Midway through “Glass,” the latest happening in the M. Night Shyamalan Cinematic Universe, a Philadelphia psychiatrist named Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) tries to convince three extraordinary individuals that they are not, in fact, so extraordinary. Like one of those professional skeptics who turn up in horror movies to debunk the paranormal, she’s determined to prove that David Dunn (Bruce Willis) — whom you may remember from Shyamalan’s moody 2000 drama “Unbreakable” — is not, in fact, a shatterproof superhero.
There are also perfectly rational explanations, she reasons, for the odd behavior of David’s old nemesis, the physically fragile, intellectually steely Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), and also of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a serial kidnapper last seen juggling 23 distinct personalities in Shyamalan’s 2017 movie “Split.” Heroes or villains, victims or abusers, these individuals are all ordinary human beings suffering from, as Dr. Staple puts it, “a delusion of grandeur.”
You have to marvel at the choice of words there, which might make you wonder if Shyamalan is having a laugh at his own expense. Since the phenomenal success of “The Sixth Sense” 20 years ago, this onetime wunderkind’s career has followed an arc as twisty and torturous as any of his stories: There have been fascinating failures (“Lady in the Water”), unspeakable catastrophes (“The Last Airbender”) and a steep fall from Hollywood grace, one that was partially reversed two years ago by “Split.”
That comeback hit, which revealed a narrative link to “Unbreakable” in its teasing final moments, suggested that the director hadn’t entirely lost his cinematic mojo. It also raised expectations for this inevitable sequel, which would face the challenge of not only braiding these two stories together but also giving them room to grow in a new direction. Shyamalan has always had a knack for manipulating the past; he’s a master at springing the “gotcha!” flashback, at showing you the clues he’s hidden in plain sight. Moving forward hasn’t always come as easily to him.
And while “Glass” is an intermittent showcase for his undeniable filmmaking gifts — his meticulous attention to detail, his shivery command of technique — the movie winds up feeling less like a progression than a dead end. This is not (entirely) the director’s fault. It’s worth recalling that when “Unbreakable” arrived 19 years ago, mere months after the first “X-Men” movie, the glut of superhero-driven comic-book adaptations that would come to define Hollywood cinema in the 21st century was still in its relative infancy.
In “Unbreakable,” Jackson — still several years away from donning his Nick Fury eye patch — played Elijah, a brittle-boned loner who found refuge and meaning in comic-book lore. He was an early prototype of a figure who seems much more common today, in movies and in the world at large: the geek enthusiast who longs for a widely misunderstood art form to be treated with the serious respect it deserves.
One might not approve of Elijah’s methods, which led him to commit random acts of mass murder, but it’s safe to say that his brand of cultural high-mindedness has since gone mainstream. In “Glass,” Shyamalan is trying to cut through those familiar, generic layers. He wants us to experience a familiar story — about seemingly ordinary individuals who turn out to be both blessed and cursed with extraordinary abilities — with fresh eyes and a renewed sense of wonderment.
If it’s hard not to admire the sincerity and eccentricity of the effort, it may be even harder to love the results. The early scenes of “Glass” charmingly resemble a bargain-basement “Spider-Man,” as Willis’ David — or the Overseer, to go by his vigilante-hero moniker — dons a hooded poncho and patrols the streets of Philadelphia, using his telepathic powers to sniff out criminal activity. With the help of his son (Spencer Treat Clark, also back from “Unbreakable”), David soon locates the latest hideout of serial kidnapper Kevin Wendell Crumb, who — along with his 22 other personalities — is played once again by McAvoy with accent-switching, stereotype-juggling bravura.
Locked away in Kevin’s lair are four high-school cheerleaders, an awkward exploitation-movie touch that Shyamalan, earnest sentimentalist that he is, simply doesn’t have the nastiness to bring off. In any event, the girls are rescued too quickly to have much bearing on the story, which soon finds Kevin and David apprehended and sent to the same psychiatric hospital where Elijah has been held for the past two decades in a catatonic state.
One of the takeaways of “Unbreakable,” of course, was that the more incapacitated Elijah looks, the more dangerous he is. And both David and Kevin — who are placed in cells equipped with surveillance cameras and ingeniously booby-trapped to keep them from escaping — will have to reckon not only with this master manipulator and his still-scheming mind, but also with their own formidable strengths and devastating weaknesses.
By confining his three leads to a single location for the better part of two hours, Shyamalan dispenses with a lot of the busy, action-driven momentum typically favored by most superhero blowouts. For better and for worse, his movies have always been therapy sessions at heart — think of Willis’ child counselor in “The Sixth Sense,” or the overwrought family bathos of “Signs” — and in “Glass” he zooms in on his characters and allows us, like Dr. Staples, to study them at length.
For a while, there is pleasure to be had in this scrutiny. McAvoy’s virtuosic Sybil act can be a bit much — his “alters” include a nurturing older woman named Patricia, a lisping 9-year-old boy named Hedwig and a chest-baring bringer of pain known as the Beast — but fortunately, Willis’ steady heroics and Jackson’s subdued villainy are on hand to provide a welcome counterbalance. There are other familiar faces too, including “Unbreakable’s” Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s devoted mother and the underused Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, the lone survivor of Kevin’s abduction spree in “Split.”
In “Glass,” Casey is stuck with the thanklessly icky task of reaching out to her former captor, of connecting with the abused, frightened child hiding behind all those protective alters. Shyamalan’s most obsessive theme might be the link he draws between otherworldly phenomena and human pain: A debilitating physical condition or a history of unspeakable abuse will leave their mark, but they also can imbue their sufferers with extraordinary powers.
This is a provocative, even troubling notion — “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” taken to a ludicrous extreme. The trouble with “Glass” is that, despite a few wickedly playful touches, Shyamalan advances his ideas with his usual ponderous, po-faced earnestness, as well as a reliance on narrative sleight-of-hand that has seen far better days. Even his attempts to reset and decelerate the superhero-movie template feel like too little too late, and not just because the vastly more inventive “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” made it look so effortless by comparison.
Shyamalan has one or two decent shocks in store — one suspense sequence is so precisely choreographed it takes your breath away — but well before the end, it is hard to shake the feeling that he’s still falling back on the usual spiritual-sentimental hokum, the same entreaty to believe for belief’s sake. Whether you see this “Glass” as half-empty or half-full, there’s no mistaking it for the work of any other filmmaker (especially since no other filmmaker would allow Shyamalan to make another of his patented pointless cameos). It’s the work of a filmmaker who, no less than the genre he’s trying to reimagine, feels stuck on repeat.
Rating: PG-13, for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements and language
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Playing: In general release