M. Night Shyamalan and the myth of the comeback

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It seems like ages ago, but only a couple decades back M. Night Shyamalan was considered the next big thing. With his smash hit “The Sixth Sense” being released to critical and commercial acclaim, the man seemed like he was on top of the world. However, as his career progressed, it started taking a somewhat darker turn. After churning out flop after flop, Night went from wunderkind to laughing- stock. “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” were basically the final two nails in a turd-shaped coffin: this man’s career seemed dead for good. Or was it?

Fast forward a few years to “The Visit,” a cheapie, found footage, Blumhouse production. Far removed from his past two blockbusters, Night took on material that seemed almost trashy, especially compared to his more austere projects of the past. But the film was a smash success which led him to make “Split.” After Split, whispers were abound. “Is this a comeback?” “Has Night gotten his groove back?” “Are we in the middle of a Shyamalanaissance?”

Then “Glass” hit and, despite the strong box office returns, it got virtually railed by critics with a dismal 36 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (I have my own problem with aggregate systems personally, but this still gives a solid, general idea of its reception). So, does this mean that this director’s career is dead forever? What seems odd is that critics are so often eager to create trends where there aren’t any. One moment we’re looking at the next Spielberg, then the next Ed Wood, then back to Spielberg, and now we’re down in the dumps again. Why is it that we are so prone to predicting career trajectories?

My issue with this obsession surrounding critics is that, at best, it puts artists in a box and, at worst, sets them up for failure. Creating unrealistic expectations around an artist can only stifle their art because it somehow forces them to create art that follows in this trajectory. And if the art somehow clashes with that trajectory, it meets a certain critical barrier. If you were called “The Next Spielberg,” audiences wouldn’t expect your next project to be a slow, meditative, postmodern take on the superhero genre pre-“The Dark Knight.” But “Unbreakable,” once thought of as a disappointment, is now known as one of the director’s best. The only reason it was considered a step down at the time was because it wasn’t a project “the next Spielberg” would make.

Expectations are a tricky thing. On one level, audiences like to understand the filmmakers behind the art that we consume. It makes everything feel more streamlined and secure. But creating imaginary future careers for them doesn’t do anything beyond stifle the art and the artist. As audience members, we should just be worried about one thing: the films that the filmmakers make.

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