Multiverses are modern pop culture’s most boring fixation

TThe world has fallen to the multiverse. The term, used to describe an interconnected, possibly infinite, mass of parallel universes, has transcended its nerdy comic book beginnings in recent years and has become common parlance for many moviegoers. Head to pretty much any movie theater across the country this week and you’ll be offered one of two Multiverse movies to indulge in – franchise powerhouses Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madnessor scrappy word-of-mouth hit Everything everywhere at once. Last year’s biggest film focused on an interconnected multiverse: Spider-Man: No Way Home. The idea has also established itself on television – in cartoons (Rick and Morty) and live-action sci-fi (Loki).

Of course, it’s an easy-to-understand fascination. The concept of an infinitely repeating web of parallel universes touches on something fundamental in human experience: the bittersweet notion of the untraveled road, the unlived life. It has a basis in philosophical dialectics and quantum mechanics, but it ignites only at the whim of the human imagination. The mind wanders over the possibilities. There’s a universe out there that Kelly Reichardt lives in First cow is the highest grossing film of all time. A universe where Chet Hanks is elected President of Sudan. Maybe even a universe where Arsenal wins the Champions League. Everything is possible! It’s certainly fascinating to contemplate the implications of these alternate realities, the different paths our lives would have taken if, four years ago, we hadn’t ordered a second piece of cake at a coffee shop or stopped to tie our shoelaces instead of for the bus to run. In 1972 a butterfly flaps its wings and suddenly we all speak Swahili. But is it good fiction? Absolutely not.

An intriguing thought experiment is not the same as an intriguing story premise. The idea of ​​”infinite universes” honestly doesn’t translate to screen. One way or another, the concept needs to be mongrelized, reduced to a scenario that can make for a three-act blockbuster or a six-hour miniseries. We’re not treated to an actual multiverse, but rather a handful of alternate universes with aesthetic differences that can be revisited and then quickly forgotten as the plot dictates. Doctor Strange is particularly economical with his multiverse, entangling his character in just two alternate universes for most of the film – one seemingly utopian, one apocalyptic. Less a multiverse of madness and more of a multiverse of restraint and screenwriting practices. But that wouldn’t really work on a poster.

The multiverse has been explored elsewhere in Marvel’s monolithically popular franchise – Doctor Strange follows from No way home, Loki, What if…? and Avengers: Endgame while grappling with the idea (along with the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). It’s hard not to be cynical about it. Marvel’s approach to filmmaking often has the feel of a plastic children’s playset; The multiverse lets them redesign their existing characters for a second payoff. The return of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield has completely derailed the narrative cohesion of No way home for the sake of some cheap nostalgia points — but it’s hard to argue with the billion-dollar results.

Everything everywhere at once is narratively more demanding than Strange in his approach to the subject, but still finds his subject too big to properly digest. Again, the multiverse is reduced to a small pool of aesthetically distinct underworlds – one that looks like a Wong Kar-Wai film; one where everyone has frankfurters for their fingers. It is both too small in scope and somehow too big. The film’s take on the multiverse works best in comic book mode, when parallel universes are chosen purely for laugh value.

While multiverses make for unwieldy drama, they’re actually ripe for comedy. Irreverent swimming cartoon for adults Rick and Morty manages to draw unfathomable reserves of humor from his multiverse, which to his credit takes the “infinite” part of the premise and runs with it. Compared to the leaden seriousness Marvel usually takes about its own multiversal lore, there’s an undeniable win Rick and Morty‘s brazen, scathing take on cosmic infinity. It’s also not the first TV series to delve into it. Classic Shows by Buffy the vampire slayer to star trek have explored parallel universes; futuramaThe brief foray into the multiverse in 2003 remains one of the highlights of the series. The difference here is of course not only in terms of design, but also financially – Rick and Morty can afford to take risks that Marvel can’t because it doesn’t have billions of pounds dependent on a franchise’s continued popularity.

Michelle Yeoh with Stephanie Hsu and Jonathan Ke Quan in Everything, Everywhere at Once


Despite my nagging, Hollywood’s boring multiverse craze seems to be going on unabated. There are other Marvel films on the list. In the coming years The Lightning Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck will transition into a new multiverse for DC Comics, a la Maguire/Garfield. The directors of Everything everywhere have spoken vaguely but teasingly about the prospect of a sequel; Even if it never materializes, the film’s success is sure to spawn a slew of imitators. It’s enough to make your head spin. (Call it multivertigo.) Maybe there’s a universe out there somewhere where someone has managed to successfully translate the theory of the multiverse into a cinematic masterpiece. But it sure isn’t. Multiverses are modern pop culture’s most boring fixation


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