Once again, Marvel’s latest Avengers movie—the culmination of a 22-movie story arc—is released at the same time as another movie that features apocalyptic violence as its theme.
Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame is the sequel to their film from last year, Avengers: Infinity War, in which the evil Thanos (Josh Brolin), having gained possession of all six Infinity Stones, destroyed half the Universe and half of the Marvel superheroes with it. Avengers: Endgame concerns the (literally) superhuman efforts of the remaining heroes—Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and others—to restore the Universe, wreak vengeance on Thanos and bring their friends back to life.
As I’ve said before, I’m an ignoramus about the Marvel Universe, so I can’t be sure how satisfying the true fans will find this final chapter in the current story. (That there will be many, many more story arcs is, of course, a given.) Avengers: Endgame contains much that will please both die-hard and casual fans: masterfully choreographed battle scenes; space and time travel; the trademark wiseass Marvel dialogue. It is part of the Marvel mythology that the characters don’t necessarily like each other—especially not Iron Man and Captain America—so the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is filled with scenes of their wittily disrespecting each other.
The only question is whether Marvel fans will be pleased with the destinies of the characters they have lived with for a series of movies stretching back more than a decade. Two beloved characters (no fair saying who) meet their fates; many others, of necessity, are limited to walk-ons; the rest find varying degrees of peace and happiness. The actors are obviously having a blast, especially Hemsworth, Ruffalo, and Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. What’s also obvious is that many of these actors, and the characters they play, will be back for further adventures—even those we might not expect to see again. The last line of Avengers: Endgame—“No one’s ever really gone”—can be taken as the epigraph for every story created by the late Stan Lee and his colleagues.
In Jordan Peele’s Us, however, many characters are indeed gone, and replaced by something terrifying. Last year, Avengers: Infinity War was in theaters simultaneously with John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, in which a family was menaced by voracious invaders from outer space. Us, currently sharing multiplexes with Avengers: Endgame, also features a family in danger, but the danger it faces is much less readily defined.
Written and directed by Peele, Us begins in 1986 with a couple and their small daughter Adelaide (Madison Curry) strolling the boardwalk at Santa Cruz, Calif. While her parents are distracted, Adelaide wanders off and enters a funhouse, where she encounters…well, it’s better not to say.
The film switches to its credit sequence, the camera closing in on a white rabbit in a cage. Slowly, as Michael Abels’ ominous theme music plays, the camera pulls back to reveal a wall of identical caged rabbits. In its own quiet way, that scene is as alarming as anything in the film, and that’s saying something.
Peele then takes us to the present day, where Adelaide (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) is a wife and mother living comfortably in central California. Her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) is a big-kid type of guy who wants to live up to the standard set by his friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss). Adolescent daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright-Joseph) regularly rolls her eyes at how uncool her parents are, and son Jason (Evan Alex) never goes anywhere without his monster mask.
When Gabe proposes a trip to Santa Cruz to meet Josh and Kitty, Adelaide balks at first, but eventually agrees. Arriving in Santa Cruz, Adelaide is further disturbed to see an old street person carried away in an ambulance. She remembers the street person from 1986, and even better his sign, which reads, “Jeremiah 11:11.” (That verse, which is never revealed in the film, reads as follows: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”) At the beach, Jason wanders off, much as his mother did before him, and sees a man with blood dripping from his fingers. Jason’s parents search for him frantically, and take him away from the beach as soon as they find him.
That night, four figures stand in Adelaide’s driveway, wearing red jumpsuits and holding hands. The longer they stand there, the more they resemble Adelaide and her family. Gabe tells them to go; they do not budge. When Gabe decides to reinforce his order with a baseball bat, the foursome…well, that begins the main story of Us. The horror, which at first seems localized to Adelaide’s family, soon proves to be much more widespread.
At the beginning of Us, Peele posts a note on the screen that the U.S. has thousands of miles of abandoned underground tunnels, many of which have no clear purpose. Without going into further detail, Us postulates a purpose for those tunnels.
Between Us and Peele’s first film, the Oscar-winning Get Out, it is no surprise that Peele was entrusted with the recent reboot of The Twilight Zone. Peele’s gift for suspense is comparable to Rod Serling’s, and like Serling he can use that gift in the service of biting social commentary. Get Out was a funny-queasy parable about the horrors African-Americans face in a world ruled by whites. Us casts a wider net. The theme of society creating a permanent underclass is there; so are the themes of the upper class leading vapid, unexamined lives, and of the vicious nature of groupthink.
Critics have noted Peele’s evocation of previous horror films, ranging from Night of the Living Dead to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Shining. My own favorite of Peele’s quotations was not, properly speaking, from a horror film, but from the lipstick scene in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. I won’t tell you exactly where this scene comes, but it will make you jump out of your skin.
Us is also enlivened by Peele’s roguish, subversive sense of humor, which appears at the most unexpected and perfect times. Watch what happens when one of the characters asks her virtual assistance device to call the police. The shade of Hitchcock is applauding.
The acting in Us is excellent straight down the line, especially the women. Nyong’o, who once again proves herself one of the best actresses working today, makes Adelaide’s terror palpable and heartrending. As Red, Adelaide’s double, she is something else again. Zombie-like in appearance and speaking in a voice that comes from the caverns of Hell, Nyong’o’s Red is truly one of the damned. A plot twist at the very end makes Red’s damnation all the more horrible.
Peele is so masterful at deploying his visual and thematic metaphors that it’s disappointing they pile up helter-skelter in the film’s last ten or fifteen minutes, blurring his message. But Us is brilliant up to that point, and it ends with an unnerving image that rhymes with the very first scene. Unity, in Peele’s mordant vision, is not all it’s cracked up to be.