What developed in the late ’30s and throughout the 1940s was a curious variety of folklore that attempted to inform its younger readers about what was transpiring in the world around them. With a war in Europe looming, comic books had a new role to play.
Coupled with a growing interest in science (exemplified in the pulps and on movie screens of the time), the initial superheroes would come from other planets (Krypton), or rely on magic to enhance a lasso or ring, or on secret words that when spoken could transform a child into a fully grown man. It would be two decades before Stan Lee introduced the mutant gene and radioactive spider bites.
But in this early stage, the question was always: what else can these heroes do to stand up to mad science or thwart a monster?
Director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Glass, is a continuation of his comic book world born in Unbreakable, and his focus is the source of his characters’ abilities as a result of extraordinary circumstances and medical deficiencies that sparks some innate power that resides within us all. Faced with having to overcome peculiarities to fully develop as super-powerful characters, M. Night Shyamalan isn’t hoping to WOW the audience with dazzling feats and epic slugfests. Rather, the goal of Glass is to explain how we got to where we are with comic books being the NEW literature and source for Hollywood blockbusters.
His overview of comic book history is intended solely as ephemeral history, which in the case of comic books touched more young lives than their textbooks. Which isn’t absurd in the least when it’s considered that Stephen King books are more widely read on morning commutes than Tolstoy or Plato! And when it’s revealed that at the height of comic book publishing in postwar America, between 500 and 650 different titles appeared on a monthly basis each with a print run of millions. The comics were cheap entertainment kids could afford, unlike today.
Samuel L. Jackson likes to be called “Mister Glass,” using his fragile frame but superior brain to bring others with abilities from out of the shadows. He exposes them like see-through glass, thus the name. Then there’s Kevin Wendell Crumb, played to unbelievable perfection by James McAvoy. who has 24 personalities referred to as “The Horde,” a kind of team-up package housed in one body including the particularly nasty one, “The Beast,” who we saw in Split as preying on cheerleader types!
Pitted against these two is the reluctant hero who survived a train wreck and never gets sick, security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis), now confronting criminals in a hooded serape and tagged in the press as “The Overseer.”
But all of them are being tarred with the same broad stroke as a threat to humanity by Dr. Ellie Staple (as in “staple” in the center of a comic book!), who has dedicated herself to studying and correcting these delusional sorts, making no distinction between hero and villain. Sarah Paulsen is the psychiatrist hoping to “censor” their abilities in much the same way that by 1954, New York psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham sought to prohibit comic books from depicting the very thing that made them culturally relevant to youthful readers!
During this early stage in comic book history, anything was possible: violence, innuendo and the twisted, the bizarre and erotic were commonplace. All that changed with Wertham’s book, Seduction of the Innocent and its linking comic books to juvenile delinquency.
The superhero almost disappeared, as crime and horror comics did.
Glass isn’t meant as some slam-bang spectacle. That’s Avengers or Justice League.
Unbreakable was a crime/adventure. Split was a horror film. Glass is a culmination of the elements that make up comic book history known as “The Golden Age” that would be replaced by a modern age sentiment where heroes are neurotic, moody and conflicted. Marvel Comics would be based on Arthurian legend (the shield, the armored knight, the mystic) while DC revived the Greek gods (the speedster, Poseidon, Amazons).
In Glass, the suggestion is that these superheroes are scheduled to be replaced by more human characters, with the supporting players brought to the forefront. Dunn’s son Joseph (played by the same actor grown up from Unbreakable – Spencer Treat Clark), as the electronic spectator evident on the CW shows Arrow and Flash, commands the computer network. Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy, reprising her role as one of Crumb’s abductees in Split) – as the empath whose power of suggestion gets her past security, convinces others to see things her way and is able to subdue “The Beast” – is this real-world superhero equivalent to Jean Grey (X-Men).
With Mister Glass, the standard “good vs. evil” dichotomy is upended so that the perceived villain can see the future where super-humans and monsters flourish. His battle is with those who scapegoat these enhancements as a threat. Glass is a summation of what’s led us to now.