population as a whole. Here, we’re being clumsily told that superheroes are objectively wonderful and that anyone who tries to suppress them is a lame narc. We are already being turned into a society of Elijah Prices. Why Shyamalan thought it was necessary to accelerate that process is beyond me.