Look, I’ve heard from multiple reliable sources (including my horror-movie-loving brother) that Us is a fantastic thriller full of real scares and chills. I’m just not a fan of horror, so I won’t be seeing it. But if you like big-screen scares, go get you some. Now, onward with our Marvel rewatch!
I’ve got a soft spot for Stephen Strange.
As written here, he’s not unlikeable. Benedict Cumberbatch has a magnetic, charismatic dorkiness that shines through most of his roles. This one’s no different. He is a jerk, though, and that’s due to a synthesis between two basic flaws. One Strange can help; the other he can’t.
Stephen Strange clearly falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, probably in the range of mild Aspergers. He doesn’t like showing affection to strangers and lacks basic social grace, but boasts an encyclopedic memory and a focused, obsessive fixation on solving problems. It’s where he chooses to fixate that shifts during the movie: at first his gaze is directly inward and egotistic, but by the end his doggedness is focused on the near-impossible task of holding an elder god at bay.
Strange and his closest MCU analogue, Tony Stark, both try to impose control on their worlds. Tony does so based on, as he admits, “textbook narcissism.” And in movie after movie, we watch this trait emerge in Tony due to fear of loss. Stephen, on the other hand, navel-gazes and pushes others away due to fear of failure.
This is his big arc. Strange originally finds his identity in personal excellence, but then he learns to move outside his carefully constructed comfort zone, to see a larger world, and to accept that his failure is not the end of that world – as the Ancient One reminds him, “it’s not about you.” Once he does, his already driven personality makes him a formidable force for good.
So yes, I really like Stephen Strange. Pity the rest of this movie is mediocre.
Alright, alright, that’s probably an overstatement. Some good things first.
There’s some theming – especially surrounding hands and time – that recurs, providing a good subtextual throughline for the film. That was neat. Stephen’s sudden car crash was brutal and effective – pride goes before a fall. And the effects-laden sequence where Stephen experiences magic and the multiverse for the first time, zooming from reality to reality in a truly bonkers experience, is probably the most visually creative single scene in the whole MCU.
But Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous Caecilius falls flat. He’s just not interesting enough. We continually hear how skilled he is, but Strange manages to hold him and two of his henchmen at bay early in the film. And while his motives are intriguing, his powers are not unique.
Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is perfectly competent, but not special. But Baron Mordo is such a sloppily written character, with unclear motives that the script suddenly firms up out of nowhere at movie’s end, that his obsession with “breaking the natural law” in a world with magic feels hollow. Wong is fine, a well-played punchline, and Christine (the requisite love interest) is likewise acceptable.
The pacing is disjointed and jumpy; the soundtrack is nothing special; comedic moments appear out of nowhere in places where they don’t really fit. Most troubling of all: Strange often gains in power and ability without any perceived change that impacts his character. It never feels like he earns it when he “levels up.”
So no, this isn’t one of my favorite Marvel films, but there’s enough here that I was entertained. Benedict Cumberbatch rescues this film from perfect mediocrity.