Contrary to what some superhero cinematic universes would have you believe, we know shockingly a lot about the multiverse, at least when it comes to fictional works. Although the concrete scientific examination of multiple realities coexisting does also trace roots all the way back to Ancient Greece, so it’s a concept that humanity has been reckoning with for quite some time. And for those in the nerd sphere, we are all too familiar with tall tales about how we are the successive summation of all of the choices that have been made in an intricately woven web. This is the foundation of several comic book universes, Jet Li’s The One, the modern incarnations of the Star Trek franchise, the seminal procedural Fringe. It’s part of the fabric of fiction.
The last few years have featured a staggering explosion of mainstream multi-verse stories, stories that deal with alternate realities, and the vastness of the decisions we make and how they reflect upon us as people. And latest of which, The Flash, was rightfully dinged by critics for being the latest entry to the point where people are calling the end of Multiverse stories. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that the people penning the highest profile Multiverse stories are boring as hell and not critical of their choices. And truly, I don’t believe I have multiverse fatigue. I have meaningless multiverse fatigue.
If we look at just the last three years, we have a whole litany of examples and while superhero movies aren’t the exclusive offender of crafting a meaningless multiverse, they certainly have a modern monopoly.
Let’s take the most recent example with The Flash (2023). Despite being lauded by various actors, directors, and studio self-hype, the movie itself is critically middling and one of the biggest box office bombs. And when you do the calculus behind everything, the math indeed maths. However, I will choose to focus on the foundation of the movie itself: FLASHPOINT. Flashpoint is one of the touchstones of the DC Comics: an exploration of alternate realities and character interpretations that speak to the very core of the characters after years of canon.
When adapted well, we get something like The Flash (CW) where we get to understand deeper facets of our characters by juxtaposing what they could have been. The Flash (2023) inherently can’t do that because the thin veneer of characters in the DCCU weren’t fully realized. I honestly liked Man of Steel and think in a slightly different timeline (funny how that works) it could have been the start of something interesting, but the rush to get to the Justice League undercut everything. The further rush to reset everything after seeing the Justice League struggle to capture the attention resulted in a hodgepodge of ideas.
Flashpoint, in the comics, works because of the pre-existing canon and attachment. Flashpoint does not work as a standalone movie because this is the first time we really get to spend time alone with the Flash (DCCU) and already the time is split with Flash (Alt-DCCU), Supergirl, and Batman (Keaton). The Flash treats the multiverse as a zoo rather than a meditation pool. It’s a collection of disparate cameos and externalized/internalized references that consumes itself completely missing the point, and it’s not the only movie to do so.
If we look at Spider-Man: No Way Home, we see an attempt to meditate on the nature of Spider-Man. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield get to reprise their roles and provide a sort of cinematic hand-off that works as they analyze the nature of the character and how the rogues gallery has informed the character time and time again. Where the multiverse’s mechanisms falter is two-fold:
- The entire premise of the movie is fabricated that Peter Parker thinks that magic is an easier solution than picking up the phone (not completely unreasonable) AND that Dr. Strange willingly goes along with this even after hearing that Peter did not explore that avenue (Oh my god)
- The end result is clearly engineered to reset the status quo, to strip Peter of any support network and connection, to align the character with more traditional depictions.
It’s not inherently bad but having the fate of the multiverse hinge on a questionable response isn’t exactly movie gold. Although if the rumors were to be believed, America Chavez was supposed to be the inciting sorcerer behind all of this which honestly would have removed a lot of gripes because at least its sensible how we get there.
But no, Doctor Strange and the Madness of the Multiverse came after, barely gave America enough to do on screen, and then saddled us within the most uninspired alternate reality to ever be envisioned on screen. PIZZA IN A BALL SHAPE. RED MEANS GO. GREEN MEANS STOP. If there is any respect to the multiverse conceit and the movie as a whole, it’s that it solely centers itself around Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch desperately trying to find a version of her children. That type of distinctive want of what could have been is a fascinating use of the infinite reality. But instead, we get minor deviations and a revolving door of cameos that are meant to evoke some sort of grander scheme, but they end up just being a novelty. Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing Patrick Stewart reprise Professor X, but the role doesn’t add to the narrative. It could have easily been James McAvoy. It could have been an actual cast of a new Prof X. But instead, it was a merry go round of “hey, look what could have been but wasn’t.”
The reason that these hurt so much is that within months of the temporal continuity, actual good multiversal movies came out that understood the Bast damn assignment.
Now, I don’t need to laud Everything Everywhere All at Once anymore than it already has been but come on. Three months before the second Dr. Strange, we get a cinematic masterpiece that epitomizes the central themes and also is inventive about how it presents itself. Hotdog fingered humans is one of the weirdest alternate realities I’ve seen on screen, but there was a logic behind it. There was a small impetus that butterflied into a society that was familiarly unfamiliar. The evolutionary path had natural consequences.
Evelyn’s potential to be next to anything from movie star, to musician, to scientist that almost ends all of reality by pushing her daughter too hard. Everything Everywhere All at Once scrutinizes our longing for the other paths in life. It shows every path and then takes a second to reflect upon the simplest thing. I cried in the theater over two rocks staring out in one of the millions of realities where life simply didn’t happen. That’s a multiverse that means something.
And everyone on staff has been praising Across the Spider-Verse, so lemme get it on this too. After clearly establishing and endearing us to Miles Morales in the first movie, Sony Animations builds upon and evolves the themes they have introduce. Across the [Miguel joke] becomes a meditation on metafiction and destiny. The multiverse represents an omnipresent fate, a seemingly strict set of circumstances that has happened before so surely it must happen again.
And Miles rebelling against the machine and succeeding for the most part manages to better examine what it means to be Spider-Man better than the live action counterpart. And it comes down to meaningful decisions from both the characters in the stories and the creators behind the scenes. Miles’s striving to be more due to the unexpected course change in his life is lovingly cared for and the stakes that it sets up for resolution in Beyond the Spider-Verse feel intentional and impactful.
It all comes down to a very simple tenant. The multiverse has to mean something. The preponderance of choice has to mean something. Showcasing what could have been for the sake of what could have been does nothing for the story. The weakest of the multiversal movies are the ones where this ideation of differing choice is disconnected from the actual actions of the characters, whether it’s because the movie itself is more concerned with parading a history sans context or because the writers made a character just a tad bit too obtuse. And the strongest ones go the extra mile in showing how truly different the alternate reality could be and how when presented with every road, we have to choose the one that’s right for us.