In a Post-Marvel Age, M Night Shyamalan’s Superheroes and Villains are Irrelevant

Pop Culture

In a Post-Marvel Age, M Night Shyamalan’s Superheroes and Villains are Irrelevant

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

With Glass, M Night Shyamalan has, at long last, concluded his Eastrail 177 trilogy that began with Unbreakable at the beginning of the noughties. For a long time, the series promised to be a sharp, subversive, and thrilling take on comic-book tropes. Yet in the final installment, Shyamalan ruins a good thing by piling on the outdated thematic messages with a heavy hand.

Unbreakable followed a tense cat-and-mouse game between Elijah Price, alias Mr Glass (Samuel L Jackson) and David Dunn (Bruce Willis). Dunn is returning from New York to his home in Philadelphia on a train when it crashes. Dunn emerges as the only survivor but what’s even more shocking is that he escapes almost untouched. That’s when he encounters Glass, who explains to Dunn that some people are “unbreakable”. Glass then pushes him to explore his strength and his new-found abilities, forcing him to accept his identity as a vigilante, The Overseer. But when Dunn finds out that Glass killed innocent people just to manipulate him, he confines him to an asylum for the criminally insane.

It was an interesting look at the coincidence-rich world of comic books, where an essential ingredient of minting superheroes from Spider-Man to Batman and beyond, is some kind of tragic personal loss. Glass, with his wheelchair and propensity to groom budding superheroes, is clearly an homage to Professor X of the X-Men (whose first franchise film released the same year). Rather than casting Glass as the good guy who helps other mutant heroes, Shyamalan’s version unerringly captures a handicapped genius with a God complex that comes to fruition in Glass.

In 2016’s Split, a sequel to Unbreakable, Dunn runs into Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, whose most brutal personality, The Beast, captured three teenage girls as a cannibalistic sacrifice. As Dunn tries to save them, Kevin is taken over by the Beast – referred to as The Horde – and escapes.

And Glass, the last film of the trilogy, brings all these heroes and villains together once and for all. The film opens with The Horde and The Overseer, being thrown in the same asylum as Glass. At the hands of Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specialises in superhuman delusions of grandeur, they are treated for their supposed mental disorders. Meanwhile, their friends in the outside world are slowly figuring out that comic books are not fictional, but a historical record.

Combined with Shyamalan’s signature aesthetic, it makes for a gripping first half.

Combined with Shyamalan’s signature aesthetic, it makes for a gripping first half. As Kevin transitions into – and struggles against – each distinct personality, his desperation is both terrifying and heartbreaking. But as usual, there’s never any straight shooting with Shyamalan, who seamlessly grounds fantasy in a deep, biological reality. After all, if The Beast’s super-strength is merely the product of a mental illness, who’s to say that The Overseer and Mr Glass are any different? Who can deny that Iron Man is fuelled more by paranoia than any kind of superpower? Are people who think they’re superheroes crazy, or does it take a crazy person to become a superhero? And it’s in trying to find pat answers to these questions that Glass stumbles.

Unlike 19 years ago when Unbreakable released, we’ve now had several thousands films in the genre to ruminate on unnerving questions similar in theme. After the Joker’s weirdly relatable nihilism in The Dark Knight, or Thanos’ unassailable logic when he advocates for mass genocide in Avengers: Infinity War, the traditional notion of black-and-white, good vs evil comic book rhetoric no longer exists.

So when Shyamalan forces his characters to expound on the duality of heroes and villains, and navigate the line between reality and fantasy, he’s making an argument that is no longer novel. In a post-Marvel age, articulating terms like “showdown” or using meta-references like “origins story” without a trace of irony, is downright insulting to audiences. In fact. Glass’s depictions of comic book fans as a bunch of Seth Rogen-type nerds prove that Shyamalan has failed to recognise or acknowledge the genre’s mainstream growth.

Come to think of it, Shyamalan’s greatest disservice has ultimately been to his own cinematic universe. In Unbreakable, his forays into the superhero psycho were groundbreaking, paving the way a new age of comic book movies. Yet Glass is a testament that he’s still stuck in the old one.