M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass makes a bold assertion in one of its critical moments: The key to understanding a supervillain is their parents.
But is that really true? What relevant comics scholarship can we, Polygon, provide to our readers on this subject?
Quite a lot, actually.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Glass.]
Glass’s hypothesis on supervillain tropes comes in the first of its big endgame reveals, or twists. David Dunn’s son Joseph confronts Kevin Wendell Crumb (The Horde) with a secret he has uncovered about Crumb’s origins.
With a quick Google, Joseph discovered that Crumb’s father never meant to abandon him, leaving him in the sole care of his abusive mother, leading to the development of his evil, superpowered personality, the Beast. In fact, Crumb’s father was on his way to get him the psychological help he needed on the day his train derailed, killing almost every person aboard.
Joseph was inspired to look into the identity of Crumb’s father by a simple truism he states out loud for the audience: With supervillains, it’s always about their parents.
But, is it about their parents, really?
“No, it’s not,” I immediately thought to myself in the theater. But who am I, comics editor of Polygon, to say? All I have on my side is anecdotal evidence.
Let’s ask science.
Step 1: Selecting a corpus
A quick google search turns up several lists of the greatest supervillains of all time, or at least the several that were optimized best for search engines. I decided to go with IGN’s 2009 list of The Top 100 Comic Book Villains.
Step 2: A comprehensive survey
With my newly acquired corpus, I examined each data point through the vital question at hand:
Is it about their parents?
Some examples were tricky. Eddie Brock grew up in an abusive home, certainly, but his parents had no direct influence on how he encountered the Symbiote. Bane’s father abandoned him and his mother died early, but it was the justice system of Santa Prisca that threw him in jail before he was even born to serve his father’s life sentence.
Looking at it from another angle: Loss of parents, absent parents or poor parenting alone cannot be called a cause of supervillainy, or many of the greatest superheroes — like Shazam, Captain America, and Batman — would have turned out villains instead.
In order to reasonably blame the villain’s parents, the parents’ actions must be the direct cause of the villain’s origin, or the direct motivation for embarking on their criminal lifestyle.
Step 3: Graphs
When I complied the results, they showed a stark pattern.
Only 13 of the 100 greatest comic book villains (according to IGN) had an origin story directly influenced by the presence or lack thereof of their parents. In the top 10 villains, only one was directly parentally motivated: Doctor Doom, whose origin story revolves around his attempt to create a machine designed to communicate with his dead mother.
This confirms my initial hypothesis of: “No, it’s not!”
This is a lot of time spent in Excel to show that Glass has a shallow understanding of the very superhero tropes that M. Night Shyamalan places at the most pivotal points in its narrative. It’s not even the only example, it’s just the most easily disproved through quantifiable metrics.
“Who are his parents?” cries the text on the cover of a comic in Glass, placed prominently on a comic shop shelf that is labeled with a big neon sign reading “VILLAINS,” as no real comic shop has ever categorized its inventory, ever. 19 years ago, Unbreakable used the phrase “limited edition” to mean something closer to “miniseries” or “crossover” — and, in another scene, implied that comic book pencilers of the four-color printing days actually drew with much more fine lines but that the printing process somehow made their art less detailed afterward?
But to be as kind to Mr. Shyamalan as possible, I don’t think he has ever really been interested in the accuracy of Unbreakable, Split, or Glass’ use of superhero tropes or the experience of reading comics. In his trilogy, Shyamalan picks, chooses, and distorts real comics ideas to support the story he’s already decided to tell, which, ironically, is that superhero comics are a window to fundamental truth.