The Surprising Failure of ‘Midnight Special’

In a Spring of superheroes, why did the best movie lose?
Midnight Special Sci Fi
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on May 6th, 2016

With Captain America: Civil War hitting theaters today, I thought this might be a good time to talk about one of this spring’s best superhero movies. No, not that one. No, not that one, either. And definitely not that one. You know what, this is taking too long. It’s Midnight Special. We’re going to talk about Midnight Special.

Midnight Special was a long-time coming. In 2015, we named it our most anticipated release of the year; then news broke that the film would be pushed back a few months and, undeterred, we named it our most anticipated release of 2016. There’s aren’t very many filmmakers who warrant that amount of trust, but Jeff Nichols’s past films put him on a trajectory few could match. Shotgun Stories, Mud, and Take Shelter are deeply affecting character studies that also make the most of their rural settings; Nichols’ preference for shooting in rural areas of Arkansas and Ohio imbues his stories with a regional memory that helps establish the isolation of his characters. Through reputation or dumb luck, Nichols also counts actors like Michael Shannon and Sam Shephard among his frequent collaborators and has benefited from the breakout celebrity of several additional performers (Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, and, of course, Matthew McConaughey). All of this combined to make Midnight Special as close to a sure thing as Hollywood is capable of delivering.

And the film did look like a sure thing. An independent filmmaker tackles a superhero origin story? This was the kind of movie that promised to appeal to arthouse and mainstream audiences alike. Midnight Special played to packed houses at South by Southwest. It was given the prestige treatment by independent exhibitors like the Alamo Drafthouse — including its own limited edition Mondo poster — and outpaced the competition on a per-theater basis during its initial limited release. It received strong reviews from almost every major film publication. It seemed that all Warner Bros. had to do was to continue to roll the film out slowly, let the film’s word of mouth do its job, and make a decent little profit on the film’s modest (though not insignificant) budget.

Instead, Midnight Special flopped. Hard.

Since finally catching the film in theaters earlier this week, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why that was. Some of it has to do with the film’s advertising. While the marketing team behind Midnight Special gave the film a handful of gorgeous trailers, these trailers also suggested that Midnight Special would not fit easily into any one bucket. You could argue that this was done with the film’s best interests at heart – as we’ve seen with It Follows or The Witch, movies that operate in a genre but mostly avoid familiar tropes can often be accused of not being scary/exciting/sad enough by mainstream audiences – but one could also argue that the studio lacked faith in the film to sell it in a straight-forward manner. Midnight Special looked like a superhero movie but wasn’t necessarily sold as a superhero movie, and even casual audiences are clued into Hollywood advertising enough to recognize when something seems to be straddling the line.

Who knows how Midnight Special would have landed with a more straight-forward pitch? While the film bears more in common with Spielberg than Favreau, much of Nichols’s script is an exploration of the human element so often lost in superhero stories. The film tackles the concepts of moral responsibility and duty that we’ve seen in major releases like Batman v Superman and Captain America while mixing in themes of adolescence that would not seem out of place in an X-Men movie. What’s more, in its own subdued way, Midnight Special has a vested interest in talking to these other films. It may not possess the tongue-in-cheek intertextuality of a movie like Deadpool, but its gifted youngster is just as fascinated with the boundaries of heroism. It means something that his first reading material after escaping from the religious compound is old copies of Superman, or that he is struck by the importance of kryptonite.

So Midnight Special may be both a smart and topical film, but that isn’t the entire story; Nichols has no interest in making it any easier for us than that. I spoke to a handful of people who enjoyed the film but had a hard time articulating why, and after seeing it, I can understand why that might be the case. Midnight Special is both slightly underwhelming and not-at-all disappointing, and that inherent contradiction requires a bit of heavy lifting on our end to sort it all out. I keep coming back to a single moment near the film’s end, when Alton separates from his father to make the last leg of his journey on his own. Michael Shannon’s character, who only ever wanted to be there for his son, shows his devotion by forgoing any grand emotional gesture and simply driving off as a diversion. The moment perfectly captures the two characters involved; it also denies the audience any real sense of closure for father and son. That’s both smart and frustrating as hell.

And more than anything, it’s that complexity that likely doomed Midnight Special at the box office. In the film’s second week, at a time when it should have been consolidating its market, Warner Bros. released Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Whereas Midnight Special was a likable film for reasons tough to articulate, Batman v Superman was an unlikable film for reasons that were very self-evident. We could talk about Batman v Superman, make jokes and hone in on the same missteps, roll our eyes about bathtub sex or jars of piss, and everyone would find themselves on the same glorious page. I’m not suggesting that audiences are stupid or automatically gravitate towards big dumb movies, but are you really going to talk about the hard topic when you have perhaps the easiest target in the last decade right there in front of you?

It’s times like this that I miss The Dissolve the most. Even now, a few days after seeing the movie, I’m still sorting through my emotions on Midnight Special. What I wouldn’t give for someone like Nathan Rabin to tackle the movie on the anniversary of its theatrical release and unpack some of the baggage surrounding the movie. I can only hope that it fares better on its Blu-Ray release and that critics take the time to give Midnight Special the second look it so strongly deserves. I have a feeling that this movie, after everything, might have one pair of extremely long legs.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)