Skip to main content

Culture Movies

Superhero psychoanalysis 

Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, and Bruce Willis in a scene from Glass (Jessica Kourkounis/Universal Pictures via AP)

Movie

Superhero psychoanalysis 

Comic book movie Glass offers more mental games, fewer battles

It’s hard to understand where all the media hate for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film is coming from. Sure, the famously frugal writer/director has served up some stinkers in his time, but he’s also shown a willingness to take risks in order to delve into meaty themes in fun, unexpected ways. That’s never been more true than with Glass.

From the start, Shyamalan gave himself a difficult task—he made a comic book movie that analyzes what makes comic book movies so popular while avoiding most of the elements everyone loves about comic book movies. 

Some of the ground Glass treads is similar to The Incredibles, like how villains and heroes define each other and whether gifted individuals should ever be restrained for some greater societal good. But he goes a step further, asking why we’re perpetually interested in characters like the Incredibles at all. Because if there’s one thing no one can debate, it’s that Americans can’t get enough superheroes. Fully half of 2018’s 10 highest-earning movies started out as colored paper panels.

Shyamalan hinted at this theme in Unbreakable and Split, the first two films of this trilogy. Here in the finale, though, he throws caution to the wind and goes into full dissertation mode. While this makes for a slower and occasionally sillier ride, it doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining one.

Nineteen years after we left him, everyman superhero David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has a new sidekick and a new name: the Overseer. In his mission to protect the streets of Philadelphia, he begins tracking the Horde—an array of personalities inhabiting one body who continue to chew the scenery both literally and figuratively. James McAvoy’s tour de force performance as this cast of alternately hilarious and disturbing characters is alone worth the price of admission. Before we get out of the first act, the Overseer and the Horde’s super-villain personality, the Beast, face off, landing them both in Raven Hill psychiatric facility with the evil mastermind Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson).

This is where things likely get challenging for the typical Avengers fan. It’s also what makes the film refreshing for those of us who are wearying of eye-popping sets and prolonged fight scenes. For a long second act, the trio mostly sits in uninspiring hospital rooms arguing with a psychiatrist who specializes in superhero delusions about the nature of belief versus evidence. As one of them says, people can always find a way to explain away the extraordinary; that doesn’t mean the extraordinary isn’t true. 

Eventually the story returns to more familiar territory, introducing a bit of PG-13 language and some violent imagery along the way. Still, keeping to the pattern Shyamalan has established, these scenes are fairly restrained, as is the case with a fairly brutal murder. The actual act is cut off from the camera’s view, and the after-effect is shown only in quick flashes on a grainy black-and-white video monitor. Such images may still be too much for some viewers, but it’s easy to imagine another director would have gone with far bloodier options.

Without giving away plot spoilers, I’d also say that when the classic Shyamalan twist finally comes, it serves up a message that runs counter to the ideas that seem to be preoccupying Hollywood at the moment. It even hints at some politically conservative ideas. 

Or maybe not. Maybe you’ll see the movie and see something different, and that’s all part of the fun. Glass has no shortage of ideas to dissect and debate. If we have to give up some of the flash and action to have them, that’s a trade I, for one, am more than ready to make.