Superman in swimming goggles.

Something peculiar has happened. Jeff Nichols, known for his excellent yet under-seen indie trio (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud), has secretly released a Superman film at Warner Bros. the week before Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice comes out- starring Michael Shannon no less. And best of all, Midnight Special is a smart, emotionally grounded science fiction film, that acts as the next successful step in Nichols’ ascent to auteurship.

Okay, despite it’s comic “annual” worthy name, it’s not quite a direct adaptation of any Superman lore, and functions more as a parable to the classic funny-book serials. But more on that later.

Midnight Special is easier read as a heady sci-fi road movie in the vein of Close Encounters. Roy(Michael Shannon), a resolute father, and his accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton), abscond with a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who has manifested uncanny abilities, making him the target of a southern cult community and the United States government. Both forces converge on the fugitives, threatening to interrupt their pilgrimage to a location of untold importance. But both Roy and his son know something is coming, and that they must be there to meet it.

Nichols obscures much of the surrounding details, letting the group’s southbound momentum build the emotional stakes rather than being caught up in the overarching politics of the mystery. This anti-mythology approach keeps our characters in the spotlight. It gives value to their immediate experiences, and gives the journey a purpose beyond an endgame. This is ultimately the story of a father and son, and none of the more grandiose elements are able to shake Nichols’ aim away from this truth.

So, what the hell makes this a Superman story?

Well, Roy is our Jor El parallel, clothed in the rugged and weary body of Pa Kent. Roy’s son, Alton, is not of this world and seemingly grows weaker with each passing moment. Alton is light sensitive and his powers spike wildly upon contact with the sun. As the film opens, the two hide out by day in a string of roadside motels. At night, they prowl the back roads in a mis-colored 70’s Chevrolet, staying wide of the authorities and eating from gas station aisles.

Nichols makes it a point to never approach Alton’s abilities as a sickness. Even Roy knows that whatever is ailing his son, is his birthright, his purpose- not a burden. The burden comes from Roy’s realization that for Alton to fulfill his purpose he’ll have to set him free into a world that doesn’t understand him. It’s the burden of every parent.

When Alton’s powers do manifest on screen, they’re as frightening as they are fascinating. These sequences could have easily been used to distance Alton from the rest of the characters, presenting him as a danger. But each time they’re handled as a new discovery, a shared experience that further reveals his purpose to be anything but malicious.

Barreling down a Texas road, Roy scolds Lucas for giving Alton a stack of old Superman comics, which he reads in the back seat, a flashlight jumping from panel to panel. Lucas argues that Alton, like every kid, “needs stories”. This directly speaks to Nichols’ storytelling mantra in a crucial way. Nichols isn’t highlighting the comic’s mythology, the literal Superman canon. Instead he is calling attention to these stories as part of the formation of an identity. One that is bound as much to the environment as it is to the individual. Alton has been sheltered his whole life. This escape marks his first attempts at cultivating a relationship with the outside world he’d been hidden from. In this case it’s the American south, where even a kid from Kansas can aspire to greatness.

Nichols‘ stance against exposition isn’t anti-story, rather he’s asking the audience to find a more authentic way to interact with the narrative, rather than merely connecting plot dots.  Where Man of Steel stayed outside, soaking up the Americana facade , Midnight Special ventures in doors. Its eyes are on the faded curtains in the living room, the collection of knick-knacks featured on dusty shelves, and half finished whiskey bottles in the cabinet. These details are essential to Alton’s journey, they keep him safe and modestly build the bridge between his world and ours, until they’re linked as one.

Now, power doesn’t come without a fair share of detractors and those looking to exploit it. On either side of our fugitives sits a faction vying for control of Alton. First we have “The Ranch”, a cult community who have repurposed Alton’s ability-induced fits into their nightly sermons and scripture. They view the boy as a messiah that will guide them safely through the impending spiritual trials. But without him back at their compound they run the risk of being a lost flock, doomed to be forgotten come judgement day.

At odds with the Ranch, we have the United States government, or by proxy, a squad of FBI agents and one NSA analyst (Adam Driver- doing his best Daily Planet Clark Kent impression). Their job is to locate and capture Alton, as his powers are a threat to national security and potentially, beyond.

These two sides of the conflict are a part of the classic super-hero dichotomy. One group seeks control because they don’t understand the perceived threat and feel their rights are in jeopardy. While the other re-appropriates their beliefs to fit this perceived sign, seeking control to fulfill their destiny. Nichols understands that while Roy and his son are the centerpiece, it’s important to show a world struggling to maintain balance using the only methods it knows how.

Like Superman, Alton is born with the purpose of elevating humankind and replacing our fears with awe and inspiration.  He exists as proof that built atop what we take for granted is something beautiful, even if we’ve forgotten how to properly keep it in sight. If this change begins with a father seeing his son in a new light, so be it. Nichols is a pro at humble beginnings, and challenges us to follow suit.

With Midnight Special, Nichols has created a film that feels relevant to the present and reverent to the past. It celebrates a South with a human face, but isn’t afraid to tackle huge science fiction set pieces with clarity and a little spectacle for good measure. And whether Nichols intended to or not, he’s made the best Superman film in a long time.

Midnight Special saw a limited release on March 18th and will begin a wider rollout in the coming weeks.