Underneath director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest twisty thriller Glass lies perhaps one of queerest superhero films ever made. (Warning! Complete spoilers for all of Glass’ twists and turns follow!)
Although Glass has no overtly queer characters (as well as problematic depictions of mental health and trans issues), the movie’s storyline and themes directly reflect a uniquely LGBTQ exerience. While most likely not director Shyamalan’s explicit intention, as I sat in the theater I couldn’t help but feel that, for all of its flaws, it was the first big-screen superhero movie that spoke directly to me, and to the battles the queer community faces today.
After a first act that initially seems to deliver on the promise of a superhero crossover, the film’s three superpowered characters—vigilante David Dunn (Bruce Willis), dissociative identity disorder patient Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), and super-intelligent Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson)—find themselves incarcerated in a mental institution against their wills. While there, Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) attempts to convince each of the three protagonists that they actually do not have special abilities, even though we all know that the characters do indeed have powers based on the two previous movies in the franchise, Unbreakable and Split. Through Dr. Staple's gaslighting and manipulation, the characters all begin to doubt their own beliefs and abilities.
This part of the film so closely mirrors the horrors of conversion therapy (the pseudoscientific method of trying to change a queer person’s sexual orientation) that I was shocked. Every attempt that Dr. Staple uses to manipulate her "patients" and the perceptions of their identity are (if you pardon the pun) staple practices used by fundamentalist Christian practitioners of conversion therapy, a harmful practice that is becoming increasingly banned by lawmakers all over the country. She blames past trauma for their "belief," prevents them from having contact with their families, and conducts what should be private therapy sessions in a group setting in order to publicly embarrass each of them. She even attempts to surgically alter Mr. Glass’s brain chemistry, an terrifying echo of the pre-1980’s conversion therapy usage of lobotomies or chemical castration. Mirroring how queer folks suffer while in conversion therapy, Kevin, Dunn, and Mr. Glass all begin to doubt who they are and their own perception of reality—and their mental health deteriorates as a result.
Even the character’s motivations and backstories are enhanced by a queer reading. Kevin faced increasing abuse from his parents for his mental health issues, a fear that many queer children have before coming out to their own family. David is forced to hide his superpowers by day, only showing his true self in the shadows of night, just as many LGBTQ people did for decades in America. And Mr. Glass (as if a dark reflection of Harvey Milk’s quote, "How can people change their minds about us if they don't know who we are?") desires only to reveal the existence of superpowered people to the world.
So I have some thoughts on Glass.
This is a movie about conversion therapy basically. The subtext being Dunn, Kevin and Glass are being told their super powers (queerness) is a delusion. Dunn wants to live in the closet, Glass wants to broadcast queerness to the world.
Like Unbreakable did before it, Glass sets itself up as a look at what comic books would be like in real life. Mr. Glass even argues that comics are actually pseudo-historical documents, using fantastic stories to thinly veil actual reflections of the real world. When thinking about this metaphor, one cannot help but recall the Hays Code that forced filmmakers to use queer coding to thinly veil queer themes and characters in their work. And comic books themselves have always had queer subtexts, from the homoeroticism of heroes like Batman and Robin to superheroes hiding their secret identity from family members, just like closeted queer people.
At the end of the film, it’s revealed that Dr. Staples actually belongs to a secret, centuries-old organization that is fully aware of the existence of superpowers, but that tries to either "humanely" neuter those who showcase these powers or, failing that, kill them. It’s not unlike how many practitioners of conversion therapy are themselves part of the queer community. People who have such internalized hatred for who they are that they wish to remove their homosexuality from themselves and others, to disastrous results for everyone.
But the film’s ending actually showcases the queerest theme of all: the power of representation. In a final twist, we learn that Mr. Glass succeeded in revealing the existence of superheroes to the world. The three surviving characters (who represent each superpowered character’s family), reflect on how simply seeing people like them will cause other superpowered humans to have the courage to "come out." How can one not watch that ending and not see how it parallels the increasing representation of LGBTQ characters in media, and how that representation has given so many in our community the chance to find the words to say who they are?
Yes, Glass is a deeply flawed film. It’s indulgent in its length as well as the focus on McAvoy’s (admittedly brilliant) performance. It subverts expectations in ways that feel disappointing rather then exciting. And it continues Split's problematic portrayal of mental health and abuse. I also by no means believe that Glass should be held up by the LGBTQ community as worthy of celebration, or that many of the themes explored in the movie are exclusive to the queer community. (Certainly, many of them also apply to other marginalized groups such as women or people or color.)
Yet, many of the themes Glass tackles are decidedly queer and, intentional or not, don't shy away from proving that queer struggles and ideals are ingrained in the very essence of the superhero genre. And for that, Glass is a worthy showcase for the superhero in all of us.