By now, the idea of shared cinematic universes is almost passé; Marvel's box office dominance has led to the launch of similar spaces for DC's superheroes and Legendary's kaiju-esque monsters, with both Hasbro's toylines and Universal's classic monsters about to get their own universes to play in as well. But the release of M. Night Shyamalan's Split this year teased something different - a superhero universe with a twist, fittingly enough.
That a moviemaker's stories all take place in the same world isn't a new thing - Quentin Tarantino has claimed that all of his movies are interrelated, for example - and certainly, Shyamalan hasn't shied away from suggesting connections between his own movies in the past. With the denouement of Split, however, he not only confirmed that the movie took place in the same world as his earlier Unbreakable, he created the first auteur shared superhero universe.
Up to this point, one of the defining features of a shared cinematic universe has been the fact that they're products of an army of creators, and as such, tend to either feature a singular tone and visual style - the Marvel movies, say - or feature abrupt shifts between installments (Compare Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, for example). The choice has been lack of consistency or lack of distinction, but having a shared universe all under the direction of one filmmaker would appear to offer one particular route out of that quandary.
Having one central authorial voice would also remove increased likelihood of any plot inconsistencies or dead ends in terms of the overall universe, a la Captain America: The Winter Soldier's deconstruction of SHIELD, which was immediately contradicted for obvious reasons when it came to the Marvel's Agents of SHIELD TV series - and offer the potential for more subtle connections between different properties than what audiences have become used to via Marvel or DC name dropping and Easter eggs.
Indeed, the immediate comic book model for this line of thinking isn't, perhaps surprisingly, the early days of Marvel Comics when Stan Lee had his hands in everything out of necessity - although, curiously enough, that might be a model for Kevin Feige's role in Marvel Studios today, guiding larger moves while letting individual creators do the heavy lifting. The more apt comic book example for Shyamalan comes from Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers line from a decade or so ago; seven different series all written by Morrison, telling one over-arching story throughout all seven, but with each one an entity that can stand alone, separate from everything else. Translating that style into movies could bring a new depth to the superhero movie genre.
Of course, what the Unbreakable/Split connection actually means in practice remains to be seen. Will there be more to it than Glass, the newly announced movie tying the two films together, or will it simply be three movies that tell one story and then end forever? Certainly, there's the potential for more stories to be told inside the fictional Unbreakable Glass That Splits universe, in movies, comic books or elsewhere, should Shyamalan want to tell them - but that last part is the central appeal of it all. If Shyamalan isn't interested in expanding the universe beyond these three movies, what's the point? What makes the universe unique as it stands is the sole voice telling these stories. Take that away, and what's left to differentiate it from any other superhero universe …?
Glass will be released Jan. 18, 2019. Almost certainly, audiences will have to wait until the twist ending of that movie to find out if there's more to come.