This weekend, Warner Bros.’ eagerly-anticipated Man of Steel opened in theaters to the tune of $130 million in tickets sold at the domestic box office. The good news didn’t stop there, though: audiences handed the film an A- Cinemascore. Warner Bros. greenlit a sequel with director Zack Snyder back at the helm. Henry Cavill’s take on Superman was embraced by just about everyone. And perhaps most excitingly, character actor Michael Shannon became the superhero genre’s most embraced baddie since Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as The Joker.
You…you guys realize how surreal this is, right? Michael Shannon—Michael Shannon—starred as the supervillain in a gigantic summer blockbuster! While encased in a giant robo-suit! People handed over $130m this weekend and were then shown footage of Michael fucking Shannon flying through the air and mercilessly punching skyscrapers to death! For, like, 45 minutes! If people really had their priorities in order, this is all we’d be talking about for the next month, but of course most of the conversation is going to be centered around the stuff moviegoers really care about, like Man of Steel’s box office receipts or Superman’s eye-catching new “Freeballin’ Kryptonian” look.
But let’s not look a gift Shannon in the mouth.The trades might not be breathlessly covering this bizarre development as much as we’d like, but people who’ve seen the film are talking about his performance, and they’re not skimping on the hyperbole, either. Many of these people are registering Michael Shannon as Michael Shannon (rather than “Y’know, the googly-eyed dude on Boardwalk Empire”) for the very first time, which means they’re probably going to start digging into Shannon’s filmography for their next fix any minute now.
As someone who’s on record as a longtime Michael Shannon enthusiast, I am honor-bound to embrace this wholly unexpected turn of events as an opportunity to point the newly-minted true believers in the right direction. Be warned, though: we’re not pussyfooting around here. In fact, we’re gonna start your orientation with the deepest cut in Shannon’s career: the music video for “House of Pain,” by Every Mother’s Nightmare:
Yes, that’s an extremely young Michael Shannon playing a character Wikipedia describes as “a troubled teenager who (is) running away from his abusive lifestyle” (fun fact: in the '80s, it was common for teens to physically outrun drug addictions, eating disorders and other popular hobbies from that era ). Is this “mandatory viewing” from the Shannon oeuvre? Probably not, but it’s worth watching just to see what the dude looks like with an overly-styled, Samson-like mane of hair. When he popped up again—in Harold Ramis’ now-classic Groundhog Day—it’s doubtful anyone would have recognized him:
There’s something deeply unsettling about a grinning, clean-cut, perfectly-coiffed Michael Shannon, isn’t there? The guy in the photo above looks like one of Patrick Bateman’s drinking buddies. He’s probably harmless, though: in the film, he plays one half of a recently married couple who has a fortuitous encounter with Bill Murray’s time-looping weatherman, Phil Connors. The role’s limited, but worth noting here for two reasons: it marks Shannon’s first role in a major feature film, and it means we now have a photo of a terrifying Michael Shannon staring directly into Bill Murray’s soul.
After Groundhog Dog, Shannon spent half a dozen years floating in and out of films that you can probably go ahead and skip on your way toward the back half of his career. His work as “D.C. Flower Delivery Man” in the Keanu Reeves vehicle Chain Reaction (1996), for instance, or his turn as “Crack Head” in 1997’s Chicago Cab. He did pop up in 1999’s Jesus’ Son, however, and though the film wasn’t a commercial success it was well-received by critics. Here he is opposite Billy Crudup:
From there on out, Shannon found himself getting drafted into bigger-budgeted films, proving himself an invaluable character actor opposite actors that might more accurately be called “movie stars.” Sometimes the roles were nothing more than glorified walk-ons (Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, Michael Bay’s Bad Boys 2), sometimes they involved a more substantial amount of screentime (Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, William Friedkin’s Bug) and sometimes the roles were in films better left forgotten (Kangaroo Jack). The impression one gets while looking over this stretch in Shannon’s career is of a guy directors want to work with even if they don’t have substantial parts to offer him.
Eventually, director Sam Mendes became the first guy to buck that trend when he brought Shannon in for a key role in his 2008 Revolutionary Road. Shannon's riveting in the film, and critics immediately singled him out as a likely Oscar nominee.
Sure enough, Shannon's work in Revolutionary Road earned him his first Oscar nomination, a Best Supporting Actor nod. And while he didn't take home the gold that night, the nomination was enough to kick him up a level on Hollywood's pecking order. From 2008 until this weekend's Man of Steel opening, Shannon's been working steadily on film, veering between some of the best (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans), weirdest (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?), and worst (Jonah Hex) films of that period. If you're in the mood for something really, really odd, give My Son, My Son-- directed by Werner "Like a Bozz" Herzog-- a day in court.
It probably goes without saying that, prior to becoming General Zod for an entire generation of nerds-in-training, Shannon had recently garnered quite a bit of attention for his genuinely unnerving, sometimes inexplicably hilarious work as Agent Nelson Van Alden on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. The show's a fairly straightforward gangster tale told against the backdrop of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, but all that comes to a screeching halt whenever Van Alden enters the picture. He's a coiled spring at all times, a mass of barely-contained rage trapped inside a bag of skin that always looks like it's trying to crawl off of him. It's almost unimaginable that anyone else could have delivered in this role in the same way that Shannon does. Boardwalk Empire started losing my interest in its second season, but for a long while I'd still tune in to see what Van Alden was up to that week. I'd stop short of recommending that anyone buy the show unseen, but if you've got HBO Go, give it a shot. If nothing else, you're not going to be bored when Shannon's onscreen. Speaking of which:
This, if you didn't already know, is Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter which, much like Lars von Trier's Melancholia, I have spent an inordinate amount of man-hours debating (for the defense, mind you) over the past year or so. Take Shelter isn't a perfect film, and whenever I see it I wish that Nichols had gone even weirder with...well, everything. The film's at its best when it's showing us the tortured dreams and visions of Shannon's Curtis, and if there'd been a bit more of that I think it would've evened out some of the other elements I wasn't crazy about in the film (virtually any scene where the audience is being provoked into wondering whether or not Curtis is crazy, for example). But as flawed as it is, Shannon is incredible in it, and the scene above is destined to be used in the dude's highlight reel for the rest of his life. If you can watch Shannon losing his shit and yelling "There is a STOOOOORM COMING" without feeling your skin crawl, you probably have extremely lazy skin.
When you look over the body of work Shannon's built over the past two decades, it's impossible not to be intrigued: it's one of the most unlikely careers in recent memory-- particularly in the wake of Man of Steel's success-- and only seems to get more unlikely with each passing year. How does he pick these projects, I wonder? At what point during his read-through of the Jonah Hex script did he set it down and say, "I'm in"? Conversely, what roles has Michael Shannon passed on? And would I really want to know? Was Man of Steel the first film of that scale and budget to seek him out for a lead role? If not, why did he agree to this one? It's a testament to this actor's ability to intrigue that I would sit here-- at the end of a lengthy typing session that could've been over ten minutes ago-- spitballing questions into a keyboard and really thinking about what the answers might be.
I'm going to leave you with a scene from my all-time favorite Michael Shannon performance: a hilariously tragic, one-episode turn on Adult Swim's brilliant Delocated. And though I should probably set this up with a little context and a description of the show itself, it's probably more in keeping with the subject at hand to just leave it here for someone else to be baffled, entertained and intrigued by.