This article contains major Glass spoilers.
You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you’re here. That’s just an awful feeling… and a sentiment shared by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) at both the ending of Unbreakable and Glass. The first time he said those words 19 years ago, he was trying to explain to David Dunn (Bruce Willis) why he felt the need to seek out a real-life superhero who unknowingly walked among us. When he says them in 2019, it is after he has sliced open the throat of a chatty orderly, one acting like he meant Elijah well while nevertheless denying him his gifts.
That frustration felt by Elijah is at the heart of Glass and its ending, and it’s very much on M. Night Shyamalan’s own mind too. It’s the reason why Glass, Shyamalan and Blumhouse’s trilogy closer that was two decades in the making, ends not on a climactic duel between “The Overseer” and “The Beast,” but with Dunn’s cloaked do-gooder unceremoniously drowning in a puddle, and scared, painfully human Kevin (James McAvoy) bleeding out in the arms of his first victim and only friend. If this feels anti-climactic, that is because it’s by design.
To actually recap the basic machinations of the ending, Elijah Price is revealed to be once, twice, and then three times ahead of the opponents who would keep him sedated for the rest of his life, telling him he was crazy to believe he was a mad genius like something out of a comic book. It turns out Elijah was at least brilliant enough to engineer his escape from a heavily guarded and monitored mental hospital. Figuring out how to switch his drugs for aspirin, he had full autonomy to remove key reflective equipment from the machine Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) would use to essentially lobotomize him, and then broke his own picture frames into on-brand shards of glass that could murder Daryl, the orderly.
From there, it was just a matter of unleashing Kevin’s more violent “Horde” alternate personalities, most notably The Beast, and letting chaos ensue at the hospital. Sure, he talked a big game about staging a classic superhero comic book fight in front of a city hall stand-in, but that was just to get David’s lethargic mojo going. Elijah always suspected Ellie Staple was part of a secret conspiracy of shadowy powers-that-be who wanted to keep the gifted and powerful down. She wanted Elijah, David, and Kevin to deny their gifts—and when that wouldn’t work, the next step was euthanasia. But Mr. Glass, of course, gets the last laugh since he also hacked the institution’s cameras the night before. All of the superhuman footage would go to the faithful like his mother, Kevin’s compassionate supporter, and David’s son. Their fans would spread the gospel of the gifted.
Purely as a superhero movie conceit, there is much to appreciate about Glass’ third act subversion of expectation. Rather than a major battle, all of the three central characters die ignominious deaths, most notably David Dunn, whose reluctant heroism turned Unbreakable into a cult classic. Yet his death is not something profound like Wolverine’s in Logan, or thematically fulfilling like Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi; David dies in a body of water smaller than a bathtub, essentially assassinated. Within the context of the film, this is because Ellie Staple, for all her empathy, is ultimately a cog in a Legion of Doom like conspiracy. She is a member of a secret society that is led by a thousand Lex Luthors: Men and women who do not believe superheroes should be allowed to exist. And there is some soundness to Ellie’s rationale.
Every other attempt to “ground” superheroes always ends in conversations about “escalation” and one crazed clown blowing up hospitals because some billionaire is getting his kicks by dressing like a bat. Ellie wishes to prevent that kind of madness, and she tries to do it through humane methods first: “You’re not superpowered, you’re crazy.” And then when that doesn’t work, she’ll trick Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) into talking Kevin down—and painting a target over his heart. In retrospect, it explains all the “holes” in this universe and in Glass. If comic books are a hidden mythology about the gifted among us, why has no one else manifested in public like David Dunn did? Well, if they did, a secret organization, whose own motivations inform many comic book supervillains, would silence them. It also explains how Ellie knew David Dunn was The Overseer, and where to be when he came to blows with The Horde. After McAvoy’s split personalities decided to show the world what they can do, she was sent in to wrap up all of Philly’s superpowered beings, evil and good, high-profile and low.
But the real reason to savor Glass’ ending extends beyond plotting and capes. Rather this is a movie aware of its placement in M. Night Shyamalan’s career, and one that realizes too well Elijah Price’s pain of being told to go away and die. Shyamalan did, after all, first brush against that sensation in Unbreakable.
Considered a classic now among Shyamalan fans and connoisseurs of superhero movies, the writer-director’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense was hardly well-received at the time. He’s spoken repeatedly about how Disney, of all studios, told him in 2000 that no one wanted to see superhero movies. And during this past weekend’s “Shyamalanathon” Q&A, the director conceded the movie never could get out of the “big brother shadow” of The Sixth Sense. It received mixed reviews upon release—it is currently sitting at 69 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—and was viewed as a disappointment by audiences promised another supernatural thriller, and who didn’t realize until they were in the theater that this was a brooding “superhero movie” before that was considered a genre. Unbreakable only made $95 million in the U.S., almost $200 million less than The Sixth Sense.
Afterward, Shyamalan saw other major critical and financial successes (Signs)… and those that were decidedly not (before Bird Box, there was The Happening). And in that time, the filmmaker became a punchline and a figure of ridicule among many critics and even within an industry that refused to produce his scripts. Until partnering with producer Jason Blum, Shyamalan had to take a loan against his house to pay for The Visit’s microscopic $5 million budget (every other studio refused to buy it). He was rewarded with a hit that paved the way for a bigger one in Split, which in turn took its own gutsy gamble by assuming audiences would remember and care if a post-credits scene revealed the movie was secretly a sequel to Unbreakable, a supposed disappointment from more than 15 years prior.
The enthusiasm for Split proved otherwise, and the excitement around Glass suggests Shyamalan is celebrating the vindication that Elijah Price tasted in his own dying breath. “I’m not a mistake.” For more than a decade between the box office hits of The Village and The Visit, Shyamalan was told he was not special and that he was mistaken to believe in his creativity as strongly as David Dunn believed that he was a superhero, or that “The Horde” of split personalities believed there was a 24th identity with the ability to scale walls and deflect gunshots. You can scrutinize and analyze why these special events occur, which in the case of Ellie Staple is by rationalizing them away as tricks of the mind, but the results are still incredible. McAvoy’s Hedwig will always believe he’s a nine-year-old boy. Those who dismiss that as a gift, like Staple or her goons, do so in an attempt to stymie his full potential. Like the critics that wrote Shyamalan off, and the studios that refused to invest in The Visit, they simply wanted Mr. Glass (and the talent who created him) to go away.
That is why even if Daryl is an oblivious orderly who means Elijah well, his attempts to patronize and refute Elijah’s gifts must end with a shard of glass to the jugular. And it is why when the mindset of Ellie is given visual representation, it is in the brutal hands that shove David Dunn’s face into dirty runoff. Many critics were lukewarm and dismissive of Unbreakable, a movie that the hype around Glass confirms really was something special. Unbreakable predicted the superhero movie boom to come, and it and David deserved more than the ignominious death offered by the industry in 2000.
Yet, Glass is not an angry film, no more than Mr. Glass is overly bitter about his demise. He saw it coming and knows his praises will be sung after his death. This is personified by the three misunderstood men’s most passionate defenders. Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard) and David’s son (Spencer Treat Clark) have a vested interest in their loved ones’ greatness, so most persuasive is Casey, the only still-living character introduced in the film that cemented Shyamalan’s comeback, Split. Despite trying so hard to escape McAvoy in that movie, she is drawn to at least believing his line of thinking in Glass. There could be a glib article written about Casey suffering Stockholm Syndrome, but that would be reductive. She pities Kevin’s humanity and is awed by his mental accomplishments. After surviving Split, she reconnects with the past he hails from and explores forgotten comic book lore as readily as moviegoers of a new generation impressed by Split then sought out Unbreakable.
Casey is the moviegoers who embrace Shyamalan’s movies for all their weird demented flourishes, a la Split, and see the beauty in that. And she’s there to spread the good word alongside the other true believers that greatness shouldn’t be hidden, it should be revered. Hence why she, Joseph, and Mrs. Price are all sitting inside the train station at the end, a destination that David Dunn and Kevin’s father never reached. They are there to complete the journey on the past’s behalf, just as Glass belatedly finishes a voyage begun 20 years ago by Unbreakable. Which in a way makes the Glass ending a “thank you” and a self-congratulatory pat on the back. That it has it both ways suggests that it knows exactly where its place in this world is.
Glass is in theaters now.