Glass may not be a traditional comic book movie like the Marvel and DC films audiences have become used to, but M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller is still a story about superheroes and supervillains.

Glass functions as a sequel to both Split (2017) and Unbreakable (2000) and is the final instalment in what Shyamalan calls the “Eastrail 177 Trilogy” – the crash of the Eastrail 177 train in Unbreakable is what kicks off the events that ripple through Split and Glass.

James McAvoy in Split and Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable. Photo credit: IMDB

Split centred on Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder whose 24th and final personality is an unstoppable monster called ‘the Beast’. Unbreakable was about the dynamic between David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the lone survivor of the above-mentioned train crash, and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book gallery owner with brittle bone disease. It turns out that Elijah, seeing himself as a supervillain, has manipulated David into filling the role of a “superhero” to be his own arch-nemesis.

These three characters collide in Glass, which takes its name from Elijah’s alias “Mr Glass”. David, the “superhero”, faces off against the two “supervillains”: the physical threat in the form of Kevin’s manifestation of the Beast, and the intellectual puppet master in the form of Elijah.

James McAvoy in X-Men: Apocalypse and Samuel L. Jackson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Photo credit: IMDB

Audiences are familiar with McAvoy and Jackson from their heroic roles in recent comic book movies: McAvoy plays the young Charles Xavier/Professor X in the X-Men franchise, while Jackson plays Nick Fury, the spymaster who isn’t always upfront about his intentions but is ultimately an agent of good, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A handful of actors have, like McAvoy and Jackson, portrayed both heroic and villainous roles in comic book movies. Here’s a tour of five performers who’ve been on either side of justice in movies directly based on or, like Unbreakable, generally inspired by comic books:

1. Michael Keaton as Batman in Batman (1989) and the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Michael Keaton in Batman and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Photo Credit: IMDB

Michael Keaton has repeatedly proven that he is adept at both comedy and drama, but earlier in his career, he was known primarily for comedic roles from films like Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously and Night Shift. There was considerable backlash when Keaton was cast by his Beetlejuice director Tim Burton in a big screen reimagining of Batman, which promised to be miles away from the campy Adam West-starring TV show from the 60s. Upwards of 50 000 angry letters were reportedly sent by frustrated Batman fans to Warner Bros in protest of Keaton’s casting. The fans took issue with the actor’s past comedic roles and his lack of resemblance to the strapping Bruce Wayne of the comics.

Keaton’s take on Batman, which he reprised in Batman Returns (1992), has since gained its share of fans. Unlike his Riggan Thompson character in Birdman (2014), Keaton is happy to be associated with his superhero role, ending a commencement speech at Kent State University by uttering “I’m Batman”.

Keaton is so fond of saying “I’m Batman” that it carried over into his supervillain role, Adrian Toomes/The Vulture in the MCU movie Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). The menacing character is a ruthless thief who uses scavenged technology to mount daring heists, and who locks talons with the friendly neighbourhood web-slinger. “We have a fight in the movie and I punch him,” star Tom Holland said about acting opposite Keaton. “He turns around and says [in a deep voice], ‘I’m Batman.’ He kept doing Batman quotes on set.”

It’s good to hear Keaton kept things light, because the character is downright terrifying in the film. Keaton has since convinced viewers he can be scary, not just funny. The Vulture is set to return in this year’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.

2. Liam Neeson as Darkman in Darkman and Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins

Liam Neeson in Darkman and Batman Begins. Photo Credit: IMDB

Liam Neeson is often a steadfast, reassuring presence on the big screen. His serious demeanour and imposing stature, combined with an innate gentlemanliness, bring old-fashioned pulp fiction heroes to mind. Director Sam Raimi might be known for his Spider-Man trilogy, but his first brush with superheroes was Darkman (1990), starring Neeson. The film drew on the Universal Monsters films from the 1930s like The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein, while also bearing shades of Batman and The Shadow.

The titular Darkman aka Peyton Westlake is an old-fashioned tragic hero, a scientist who seeks revenge on the mobsters who burned him alive. The character is a master of disguise, and Neeson spent up to 18 hours in prosthetic makeup. Neeson researched the role by contacting the Phoenix Society, a charitable organisation that helps burn victims with severe disfigurements re-adjust to society.

Neeson’s typically-heroic onscreen persona is exactly why director Christopher  Nolan cast him as the supervillain Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins (2005). The character is introduced to audiences in the guise of Henri Ducard, an operative of the League of Shadows who becomes a mentor to Bruce Wayne along Wayne’s journey towards becoming Batman. Ken Watanabe’s character, called ‘Ra’s al Ghul’ earlier in the film, turns out to be merely a decoy. In the comics, Ra’s al Ghul was patterned after the megalomaniacal Bond villains of the 1970s, and Nolan, a long-time Bond fan, was attracted to the character type. Neeson made a cameo as a hallucination of Bruce Wayne’s in The Dark Knight Rises, as a nod towards Ra’s’ penchant for coming back from the dead in the comics.

3. Patrick Wilson as Nite-Owl in Watchmen and King Orm in Aquaman

Patrick Wilson in Watchmen and Aquaman. Photo credit: IMDB

Watchmen (2009), directed by Zack Snyder, was an ambitious adaptation of the influential graphic novel of the same name, penned by Alan Moore. In a very different way from Unbreakable, Watchmen is a deconstruction of the archetypes found in superhero stories, contrasting the optimistic innocence of golden age superheroes with a bleak dystopia in which superheroes are outlawed by an oppressive government.

Patrick Wilson’s Dan Dreiberg/Nite-Owl II is past his prime, caught in a love triangle between Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). The character is idealistic but flawed, longing for the glory days now behind him. “For most of it, at least with my character, I never got the feeling of sacrificing performance for effects,” Wilson said in an interview with MTV.  “These are extremely human stories. It just so happens they’re costumed adventurers.”

Patrick Wilson returned to the world of comic book movies in 2016 with a vocal cameo as the President of the United States in Batman v Superman, also helmed by Snyder. A far meatier role soon followed: King Orm/Ocean Master in Aquaman (2018). The character is the half-brother of the film’s titular hero and is bent on unleashing war on the surface world. “[Orm is] a villain but he’s certainly a villain with a cause,” Wilson said. “So he’s not as black and white as much as somebody who’s out there for blood.”

Wilson suggested to director James Wan, with whom he’d collaborated four times earlier, that Orm be blonde and clean-cut. This would invoke the classic comic book appearance of Aquaman, in contrast to Jason Momoa’s shaggier, rougher take on the character. “I just wanted to be the complete opposite of Jason: as hairy as he was, then I’d be super clean, that was the goal,” Wilson explained.

4. Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in Fantastic Four and Killmonger in Black Panther

Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four and Black Panther. Photo Credit: IMDB

Fantastic Four (2015) is not particularly beloved by most comic book movie fans. Director Josh Trank of Chronicle fame attempted to take a more grounded route in bringing Marvel’s original superhero family back to the big screen. The film starred Miles Teller as Reed Richards/Mr Fantastic, Kate Mara as Susan Storm/Invisible Woman, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm/Human Torch and Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm/The Thing.

Jordan was pragmatic about the film’s failure, telling IGN that he had to come to terms with how it was a confluence of things that went wrong and not any one person’s fault. After Fantastic Four, Jordan, an ardent fan of western comics and manga, sought redemption from comic book fans.

Jordan got that shot at redemption with Black Panther (2018), which went on to become a true phenomenon. Like Chris Evans before him, Jordan was a former Human Torch who was brought into the MCU fold. Re-teaming with his Fruitvale Station and Creed director Ryan Coogler, Jordan played Erik “Killmonger” Stevens/N’Jadaka. He’s the justifiably bitter and dangerous cousin of the film’s hero T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who has arrived in Wakanda to challenge T’Challa for the throne. On creating an empathetic villain, Jordan said “There’s two sides to every coin and true villains, I think the really good ones and the interesting ones, the watchable ones, they truly believe what they’re doing is the right thing.”

While audiences are meant to question Killmonger’s extreme methods, they are also meant to understand his tragic past and see his point of view, which came through in Jordan’s compelling performance.


5. Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns and Janet Van Dyne in Ant-Man and the Wasp

Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Photo credit: IMDB

Batman’s rogues gallery stands out as one of the most dastardly and colourful in all of comics. Audiences were familiar with Catwoman from the three actresses who portrayed her in the 1960s Batman TV series, but Michelle Pfeiffer’s take on the character in Batman Returns (1992) was a whole new breed of slinky, seductive and scintillating. Pfeiffer almost didn’t get the role – she recounted in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter on the film’s 25th anniversary, “When I heard that Tim was making the film and Catwoman had already been cast, I was devastated. At the time, it was Annette Bening. Then she became pregnant. The rest is history. I remember telling Tim [Burton] halfway through the script that I’d do the film, that’s how excited I was.” Pfeiffer said that as a young girl, she was “completely obsessed” with the Catwoman character.

Pfeiffer’s commitment to the role has become the stuff of legend among Batman fans. The role involved whip training, getting into an unwieldy skin-tight costume, and even Pfeiffer holding a live bird in her mouth. Catwoman is portrayed as having a shattered psyche, represented by the stitches that cover her costume. Pfeiffer might have played the role with supervillainess relish, but the character was still sympathetic, with layers to her performance. Pfeiffer almost got to star in a Catwoman solo film. Alas, this ended up morphing into the one that starred Halle Berry.

Pfeiffer went from one animal-inspired comic book character to another with Janet Van Dyne/Wasp in Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018). The character is the long-vanished original Wasp and mother of the current Wasp Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly). Pfeiffer was director Peyton Reed’s top choice for the role – for the flashback scene in the first Ant-Man film featuring Hayley Lovitt as Janet, Reed instructed the visual effects artists to model the character’s eyes after Pfeiffer’s. Pfeiffer warned Reed that she might not sign on, saying “My process on every single movie I have ever done in my career, I’ve tried to back out of the movie at the last minute. That’s just my M.O.” Reed remained undaunted and managed to convince Pfeiffer to stay. While the nature of the story meant her character was absent for most of the film, Pfeiffer still lent Ant-Man and the Wasp considerable heart.

Samuel L. Jackson and James McAvoy in Glass. Photo credit: IMDB

It would seem like James McAvoy and Samuel L. Jackson are in excellent company. What will happen when Mr Glass meets the Horde? Is David Dunn strong enough to defeat them both? Are the superheroes and supervillains in this movie as clearly defined as we think, or does M. Night Shyamalan have more tricks up his sleeve, as is his wont? The only way to find out is to watch Glass, perhaps after revisiting Unbreakable and Split.

Sources: (featured image)VarietyCinemaBlendUSA TodayMTVSlash FilmIGNThe Hollywood Reporter


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