double feature: midnight special/man of steel.
Of the movies currently playing at the multiplex, the best to pair as a double feature with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is not its actual sequel, Batman vs Superman, but Jeff Nichols’ latest feature, Midnight Special. It plays like a reversal of the traditional Superman movie, i.e., what might happen if Nichols, director of Shotgun Stories and the incredible Take Shelter, had been handed the reigns to a multi-billion dollar franchise and, instead of making a movie about the superhero, chose to make one about the hero’s father.
Spoilers for both Man of Steel and Midnight Special follow.
A large portion of Midnight Special takes place on the road, as Roy (Michael Shannon) takes his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to an undisclosed location, the nature and importance of which slowly becomes apparent as the movie unfolds. Roy’s friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) gives Alton comic books to read to pass the time, and the most prominently featured comic book is Superman. (The image even features on some of the movie’s promotional posters.) It’s a touch that I can’t imagine to be coincidental; the entire story is Roy’s, as he comes to terms with the other-ness of his son and, like Jonathan Kent, the eventual probability that he will have to let him go or watch him suffer on Earth for being different.
Both movies deal with themes of acceptance and growth, in Clark’s case of his Kryptonian heritage, and in Roy’s case, the slow realization that Alton is not of this world. Both families have to come to terms with that other-ness and the acceptance that, after a certain point, love will mean loss, too.
In Man of Steel, Jonathan Kent dies in a tornado after commanding Clark not to save him and thereby reveal his alien nature, and Clark’s embracing his role as Superman means, in a sense, that his mother Martha has to give him up. Superman belongs, as all superheroes do, to everyone. He is no longer just her son. But, ultimately, the story is still Clark’s rather than Jonathan’s or Martha’s. It is about Clark’s own acceptance of his nature and his powers; given that Clark arrived on Earth in an alien ship, Jonathan and Martha are already aware of his extraterrestrial heritage. It is that inherent love that gives a movie that could otherwise have been two hours of pure bombast a needed injection of pathos and earnestness. In fact, Man of Steel is at its best when it’s focusing on these smaller, “normal” details.
In focusing on Roy instead of on Alton, Jeff Nichols suffuses his entire movie with that sense of humanity. Even as the sci-fi elements that have been teased at throughout the first two acts of the film come to a head in the last, the emotional center remains rock-solid to the point that it wouldn’t be out of the realm of reason to call Midnight Special a domestic drama rather than a sci-fi flick. Roy’s whole journey is to save his son from those who would exploit his powers and, eventually, to help him leave Earth and travel to the world in which he truly belongs. Alton already seems to have some conception of his powers and his nature, and it is Roy who must come to terms with losing Alton in order to truly let him live.
Midnight Special also makes its loss much more specific; Alton leaves Roy entirely instead of being able to remain on Earth in any capacity. It also, unlike Man of Steel, keeps it final goodbye between parent and child off-screen.
It’s stated through the first half of the film that Alton cannot withstand sunlight, losing control of his powers and having fits, to the point that the cult that had formed around him had up-ended its entire living cycle to become nocturnal. However, as Roy and Alton continue to travel, Alton becomes weaker and weaker, and, after he and Roy are separated from Lucas and Sarah, Alton’s mother, he tells Roy that he has to see the sun rise. It’s a move that might just as well kill him as revive him, and it’s a scene that makes it obvious just how much Roy loves his son as well as why Michael Shannon has become Jeff Nichols’ muse. His performance is tremendous. That very vulnerable, open hurt and worry is clearly telegraphed on his usually stoic features, even more so as he carries Alton out into an open meadow as the sun begins to rise. If this Hail Mary fails, Alton will die. If it succeeds, then it will only cement what Roy already knows: that Alton has to leave if he truly wants to live.
The scene ends with Alton held tightly in Roy’s arms as the sun breaks the horizon. When we see Roy and Alton again, it is when they come back to Lucas and Sarah to explain what has happened and what has to happen next. Whatever goodbyes Roy and Alton have to say have already been said somewhere between here and there. Their goodbye is private, as it should be, and it serves as a counterpoint to Man of Steel not just as a different way of showing (or not showing) the parting, but as a key dramatic beat that makes the opposing perspectives of the two films obvious.
In the end, alien worlds and supernatural powers are accessories to both movies rather than the central points. While Midnight Special, as an original property, has more freedom to focus on family drama than Man of Steel, both are primarily about familial love, acceptance, and sacrifice. They serve as mirrors to each other, telling similar stories through the viewpoints of the parent and the child, respectively. As the child’s perspective, Man of Steel opens up to a sense of wonder and carries through an entire final act that relegates Martha Kent to the sidelines and focuses on Superman’s mission to save the world. As the parent’s perspective, Midnight Special opens and breaks, just as Roy accepts that he must let go of Alton, and essentially gives up his own life in order to do so. They’re perfect counterpoints, and — despite their differences in budget and franchising — perfect, too, as a double feature.