Midnight Special review: A better superhero drama

Like Batman v Superman, if it actually treated its characters like people

I don't like taking the shortcut of comparing one film to another, but a few days out from seeing Midnight Special, there's a comparison I can't get away from. There's something profound and significant to this film coming out at the same time as Batman v Superman, because, at its heart, Midnight Special is a Superman story — a far better and more human one than Zack Snyder's epic could muster.

Midnight Special's Superman stand-in is Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), an 8-year-old boy with incredible powers that neither he nor the dozens of adults trying to control him understand. At the film's outset, Alton has been "kidnapped" by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and friend of the family Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Meanwhile, everyone else in the movie is trying to hunt down Alton and get him back from Roy — including a bizarre religious cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) and a joint FBI/NSA task force that includes a bumbling agent named Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

The movie is structured as a road trip. Alton, Roy and Lucas are on the path to a mysterious destination that they need to reach by a certain date for reasons that are only hinted at. Everyone else is constantly trying to catch up, and the film embraces this tension by throwing roadblock after roadblock into Roy's path.

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Midnight Special pulls an incredible trick in its ability to get me to care about these characters despite their flaws. Roy is without a doubt a protagonist, but the film never paints him as an easy good guy. He does questionable shit in obsessive pursuit of his single-minded goal. The vagueness of that goal makes it all the easier to wonder if he's going too far.

And yet there's a shimmer of fatherly adoration in Michael Shannon's performance that I was completely sold on. As someone who grew up surrounded by stubborn Midwestern men, I was initially turned off by the character's relentlessness, but his one-on-ones with Alton won me over.

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A lot of this is thanks to the beautiful work of director Jeff Nichols. The film is overflowing with powerful cinematography. Where Batman v Superman wanted every shot to be a pose from a modern comic, Midnight Special hearkens back to an older style of superhero story. The camera is almost always at eye level with the actors, sometimes even looking down on them. It doesn't elevate them; they are human, we're constantly reminded, or at least human enough for us to relate to.

Along those same lines, Midnight Special doesn't blow a massive budget on special effects, but there are a few stunning moments in the film. By and large, the times where the film opts for CG are dramatic and beautiful rather than explosive and loud. Aside from one scenario early in the film, they're meant to make your heart jump rather than get your adrenaline pumping.

If there's one weakness to Midnight Special, it's that it too often eschews dialogue in favor of weighted silence. There are a few moments where this approach verges on parody — the camera jumping between close-ups of each character in the room as they stare, wordless but meaningful, emotional music swelling. There's only so many times I could watch the characters give each other purposeful nods instead before I wanted to scream at them to just explain via words like actual people.

While sometimes frustrating, this concern never overtook what I loved about the movie, in part because the actors are, to a person, so good at embodying these characters. Of particular note is Lieberher's Alton, a boy who's clearly scared and confused but also sure of himself in confounding ways. Great child actors are always difficult to find, but ones who can emote as well as Lieberher does even without dialogue, even when his eyes are covered by giant goggles — it feels somewhat miraculous. Meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst has a great role as Alton's mother, Sarah. She doesn't come into the picture until halfway through the film, but she quickly steals several scenes away from Shannon with a gentle, moving performance.

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I was also pleasantly surprised by Adam Driver's performance as Sevier. For the many who know Driver primarily from his turn as Star Wars: The Force Awakens bad guy Kylo Ren, you might get some déjà vu in Driver's early scenes. He plays Sevier as a squirrely, nervous guy who seems uncomfortable with the position of power he's been given. Before long, though, the plot takes him into a very different direction, letting him serve as both a comedic character and a startling, important source of compassion.

Compassion is really what drives Midnight Special. Where Batman v Superman asks whether superheroes can be trusted by the public, Midnight Special is more concerned with how Superman would learn to live with himself. One movie says people with special powers would be demi-gods, floating carelessly above the world of man; the other suggests they would be like us in as many ways as they are different, that like anyone else, they would seek a family, a home, stability.

Throughout Midnight Special, Alton can be seen reading through Superman comics. Every time we get a flash of the panels he's reading, it's not an action scene or a fight scene; they're images of Superman talking or interacting with another character. These are the moments Jeff Nichols seems to find most compelling in a superhero story — not the endless punching or explosions — and with Midnight Special he's made a strong argument for that being the case.

Midnight Special opened March 18 in limited release. Today it expanded to 10 more markets, and it will continue coming to more cities each week from there. You can find theaters showing the film on its website.