I’ve always found the psychology of superheroes to be fascinating. What motivates them to save the world? Did they gain their powers for a reason or was it simply an act of chance? Are superpowers merely a delusion? Those questions form the heart of M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, which portrays superheroes as mentally ill people with delusions of grandeur. I’m taking a closer look at the subject matter of Glass to see how mental health and superpowers are linked together.
M Night Shyamalan’s movie trilogy features threes extraordinary people: David Dunn, Kevin Wendell Crumb and Elijah Price, AKA Mr Glass. Each of them displays a type of superpower. Dunne has superhuman strength and the ability to read people, while Price has superhuman intelligence. Crumb suffers from dissociative personality disorder, with one of his alter egos, ‘The Beast,’ having superhuman invulnerability.
Each character has their own specific weaknesses. Dunn believes his weakness to be water, Glass suffers from brittle bone disease and The Beast can be stopped by Crumb hearing his real name.
Within the film, Dunn sees himself as the traditional superhero, while Glass views himself as the villain that needs to be thwarted. The Beast is motivated by a desire to protect ‘the broken’ and kill those he thinks are unworthy. Each character’s belief system is challenged by a psychologist who suggests that considering yourself to be superhuman is a mental disorder.
Superpowers as a mental health disorder
Mental health is the theme that links Dunn, Crumb and Glass together. Each of them gained their powers through a type of mental trauma. For Dunn and Glass, they survived terrible accidents that could have changed their brain chemistry. Crumb’s abusive mother psychologically scarred him, leading to the creation of a personality that could achieve extraordinary feats. From a mental health perspective, I find that idea to be intriguing.
Dunn assigned himself a superpower and a weakness based on his thought process. Having almost drowned as a child, his alter ego became vulnerable to water, echoing the classic Superman kryptonite weakness. Dunn used his powers to help people and stop criminals, but he could still be considered unwell and a danger to the people around him. Glass turned his mind into a weapon because the rest of his body couldn’t support itself. Crumb created The Beast out of a need to protect himself and other people he thought had suffered. One could argue self-belief is the reason they gained superpowers.
But once the psychologist challenged their self-belief, Dunn and Crumb began to question their mental health. This idea has been explored with comic characters such as Gladiator, whose powers are tied to his level of confidence.
If mental illness is the root of superpowers, then it raises some interesting questions. If Dunn had taken medication to treat his condition, would that have taken away his powers? If Glass had never developed brittle bone disease would he have gained powers? If Crumb had been loved as a child would The Beast have ever been born?
I thought Glass did a good job of presenting superheroes in a different way. In my opinion, comics and superpowers should be used as a positive mental health outlet. But it is interesting to view heroes and villains through the lens of psychological trauma as well. In that respect, Shyamalan’s trilogy succeeds.