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'Glass' Is Leaden

Supergroup Therapy (from left): Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), Kevin (James McAvoy) and David (Bruce Willis) assemble, in <em>Glass</em>.
Jessica Kourkounis
Universal Pictures
Supergroup Therapy (from left): Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), Kevin (James McAvoy) and David (Bruce Willis) assemble, in Glass.

Again and again, in M. Night Shyamalan's Glass — the sequel to 2016's Split, which was itself a stealth sequel to 2000's Unbreakable — there are moments that should, by any reasonable measure, work. In the language of superhero films, they're now-familiar turns of phrase that can be depended upon — and often have been depended upon — to elicit a jolt of adrenaline in the eager viewer.

Take the moment, late in the film, when a character heralds his return to super-form by finding a singular component of his old costume. Everything about the shot is set up to punch our buttons: The figure stands in stark silhouette. It's filmed from a low, Spielbergian angle. The costume component in question unfurls with a dramatic snap and rustle painstakingly engineered by some hardworking Foley artist somewhere in Burbank, probably. The music swells to an insistent crescendo.

And yet ... nothing.

Or the scene where another character dramatically intones his comic-book code name, then employs a [SOMETHING] to [ACT UPON] someone; and then — in case we missed it (we didn't), we cut back to that previous shot of said character pronouncing his comic-book code name, which ... oh, ha ha ha ... we now realize, cheekily references the [SOMETHING]. (No spoilers.)

In any other film, that moment would provide the proceedings with a sardonic punch. Here, it's just flat seltzer.

This all seems puzzling, at first: Director M. Night Shymalan has been making movies for decades, after all; he knows how to frame a shot, how to build suspense, how to cannily misdirect his eager audiences. But then you recall that when he made Unbreakable in 2000, superhero cinema was still only about to enter its dewy-eyed adolescence. That's likely why he felt he needed to disclose that film's superhero themes and subject so gradually, like a kind of cinematic slow-release cold capsule.

Perhaps worried that audiences would balk at overt comic book trappings, he grounded the film (some would say mired the film) in somber hues, portentous dialogue, lugubrious plotting and a central performance from Bruce Willis so unrelievedly morose that he could have just as easily been assaying the secret origin of Eeyore. Still not content that he had provided his audience with big enough narrative training wheels, Shyamalan supplied Samuel L. Jackson's character with expository dialogue that, over and over again, underlined the Manichean world of his creation, a place of Good and Evil locked in eternal struggle.

Nineteen years have passed since then. Nineteen years in which the superhero genre, replete with its sundry struggles, has saturated the culture in general and the box office specifically. The genre has had the time necessary to, if not deepen exactly, then at least develop (a bit), diversify (somewhat) and differentiate itself into distinct subgenres.

But Glass seems convinced it's still 2000, and audiences still require both a dour approach and incessant thematic handholding to "get it."

One such "it" we would presumably not "get," were it not for one character helpfully pointing it out: That the hero and villain must eventually face off "in what I think is called (finger quotes) a showdown."

As they say in comics: gasp!

We might forgive the film's predilection for jabbing us so persistently and bruisingly in the ribs if the process occurred at a swifter pace and was over sooner. But Glass stretches itself out over the course of more than two hours, and it makes us feel every leaden minute in our brittle bones. It takes nearly an hour for the film to move its three chess pieces into position — Willis' dourly indestructible David, Jackson's eminently destructible but brilliant Elijah, and James McAvoy's Kevin/"The Horde," a character with 24 distinct identities.

Once it does, there's some low-key fun to be had, in the heist/prison-escape-thriller vein. (Speaking of veins: As he did in Split, McAvoy pulls off a technically impeccable performance — several, actually, as he switches fluidly between identities. One persona, however, the putatively terrifying Beast, turns up so often, and always after a showy bout of flexing and grimacing and vein-bulging, that he swiftly loses any sense of menace. You know that one meme of the kid holding his breath? Yeah. That. Pretty much that, is all.)

McAvoy is doing a lot, in any given scene, so maybe it makes sense — the film does keep mentioning how important "maintaining the balance" is, after all — that Willis should spend the movie's running time doing ... less. So, so much less. There's inward, and then there's downright inert, and Willis spends all of his screen time languishing there, in the column on the far far right of acting's periodic table.

Jackson splits the difference, keeping criminal mastermind Elijah engaging throughout, even though he spends the first half of the film catatonic. No mean feat.

The film's climax fails to be much of one; you're left with the nagging sense that some last-minute rewrite, or budget cut, left Shyamalan scrambling to bring his story to a close. (Suffice to say his ending would land harder if the studio had loosened its purse strings enough to pay for even a few more extras.)

Heavy-handed, insistent and disjointed, Glass is a throwback to the early days of superhero cinema, before those stark, primary-color stories began to take on subtler hues. As such, it may be the superhero film we deserve, but it's not the one we need.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.

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