Glass and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by M Night Shyamalan
Isn’t it nice that every time an M Night movie comes out we don’t automatically know that it’s terrible? I mean sure, there are PLENTY of critics of his more recent films, but unlike the bad old days of the mid to late 2000s, it’s not something that’s an unfailing certainty. I actually like this phase of his career quite a bit with Split being a rather intense and enjoyable thriller, so seeing him make a full on sequel to one of his great works is at the very least something that will grab people’s attention. It’s been almost twenty years since Unbreakable which came out before the super hero boom in film, so perhaps this is a good time to take a look back and see what’s changed since then from one of the first big attempts at dissecting the genre. Is this film a continuation of Shyamalan’s rise to prominence and acclaim after such a dismal spate of films, or was the greatest twist of all the one where he convinced us that maybe he was going to make better movies again? Let’s find out!!
After serial killer Kevin Wendell (James McAvoy) managed to escape custody at the end of the last film, he has been linked to a series of similar murders throughout Philadelphia and has cemented himself as THE HORDE in the minds of the general public. In doing so however, he has painted quite a large target on his back for David Dunn (Bruce Willis) who has a security shop that he runs with his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) while also moonlighting as a vigilante that the media has dubbed THE OVERSEER. Eventually the two cross paths as David finds his latest victims before they get eaten by Kevin but the super hero battle is cut short when the police show up and throw them into a mental institution under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who specializes in treating those who believe themselves to have super powers. Along with these two, she’s also working with Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson) who has been at this mental institution since the end of Unbreakable, though he seems to be more of a side project since he spends most of his time in a catatonic state due to the amount of sedatives he’s provided on a daily basis. Now that she’s got these three stooges under one roof, can she solve their mistaken beliefs that they are actually super powered beings? Alternatively, will they finally show not just her but the world at large that people like them exist? Will I sound TOO insufferable if I declare this movie to be better than Avengers: Infinity War?
I don’t know what to tell you. M Night Shyamalan’s recent output has managed to find that sweet spot between the classic M Night goodness of his earlier work and the unbearable cheese of his later stuff which has produced two Unbreakable sequels that I really enjoy! I can see the flaws in this movie which I will certainly be pointing out in this review, but I enjoyed everything else so much that the aspects of this story, these characters, and the topics he’s dealing with that are either done poorly or outright offensively weren’t enough to stop me from enjoying this movie. The portrayal of DID in the movie is still very much a sticking point here and two years out from my glowing review of Split it’s really getting to be that much harder to defend what M Night is doing here with that character, but unlike movies such as Daddy’s Home 2 or Bohemian Rhapsody where the offensive aspects are either out of total laziness and utter carelessness, everything about M Night’s vision, pretensions, and commitment to his initial premise doesn’t reveal any particular malice for his subject matter; at least from my point of view which of course should be taken with a grain of salt. That’s kind what it ultimately comes down to. For all of his faults as a filmmaker (many of which he’s thankfully made strives to improve on in the last decade), his movies have always had a degree of earnestness that made them quite compelling even when they weren’t good, and while I don’t think this is quite the successor to Unbreakable that many might have hoped for, I certainly found more than enough to like about it.
So what is this movie actually about? What is M Night trying to say with this movie? That’s not an easy thing to answer; not because his writing is so rich and multi-layered, but because he doesn’t quite seem to know himself and that uncertainty… might be one its strengths as well? Narrative wise, I think this movie might be one of his more straightforward outings simply because this is about characters we already know and have some degree of attachment to, so they have to exist as more than just gormless lookers on to events far beyond their comprehension. This isn’t Marky Mark running away from trees as we pass a land development sign or that other guy in Daddy’s Home 2 who finds religion again in the face of an alien invasion; this is at most an overwrought interpretation of the back half of the Hero’s Journey. The fall from grace before being reborn as a true hero; Jesus in the desert being tempted by Satan, or Batman being thrown into that pit in the middle of The Dark Knight Rises. The thing is though that BECAUSE the gimmick of these movies is to try and ground them as realistically as possible, it can’t help but also feel like a reflection of the issues inherent in not just hero stories, but specifically comic books and the films that have spawned from them. The fact that both of the villains (Kevin and Elijah) in this movie are disabled people angry at the world and wanting to show that they are better than regular people is something that sounds like the worst kind of ablest nonsense on its face, but we’ve been quietly (and in some cases no so quietly) putting up with that throughout all of comic book history. Even jumping up to modern day we still see this history of mental illness as the starting point for villains; with Batman’s Rouge’s Gallery being particularly emblematic of the SCARY DISABLED PERSON trope. For me though, at least in this movie, I still see genuine characters underneath who are hurting due to the life they’ve lived (both Elijah’s physical limitations and Kevin’s coping with trauma) and are lashing out at the world who didn’t understand them. I mean I guess it’s not THAT much better to have characters who are angry in reaction to what their disabilities have done to their lives instead of their disabilities being the direct cause of their evil, especially when there is absolutely no one else who is disabled in the film to show that these two characters’ experiences are not in any way typical of those who have these conditions, but I still found both of them to be compelling on screen. Again, there’s this bit of uncertainty with the way that M Night is making this movie which makes this whole story much more intriguing than if he had simply picked a thematic lane and stuck with it. Along with them being bad guys straight out of a comic book, they’re also victims of a society that wants to control them, tell them who they should be, and ultimately want to destroy them. Does the movie want us to believe them both to be genuine threats to the safety and stability of the world that must be stopped by any means necessary, or are we going down the X-Men route where these people’s gifts are feared by a society (or at least certain people in that society) who want to maintain order above and beyond everything else; even the happiness and advancement of humanity? It’s a movie all about the Magneto question but with as much of the fantasy aspects of it stripped out as possible which is, if nothing else, a rather compelling thing to see Shyamalan play with even if he’s not really coming to much of a conclusion.
You may have noticed that I haven’t talked much about David Dunn in this movie, and the reason is that like with any good superhero movie, the villains are far more interesting than the hero. If nothing else though, his scenes are certainly the most reminiscent of the original Unbreakable so at least they come off as genuinely nostalgic, and it’s not like his scenes are bad either. I do like seeing how he and his son have worked out a way to make this whole “superhero” thing work in about as realistic a context as can reasonably be expected in a movie. Like with the villains of the movie, it does tease at some darker aspects of the Superhero genre simply because of that commitment to realism, but questions about vigilantism, stopping crimes in progress versus advocating for structural changes that will reduce them, and all that are things that the movie really doesn’t get into enough. The film isn’t critical of David Dunn in the least and his portrayal is probably the most ideologically clear message the movie has. Even with how realistic the movie wants you to think it is, it wants to have at least some degree of fantasy with his character that is genuinely nice, genuinely solves crimes the police aren’t, and is genuinely being railroaded for doing good things. He has his moments to be sure and one of the most affecting parts of the movie is when he fully commits to who he is, but this is the part of the movie where things start to feel a bit like the old Shyamalan. When Bruce Willis is interacting with Spencer Treat Clark who is playing his son, the scenes are actually pretty good and Bruce is putting a lot into them, but once he’s in the institution they just don’t know what to do with him and he seems very unsure of how to play the character; not in the sense that David Dunn begins to doubt himself, but that Bruce is not sure how David should be reacting to these scenes. His action scenes are also shot a bit awkwardly, especially compared to McAvoy who is just going for broke every time the let him run around or throw a punch, but I actually found the awkward camerawork and Bruce’s seeming unwillingness to throw down TOO hard to be kind of endearing as another layer of the film trying to strip the fantasy out of superhero work. That said, there’s this really silly moment that they clearly didn’t know how to sell where he locks a bunch of cops into a room essentially, and it just looks utterly comical.
Now we get to the ending, and unfortunately we DO have to go into spoilers here because so much of the film’s Shyamalan TwistTM goes into what we’ve been discussing so far and is worthy discussing, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to know what happens at the end, skip to this part of the review and jump past the HILARIOUSLY captioned screenshot.
We good? Alright, so Shyamalan takes things a step further into comic book ridiculousness when we learn that there’s actually a secret organization that finds these super humans and either locks them in mental institutions to be sedated for the rest of their lives or are murdered outright. Now on a purely emotional level, the ending DOES work. There’s a lot of tragedy, shocking revelations (though you can KIND of tell that one character is gonna more or less reenact the ending of the first Unbreakable) and even a sense of triumph at the end that makes the ending bittersweet instead of a total downer. However, I feel like Shyamalan took things just one step too far here as the film’s central conceit, trying to portray this in as realistic a light as possible, falls completely apart when you have THE ANTI-SUPERHERO ILLUMINATI taking all this time and investing this many resources into… a guy who can lift a lot and a serial killer who’s going to jail anyway. I mean this organization is trying so hard to keep meta-humans a secret from the rest of the world (free tip for shadow organizations: DON’T TATTOO YOUR SECRET LOGO ON EVERYBODY’S HANDS!), but it’s made very clear throughout the movie that even if one of these dudes gets a decent head start and causes some trouble, it really doesn’t take THAT much to stop them in their tracks. It just feels like an awkward addition that’s either there for the sake of a twist or as some sort of convoluted sequel bait which I probably don’t want to see if THIS is the direction we’re going in.
Shyamalan has always been a guy whose work has divided audiences and critics, but at this point in his career he has pretty much won me back and I enjoy what he offers even if it’s kind of a mess. Now there are some big caveats here, maybe even more so than Split, concerning his portrayal of groups that he struggles to fairly represent; not to mention that the actors portraying these disabilities are not in fact disabled themselves as far as I can tell. That alone is gonna be a huge (and fair) point of contention with many people and because of that I wish that Shyamalan had handled them better, but what we have instead is something that appears to be earnest to almost an awkward level which I found to be quite enjoyable to watch play out onscreen. It’s not as good as the original film which had a much clearer sense of purpose, but the charming absurdities in this one are worth checking out if you think it’s something that you’d appreciate. I’d certainly recommend seeing it in theaters, but I also suggest listening to other people as well who will certainly raise valid objections to this films careless use of certain negative tropes in media. If nothing else, maybe this film leaning so far into these ideas that are almost always present in Super Hero movies but to a much lesser degree will start a conversation of how those films as well could maybe use a bit of self-reflection. Me, I’ll end up mostly enjoying it for being a perplexing mash up of Shyamalan at both his best and worst, but to each their own I guess.