2020/12/24

The Eastrail 177 Trilogy: Part 3

Glass 2019

The following is a review of the third movie in a trilogy of films, all of which have twist endings; all by a director who only knows how to write twist endings. Be forewarned: spoilers ahead.

Confession time: I didn't know that M. Night Shyamalan had released two sequels to Unbreakable until Red Letter Media reviewed Glass, part three in the Eastrail 177 Trilogy.

This series started strong with what is arguably Shyamalan's best film. Unbreakable showed the origins of two types of superman--the Christian and the Campbellian--and explored the moral implications of both.

Moviegoers had to wait sixteen years for the first sequel. By all metrics, they were not disappointed. Split treated audiences to a tour de force portrait of a third superman archetype--painted on nine different canvases. In contrast to the glorified man upholding the natural law and the posthuman who is above human law, Split chronicles the birth of an ├╝bermensch who makes his own law.

Split was a critical and commercial success hailed as a return to form for the once-celebrated director. As one commenter has pointed out, it probably helped that Split was based on unfilmed scenes cut from the Unbreakable script. It feels like early aughts Shyamalan because early aughts Shyamalan wrote it.

Fresh off Split's success, Shyamalan decided to conclude what is now known as the Eastrail 177 Trilogy with 2019's Glass.

Unlike its immediate predecessor, the third Eastrail 177 film was conceived after the director stopped taking criticism. It presents a viewing experience that markedly diverges from Unbreakable and Split, and the title hints at how.

Astute readers will recall that my reviews of the first two films in this trilogy focused on the characters. That won't be the case here because unlike them, Glass is mainly plot-driven.

Three weeks after Kevin Crumb attains his final form as the Beast, vigilante David Dunn, AKA the Overseer, tracks the murderer down. Their stalemate is broken by a SWAT team and a mysterious civilian woman. The officers subdue the Beast with strobing lights--a weakness never mentioned in Split--and the woman exploits Overseer's reluctance to harm the police in order to secure his surrender.

The mystery woman is soon introduced as Dr. Ellie Staple, a self-described specialist in treating delusions of grandeur. Staple confines Kevin and David to the same asylum where Mr. Glass has been kept confined and drugged since his arrest at the end of Unbreakable.

Dr. Staple endeavors to convince Kevin and David that their superpowers are mere delusions. She nearly succeeds, mainly because the plot calls for Kevin and David to momentarily doubt themselves.

Staple's efforts are spoiled by Mr. Glass, who has been faking his drug-addled state. In a series of meticulously calculated moves, Glass manipulates everyone and everything around him into freeing Beast and Overseer and broadcasting their undeniably superhuman brawl to the world.

All three supermen are unceremoniously killed off during the battle, but Dr. Staple--who is revealed at the eleventh hour as an agent of a secret cabal bent on suppressing superbeings' existence--has her plans utterly frustrated.

And that's about it.


The good

As before, James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson are a joy to watch as they reprise their roles. The Beast and Mr. Glass are even more fun when Kevin's 24 personalities and Glass' schemes interact.

Speaking of which, Mr. Glass' scheme is worthy of the greatest chess master villains. The movie sets out to prove that the mastermind is the most dangerous type of villain, and it succeeds convincingly.

It's also cool to see David Dunn go two rounds with someone on his power level, but it should have been ten rounds.

There's also some satisfaction to getting closure on this three-film story, though Glass' ending is the least satisfying of the three.


The bad

Unbreakable and Split managed to avoid fully succumbing to the realism trend that's ruined superhero movies. Glass falls right into the plausibility pit--and does it on purpose. Shyamalan even boasted that Glass is the first truly grounded superhero film.

Why anyone would want a truly grounded superhero film is never explained.

Whereas Mr. Glass and the Beast respectively inject intrigue and energy into the story, the other two main characters don't measure up. Overseer is a comparative nonentity who spends most of the film either getting pummeled or sulking. His lowly death manages to be gratuitous and prosaic at the same time.

Dr. Staple is even worse. She looks like a post-wall dead egger trying to navigate the singles scene, but she sounds like a midwit's misconception of how smart people talk. Think Sex and the City meets Big Bang Theory.

Sadly, her character rings true, because condescending schoolmarms backed by the state's guns are who's running our lives now.

Score another one for realism.

Then deduct one for the borderline fantastical opening scene of two ginger kids subjecting an Asian man to the Knock Down Game, only to be chased off by a black pedestrian.

Glass Superman Punch
The face of street crime in Glass' fully grounded setting

Intersectional fantasies aside, Glass' main demerit is how it retroactively undermines a main theme of Unbreakable.

The first Eastrail 177 film was the best because it showed the triumph of an everyman who discovers his true calling as a superhero in conflict with another superman who's definitively established as evil.

Glass overturns David Dunn's victory, and in a way that strips him of moral agency. Mr. Glass wasn't Overseer's equal after all. It turns out he was superior to all the other supermen the whole time. They might be superhumans, but he is the maker of superhumans.

In the end, both Overseer and the Beast are just puppets dancing on Mr. Glass' strings. For what purpose? To thwart Dr. Staple and her secret society--who are evil because Ellie sets off Overseer's sin sense right before his death.

But the same sin sense identified Mr. Glass as evil, so why exactly are we supposed to root for him against Staple? Yes, she's trying to deprive the world of a superhero by convincing David he's just a normal man, but she's also trying to contain a murderous cannibal and a terrorist responsible for 500 deaths.

Shyamalan falls into the same trap that makes X-Men ridiculous if you take a minute to think about it. If there are people who can throw cars around and shrug off bullets, maybe we'd better keep a handle on them for the sake of public order.

But supermen are cool. And besides, David sensed that Ellie is evil, so Mr. Glass is right to stop her. Except David also sensed that Mr. Glass is evil, so it's a moral wash.

"Ah!" the Reddit ethicist will say, "There's only a moral equivalence between Staple and Glass if you presuppose David's Christian morality as the default. The movie's real point is that Mr. Glass is indeed above outmoded ethical standards. In the final analysis, the Eastrail 177 Trilogy sides with the Campbellian superman."

To which I respond:
  1. Christian morality is the default, so the movie's point is evil.
  2. It never succeeds in making that point, since the only proof it presents that Dr. Staple is evil depends on an appeal to David's morality. But if Glass is right and Christian morals aren't universal, binding even angels and devils, then we must disregard Overseer's sin sense, and the film's moral conflict is a wash.
Based on the foregoing, I have to agree with commenters who've asserted that something befell Shyamalan last decade that threw off his internal compass. The man who produced this moral relativist fable is not the same one who said the scariest part of Signs was a good man losing his faith in God.

In the end, the Eastrail 177 Trilogy was sucked into the mainstream cape flick singularity.


For a reenergized genre done right, check out my mech thriller Combat Frame XSeed: S!

Combat Frame XSeed: S

9 comments:

  1. I remember hearing back when Unbreakable came out, and this was before X-Men or Spider-Man made cape flicks popular, that he was planning on making a trilogy out of the movie.

    If he really did write the second movie back in the day, the question is in if this really was his intended ending from the time. I'd have to imagine it wasn't.

    Still, it is a shame as to what happened to him. After The Village he changed studios and they no longer gave him any notes or limits on what he could do. Without a Chesterton Fence he simply lost his way.

    Just because you can do anything doesn't mean you should.

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    1. According to IMDb, only 1/3 of the Unbreakable script was actually filmed. Much of what was cut set up Kevin Crumb as a physical antagonist for David Dunn. Sham repurposed that material as Split.

      Glass looks to be an unplanned consequence of Split's success.

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  2. The incoherence of the film's point is all too familiar if you've been watching the latest cape nonsense, but this one flagrantly sports the emperor's nudity.

    As somebody who has thoroughly enjoyed most of the Marvel buildup, one thing always struck me as off: moral clarity. Old school superheroes stood for Christian morals, even if they failed to call them such. Ask a 1950s Captain America why killing half the universe is bad, and he would tell you that human beings have value. Ask the Chris Evans version, and he would simply say "because it's wrong." Modern capes are moral driftwood, following the moral currents from a source the writers don't dare name, and never was it more obvious than when the villains of Black Panther and Infinity War espoused plans currently championed by the world's rulers (cue 'think' pieces in rags like Vox and Vice about how Thanos and Killmonger were actually the good guys).

    Superheroes as supposed to be the idealized man, exemplars of strength and virtue. Is it any wonder that a society that vilifies strength and believes virtue is an illusion would make morally incoherent, hollow superheroes?

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  3. "Superheroes as supposed to be the idealized man, exemplars of strength and virtue."

    This might also explain the Death Cult's white-hot hatred of anime/manga. It's idealized feminine beauty.

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  4. I am thrilled to find someone who admired Unbreakable as much as I did; thanks for this series, Brian, especially as I'm unlikely to ever see the following two films. Unfortunately, it sounds like I'd only be missing out on one.

    I agree with your analysis: something happened to Mr. Shyamalan that broke his moral compass somehow. I will not speculate as to what, but it breaks my heart as he was a favorite director right up to The Village (which I liked, but everything after that just seemed off, even in trailers). That he sided with the Campbellian superman is, sadly, not surprising. That's the Gamma superman, the one smarter than everyone else who will always win out in the end because of his overwhelming intellect, despite being a physical coward/weakling/moral bankrupt. Because, you see, he has everyone else's interest at heart even if they don't know it: HE knows best and that's what matters. We live in a culture dominated by would be Campbellian supermen and are much worse off for it.

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    1. Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village are surprisingly based and red-pilled. I strongly suspect Disney caught on and gave Sham the Barton Fink talk. Sacrificing the Overseer to the Cult at Effeminate Superman's hands was probably his penance.

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  5. Honestly, I hope this is the case because it means weakness rather than corruption is at the heart of the rot. Weakness acknowledged can be striven against whereas corruption makes it hard to even admit error in the first place. I don't care if he never makes another worthwhile film, but I don't want to think his soul has been lost.

    One cannot serve both God and Mammon indeed.

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  6. Brian,

    It's interesting that the intersectional opening crime scene caught your attention for scorn, but despite recognizing a "cheat" in Unbreakable when Dunn's "sin-sense" was wrong you didn't connect it to the moral panic over drug and weapon screening tending to unfairly "target" the melanated. That was how I interpreted it when I saw it as a teen - was a bit of an eye-roller even then, pre-9/11. But it was a hot topic for the civil liberties crowd.

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