Warning. Spoilers abound for M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Unbreakable.
She is tired and scared. There are two other girls locked in the room with her. But still, she is lonely. The other two are traumatized and so is she; but she’s used to it. For her, being abused and manipulated by a man is something she’s lived with since a child. So unlike the other two, she’s adjusted. And she’s making a plan to escape.
He is happy, sad, curious, frustrated, innocent, and evil. He is at once tormented by the conflicting consciences within his mind, yet hopeful that they will be shut out when the Beast arrives. He has the three girls he needs. The ritual is nearly complete. The day of the Beast is at hand.
Split was a surprise hit when it was released in January 2017. A psychological thriller that evoked the spirit of M. Night Shyamalan’s earliest films. It was gritty, raw, and masterfully shot and directed.
Shyamalan bent the rules of the real world just enough to keep the suspension of disbelief throughout most of the film, until the climax. It was a turning point. Reality broke, and so did the suspension of disbelief. The Beast was revealed. He climbed walls, withstood shotgun shells, and bent steel as he hunted Casey Cook. But then it was revealed, and all was made well. Kevin becoming a literal Beast made sense. This was a 17-years-in-the-making sequel to Unbreakable. Climbing on walls and superhuman strength are not strangers in comic book worlds.
Unbreakable and Split are near polar opposite genres; yet he crafted them in a way where they not only coexist, but also complement each other. Shyamalan’s comic book world is so intriguing because of his ability to blend genres within the same world – and even within the same film.
Unbreakable’s concept is brilliant. What if Superman was already among us, but he didn’t even know it yet? It is amalgam of genres. At once a brilliant character piece of two men – one who can’t be hurt and one who can’t be healed; then it’s a coming-of-age story about a son who wants to watch his dad become the hero he sees him to be. And, it’s a comic book origin story following a man as he gains his powers and meets his super villain counterpart. The genres and storylines are woven in a manner that they feel organic – this is a world that feels real, gritty, lived in. And yet it also serves as a commentary on how comic book storylines play out, and on the sub-culture as a whole. David Dunn is the superhero who has his origin story moment. And like countless superheroes, it is their friend and close confidante who ends up playing the role of the villain. In a poignant moment at the end of the film, Elijah Price, now Mr. Glass, confesses, “It all makes sense! In a comic, you know how you can tell who the arch-villain’s going to be? He’s the exact opposite of the hero. And most times they’re friends, like you and me! I should’ve known way back when… You know why, David? Because of the kids. They called me Mr Glass.” Shyamalan took a story that is all-too-familiar for us comic book fans and masterfully wove it in a way that still feels fresh today.
Part of the reason why it worked so well is Shyamalan’s comic book world is grounded. Instead of a montage of the hero doing standard heroic deeds, we are given a man working out with his son, testing his strength as they pile more and more onto a rusty old workout bench hidden away in the basement. When he’s done, he hasn’t lifted an 18-wheeler off the ground, but as he puts it, “about 350 pounds.” He is this world’s Superman, except with a lowercase “s.” And with most the rest of Shyamalan’s films, the people with superpowers have been regulated to Philadelphia, Pa.
Comic books were both an escape from Elijah Price’s brittle bones condition, and a reason for his mother to get him to enter the real world. Interestingly, it was Mr. Glass’s mother, the very woman who inadvertently awoke his obsession with comic books – which would lead him to do terrible things, that spoke to him about predestination and destiny. After a nasty fall that left him with yet another broken bone, Elijah had given up on going outside. He didn’t want to get hurt any more. But his mother reminds him he could fall between his chair and the tv, if that’s what God had planned for him. It was her simple action of buying him the issue of Active Comics that set everything into motion. That 25 cent comic would cost the lives of thousands – but would lead to the birth of a hero who would save many.
This world’s powers depend much upon the mind. David Dunn’s powers don’t begin to fully form and develop until he truly believes who he is. And because of Kevin’s trauma and split personalities, he unlocks the way for the Beast to be unleashed. During the conversations between Dunn and Price, it is revealed why Dunn chose a profession of protection, and why he’s been depressed much of his life. Some people are called to greater things. And when they aren’t following that calling to the fullest extent, the mind suffers. “I just don’t feel right, Audrey,” Dunn confesses to his estranged wife on their do-over first date.
Once again the theme of predestination comes into play that affects the minds of the characters in the films. The heroine of Split, also, was meant to be there. As a child she was abused – emotionally and physically – by her uncle. The abuse only got worse after her father died. She had the scars from the abuse on her. Her back was a canvas that displayed the atrociousness of her uncle’s abuse. But it was that abuse, or rather her response to her abuse, which saved her life. She was stronger because of it. And after tracking her down and nearly killing her, The Beast saw that strength within her. She was broken, like him. And they were the strong ones. Then he left her. And as she is credited in the upcoming finale to the trilogy, Glass, it remains to be seen how this encounter has strengthened her further.
The two main villains, The Beast and Mr. Glass, wrestle with finding out who – or what in the case of Kevin – they are going to become. Both find their purpose. Both are born out of adversity. Both are tragic. They were meant to be the villains. And in some odd twist of fate, both enjoy knowing what they’ve become. The Beast holds a conversation with the three subordinate personalities within the body of the now gone for good Kevin. “Let him show the world how powerful we can be,” one of the personalities, Patricia, tells the others about the Beast within them.
Elijah Price’s character arc is one of the most unique in Shyamalan’s world. He is the one to uncover the truth that there are superheroes still living among us. He first had this thought because of his brittle bones disease. If there was someone like him, then there must necessarily be someone in the world who is opposite. That was the first clue to who Elijah Price would become. He guides David Dunn, encouraging him as he slowly begins to understand the hero he is to become, and so does Elijah. After David saves two children from a serial killer, reunites with his estranged wife, and tells his son he truly is a hero, he goes to Elijah’s place, where he thinks will be his “Batcave” for finding people to help. Price congratulates him and shakes his hand; and it is revealed the lengths he went to in order to find a “David Dunn” of this world. Price killed hundreds dead in his search for meaning, for his purpose in this world. Though it meant realizing he was the villain, the arch-villain Mr. Glass to be exact, at least he now had purpose. As Dunn walks away to inform the authorities, Mr. Glass tells him with tears of joy in his eyes and on his cheeks “Now that you know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake.” Our hero is made; and his arch-villain born.
Now that he has found his purpose, it will be revealed what villainous plot he was planning for Dunn while in prison when the finale of Shyamalan’s trilogy, Glass, releases on January 18, 2019.