If you had told audiences that nineteen years later, M. Night Shamalyan’s Unbreakable would spawn a cinematic universe, they would probably be in disbelief – or question what a ‘cinematic universe’ is.
But that’s just what Glass does, it establishes a connection between multiple individual films, and tricks audiences (in a good way) into seeing a movie that could have easily been dismissed if it were simply a sequel.
My personal experience with this franchise actually goes back to Split. I watched the trailers, thought James McAvoy could play a creepy person with multiple personalities, and that it looked like an interesting thriller/horror suspense movie with a bit of pseudo-psychology thrown in.
I watched it, and thought it was good. I got what I paid for and was planning to leave satisfied. The story was wrapped up and … we have a few final minutes.
We cut to a bar – a bar with Bruce Willis watching the news.
And that was it.
That was all it took to give Split an entirely different interpretation and making it an official sequel to Unbreakable.
Now, I’d heard of Unbreakable – it was well received, and I checked out a few reviews of it before sitting down and watching it myself. I had invested my time and money because of the last few moments of an unofficial sequel to a movie from the year 2000.
What happened? Would I have gone to see Unbreakable had I not seen Split?
THE ALL-STAR TEAM-UP
For all the comic book references in the film, I’m surprised that ‘All-Star Team Up’ wasn’t brought up more.
I enjoyed Unbreakable, and watching it made me appreciate the themes in Split even more – that constant theme of whether superhumans are real, or if it’s all dismissible by psychology. It wasn’t the narrative that hooked me – it was the premise and world-building.
But that’s why it’s such an interesting trilogy – it’s less “beginning, middle, end” and is instead two-standalone movies coming together to form a bigger cinematic universe … a “super” cinematic universe that discusses superhero stuff.
This was a formula established decades ago in the comic book format. Whether it’s lesser-known characters teaming up, or just fighting each other – think Freddy vs. Jason or Alien vs. Predator – but a little bit smarter, and with a greater sense of purpose.
It is a strategy that has worked for the Justice League, Avengers, Spider-Man, Godzilla v. King Kong, or even the Disney Channel’s That’s so Suite Life of Hannah Montana – combining three of their television series into a crossover team-up event. Now, it’s our three main characters in Glass doing battle and teaming up.
There are other terms for this narrative structure as well: Spherical Storytelling and collective storytelling come to mind, but I think All-Star Team up makes it sound cooler – the trick is to establish the members of the team before the teaming up.
A FILM-FIRST FRANCHISE
I describe the ‘Unbreakable Universe’ as being a film-first franchise. Each film exists as their own standalone narrative, following different characters, plots, and themes.
Unbreakable was released in 2000, just before Spider-Man would transform the modern the comic-book movie landscape. The film follows David Dunn, as he is the only survivor of a train crash and is believed to have some genetic pseudo-scientific form of super strength. His antithesis is Elijah Price, or ‘Mr. Glass’ – a man suffering from incredibly brittle bones and has to be mostly confined to a wheelchair due to his condition. The twist being (spoilers for a nineteen-year-old movie and Glass trailers) that it was Elijah who acted as a terrorist to test his superhuman theory.
The movie touches upon themes of good and evil but is more about David’s discovery and acceptance of his god-like abilities – a fantastic hero’s journey beginning with reluctance and disbelief, only to fulfil his super-destiny – with some great cinematography that brings this movie into a semi-plausible reality.
It works. It’s character-driven and works.
And then we have Split – a suspense horror-thriller that could have so easily just been its own thing.
Split follows a man with DID (disassociated identity disorder) referred to in-universe as “The Horde” – and one who is called “The Beast”, with terrifying animal powers. His kidnapping of three girls is where the core tension of the film lies, and whether or not they’ll be able to escape their horrifying situation.
It is a great suspense movie, but not a superhero movie – nor does the idea of the superhero ever get addressed. Only after a second viewing with the Unbreakable context do all the pieces fall into place.
So, what do I mean by ‘Film-First Franchise’? It is where each film can be viewed on their own. The narratives, and sometimes even genres, are entirely independent, but there is a something linking it all together to form a franchise.
This franchise was built purely on that final scene in Split that established a greater continuity.
Only in Glass do all of the previously-established characters meet for one final showdown. In one-fell swoop, this movie attracted fans of Split and forced some of us to go back to the nearly 20-year old Unbreakable. And – given the box office returns – it’s safe to say that it has been a financial success.
I quite like to visualise going to see a film like buying a ice cream … stay with me.
Imagine wanting to buy an ice cream. You may want to go for just one flavour to start with – chocolate. Then you may have another one later on if the first delivers. It’s different, but you like it. Even if it’s bad, you can still go back to that first delicious familiar chocolate scoop. Nothing’s won or lost.
But imagine if you want to desperately get everybody on board for your own little ice cream business. You give them chocolate, strawberry, mint, vanilla, banana, cotton candy, and rum raisin – it tastes horrible.
This is a franchise-first ice cream. It throws everything at you to convince you it’s great, and it just comes across as disingenuous and inauthentic.
In order to appreciate the co-ordinated appeal of Glass, it’s important to consider why this worked when other cinematic universes have failed.
Disregarding the new ‘All-Star Team’ style of narrative can be a dangerous thing when it comes to setting up your universe. Unsurprisingly, whenever a series has announced that it’s going to set-up a cinematic universe, it’s regularly been met with hesitation and criticism.
Think back to when The Dark Universe was announced as the world collectively rolled their eyes at The Mummy. Unlike Unbreakable and Split, this movie had obvious hints upcoming movies that were supposedly already in the works. Instead of trying to enjoy their first outing of an Egyptian curse, we were looking at vampire skulls in jars, creatures from the black lagoon, werewolf paws, and a shadowy organisation run by Doctor Jekyll.
It threw everything at you to make you invested in the franchise; it didn’t work.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice did exactly the same thing. After a polarising first outing, the second installation in the DC Extended Universe brought with it so many plot points and confused story elements that it was impossible to just sit down and enjoy it without thinking about that Warner Bros. master plan.
We had new introductions to Batman and Wonder Woman, a sequel to Man of Steel, a mashup of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, The Death of Superman, a Justice League origin story, AND a setup for an upcoming antagonist that was hinted at in a dream sequence by a character travelling back in time from some other future film! There was an impossible amount to follow, and no reason to care about what was going to happen.
The only thing driving these plots is money.
Characters and stories always suffer when the franchise is the priority.
It’s often easy to forget that the MCU’s present cinematic dominance only exists because of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark showing up at the end of The Incredible Hulk. It was that little moment that made audiences everywhere question ‘What if?’ It was cool, and made the universe feel that much bigger.
And, most importantly for word-of-mouth, it got people talking.
The brilliance behind Glass is the same thing. A sequel to Unbreakable nineteen years later wouldn’t entice anyone if it were announced in advance. But having a separate movie in Split; only establishing it as part of the Unbreakable canon at the very end gives the audience plenty of time to enjoy a cool new movie whilst establishing pre-existing characters, backgrounds, and motivation.
Everyone now had a ‘What if?’ to talk about, and could look forward to the sequel, or go back and revisit the previous instalment.
LET’S TALK MONEY
Sometimes you forget it’s a film business. There’s only so much capital for companies to invest in, and they have to be clever if they want to make a profit later down the line.
Glass has done very well at the box office, and I attribute it to Split.
We had three different stories, differing genres, and compelling character-driven narratives in an All-Star team up movie.
Regardless of how well this film was going to do, people were going pay to see it because of the previous two entries. That’s why world-building is so important. For companies there is a financial element to consider, and with a budget of roughly $20 million, it has really paid off.
Much of the appeal of Glass comes from the fact that it doesn’t feel like a studio-mandated safe investment. Instead, it feels like a personal auteur-driven cinematic experience. The last time we got a superhero cinematic trilogy to this degree was probably Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy – it doesn’t happen as often as you may think.
Again, compare that to Batman v. Superman or Dark Universe, and it there’s a greater return if you start with less, and use films cleverly to establish characterisation and motivation in advance. After all, Iron Man only had one superhero in it with only the tiniest hint at a greater universe.
After watching Split – the second movie of three, I also had a reason to go back to watch the previous instalment, rewatch Split again with new knowledge… and finally got psyched for Glass. It was everything the producers could have wanted me to do, and it made the whole thing out to be more of an event than it was. Money, time, streaming sites, and energy was spent on a franchise I didn’t even know I wanted.
But it worked – and it worked well.
SO … SHOULD IT END HERE?
Spoilers for Glass.
I’m split on this one – pun not intended.
The end of the movie sees all three of our characters die at the hands of some secret society A “Black Clover” society.
This was pretty odd, and the society’s goal was to hide superpowered people from the world … I mean, I guess that makes sense enough, and worked to develop the story and narrative in the movie.
It’s jarring to say the least, but it felt … satisfying. I can see why it received a bit of a polarised response, but it still feels like a natural conclusion to what Unbreakable started with Mr. Glass’s goal of revealing superpowered people to the world.
But now we have a secret society – a double-edged sword.
There is a way to have this universe very easily continue. There is a way to follow this shady organisation exploring other super-powered people, with even crazier stories to follow.
But I don’t think that’s the intent behind this movie – especially as the three supporting characters foil the society’s plans by uploading video to the world as part of Elijah’s master plan.
I think Marvel did this well with their ‘Phases’. Each phase tackled a different threat and had a different purpose.
- Phase 1: Form the Avengers
- Phase 2: Expand the universe, begin dividing the team.
- Phase 3: Infinity War – All-Star team-up
I’m just not sure it’s applicable to this property. Although I would see a movie called Black Clover exploring the inner workings of the society … but that’s already been done do death in various other properties (including Dark Universe where they had Prodigium – website and all – and I doubt ANYBODY remembers that.)
At the very least, it offers a range of fan theories and discussion points for the film – and anything that gets people talking about media is fine by me.
I mean, what if the Lady in the Water was really a genetic superpowered … person … with flying creatures and … well, I thought it could work. Maybe the Black Clover group could get a team together to take down the aliens from Signs? Or they were the real masterminds behind The Village because … yeah, all this would be a stretch.
But for now, it probably should end here: an enjoyable trilogy that started within the final few minutes of a secret sequel – brilliant.
We’re in an age where studios and production companies are looking more and more at keeping people invested in their properties. There is a huge range of content to compete with – including social media and YouTube. But Glass not only used these changes to better market itself by getting people talking about a nineteen-year-old movie,
I think the fact that Split was a “secret sequel” helped a lot as well. After all, nothing gets people talking more a secret.
Imagine if it were just announced that there was going to be an Unbreakable franchise – it could have been met with the same eye-roll that the Dark Universe got. But this proves the return potential in building up a franchise throughout different genres and films, whilst building up good-will with the fans.
I think a ‘Film-First’ approach works better, comes down to authenticity. Instead of being told about the next huge franchise coming your way, it’s far more enjoyable to ease into a story. I never felt like I was being manipulated by this film, or that it was setting a dozen movies down the line for Blumhouse to take my cash.
It was all about story, characterisation, and exploring a recurring theme throughout three movies. If studios could put their time into making one good movie at a time, and then sell the brand, then I think audiences would be more receptive to what they had to offer.
And that concludes the first story-look with the Glass franchise and proves how establishing subtle narratives and characters BEFORE a team up, will yield a better response than throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.
If you have any case studies you’d like to cover, feel free to comment – and of course, like, share, follow, and repost.