In the backseat of a car, wearing swimming goggles and holding an oversized flashlight, 8-year-old Alton (actor Jaeden Martell, pre-It and Knives Out) is visibly enraptured while reading a Superman comic.
This little reference isn’t intended to be too subtle; Alton resembles Clark Kent in more ways than one. Raised on Earth by two loving parents in rural America, Alton gradually starts to exhibit extraordinary abilities that will change his life forever. If he’s to survive, he’ll must outrun dangerous threats and embrace the hidden truth of his identity.
But in this early stage of Alton’s journey, he isn’t reading Superman’s stories for the action. Every time the camera peers over Alton’s shoulder to capture the panels that so transfix him, Superman is engaged in heavy, emotional dialogue with other characters.
In other words, Alton is interested in the “man” at the center of Superman, a fascination shared by writer-director Jeff Nichols. In 2016 — the same year Marvel and DC duked it out at the box office with bombastic superhero showdowns Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (which opened within two months of each other) — Nichols presented another kind of superhero story, one less concerned with origin stories and powers than the people at the heart of such tales.
Nichols’ film, Midnight Special, is the sci-fi superhero movie you need to see. Now’s your chance, but move quickly: it leaves Netflix on September 6.
Michael Shannon stars as Roy Tomlin, who begins Midnight Special as a wanted criminal. He’s a strange man who’s allied himself with another strange man, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), in order to abduct Alton. But Roy’s not malicious; he’s a caring father, and Alton is his biological child, who’s been raised by a cult led by Pastor Calvin Meyer (played by the late Sam Shepard).
As Roy, Lucas, and Alton flee across the open roads of rural America, they encounter Alton’s biological mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), as well as NSA analyst Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). A bespectacled pencil dweeb, Paul is more empathetic to Alton and Roy’s plight than his position as a government lackey might suggest.
We wouldn’t advise picking apart the mythology of Midnight Special, or looking too closely at the specifics of the religious cult that once controlled Alton. In what’s arguably the antithesis of modern science-fiction and superhero franchises, Nichols is more occupied with characters than plot, questioning how we could and would react to unexplainable occurrences. The movie’s own “answers” to its many questions aren’t entirely satisfying, but they don’t have to be. In what is essentially a road-trip movie, Nichols knows the journey is infinitely more important than the destination.
It helps that Nichols packs his picture with master-class actors. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Nichols cast Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst, two giants of the supehero genre. As Nichols was making Midnight Special, Shannon was entrenched in DC’s superhero franchise, playing Superman’s nemesis Zod in 2013’s epic Man of Steel (which makes the Superman comic book references in Midnight Special more fun). Dunst, meanwhile, remains the girl next door for an entire generation, thanks to her role as Mary Jane Watson across Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films.
Though Nichols seems to respect the superhero genre, Midnight Special stands as proof he also finds it lacking. While superhero movies are big and loud, gravitating toward end-of-the-world stakes, Nichols’ film is infinitely more quiet, deliberately paced, and small-scale. (Sure, there’s a big moment at the very end that impacts the entire southern coast of the U.S., but it’s also quite literally gone in a flash.) Again, Nichols cares about the people involved, not the powers.
Alton’s “powers” are also hardly the stuff of fantasy. He doesn’t fly or lift cars. Instead, he can receive radio signals, and blinding white light painfully emanates from him as if removing toxins from his body. Tonally more akin to Akira and Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Man of Steel, Alton is often framed as a sick, feeble child by Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone’s camera, and the adults go to great, inconvenient lengths to make him comfortable. (Lucas, for instance, boards up every window in the motels they frequent to accommodate Alton’s sensitivity to light.) Though Nichols’ story is spiritually similar to Superman’s origin story, it doesn’t find the superhero experience to be particularly pleasant.
Midnight Special is simply not a film for audiences who like their stories clean and tight. Though it aspires to the wondrous heights of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi, Midnight Special is janky — almost intentionally so. The film cares little for world-building and doesn’t sweat the logic of its fantastical multiverse.
That turns out to be a smart move. Telling the story through the eyes of its human characters, while highlighting the limits of what they can see and understand, is a grounding force for Midnight Special. And it makes the extraordinary, inexplicable visions that await them seem all the more beautifully impossible.
Midnight Special is streaming now on Netflix until September 6.