The pull of what some have glibly called the “Shyamalanaissance” has never been stronger than it was this weekend at San Diego Comic-Con. For it was inside the crown jewel of SDCC’s vast real estate space, Hall H, where M. Night Shyamalan and most of his Glass ensemble, including Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Sarah Paulson received a superhero’s welcome. Eighteen years after its release, Shyamalan’s most cult-beloved of early works, Unbreakable, is finally getting its elusive sequel. And the filmmakers brought the Glass trailer to prove it.
Be that as it may, it is almost glib to say this is the beginning of any kind of “renaissance,” as Glass is a movie that Shyamalan’s wanted to make since the release of his pseudo-superhero drama in 2000, and it was actually at Comic-Con during the promotion of the first of several terrific horror genre-benders the director has done with Blumhouse Productions, The Visit, where Shyamalan got the idea for Split… which led to him right back in San Diego, and now to its biggest stage. It was also there where the director marveled at how much the industry changed, considering that when Unbreakable was released by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures in November 2000, he wasn’t even allowed to hint that it was about comic books or superheroes during the promotion.
Indeed, Shyamalan acknowledged a little bit of regret that the film had to hide its true nature from moviegoers in 2000, which he suspects colored the mixed critical reaction Unbreakable had compared to his previous movie, The Sixth Sense and what came after in Signs. Noting that many thought it would be more of a supernatural thriller like his other Bruce Willis film, the director told Hall H, “I was thinking this would be a really cool thing, a thriller comic book movie. And I remember… as we were talking about marketing the movie, I was on a conference call with the studio, and they were saying, ‘We can’t mention the word comic books or superheroes, because it’s too fringe. It’s those people who go to those conventions.’” As the convention crowd Shyamalan relayed this to then began to boo, the director smiled and added, “That was literally a quote.”
It is hard to fathom in the age where Comic-Con has inherited the pop culture Earth that studios, especially one at least tangentially connected with who would become the parent company of Marvel Studios, would be so dismissive of the potential for superheroes. But at the time, the most recent superhero blockbuster franchise, Batman, had seen its run end in campy ridicule and diminished box office returns three years earlier via Batman & Robin. The same year as Unbreakable, 20th Century Fox’s X-Men was launched, but that film too was coy about its roots, having all the characters dressed in black, Matrix-inspired leather. Nevertheless, one senses it did throw audiences off when Unbreakable came out with no hint in the lead-up to its actual conflict and psychological intent.
Shyamalan continued, ‘They’re like, ‘We’re just going to avoid mentioning that in the campaign.’ And I was like, ‘But that’s what the movie is.’ And it’s one of those weird moments where I was [asking about] the subject I was making: would that be interesting to the broader population? Which is obviously fascinating given what’s happened since then.”
That goes for Shyamalan as well. The last time he was at SDCC, the filmmaker came to promote The Visit, a horror-comedy hybrid that both embraced and deconstructed the tropes of found footage horror movies, while also making one of the very best of that form. And now seeing that folks like Unbreakable’s Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass, have taken over the pop culture landscape, Shyamalan felt emboldened to return to the superhero genre, which in spite of its flourishment has mostly eschewed studying the psychological and humanistic underpinnings that inform these flights of fancy. That includes its villains, like James McAvoy’s man of many faces.
“I decided to make smaller movies, contained movies,” Shyamalan said. “And then I remembered that I had this idea. Basically the Kevin Wendell Crumb character from Split was in the script of Unbreakable. And it was just too unwieldy, it was so many characters, and all you wanted to do was learn about this guy who had all these personalities, so I pulled him out and made it about this man befriending this other man, and asking this question, ‘How many days of your life have you been sick?’ And I got to focus on that… and when I was doing these smaller contained movies, I did The Visit and came here to Comic-Con to show it, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do that movie, do Split and maybe ask Disney if they’d let me do something special at the end?’” If it worked out, the director suspected he could be back at Comic-Con soon enough.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing though is that it then did work out exactly like that. The director goes on to describe Disney as amazingly gracious on the matter as they entered the relatively uncharted territory of letting another studio, Universal Pictures, use their original intellectual property with the character of David Dunn, Bruce Willis’ brooding pseudo-hero who makes a post-credit sequence appearance in Split, revealing the films are connected. Shyamalan also doesn’t expect something like Glass, where studios agree to share original characters, will ever happen again.
“I’m so lucky to be here,” Shyamalan says. “It was you guys who embraced it and really understood it, and everyone caught up with you.”