Is the Multiverse Where Originality Goes to Die?

Multiversal superhero comics launched new kinds of plots: heroes could now team up across worlds, like rock-and-roll supergroups, and so could bad guys. But a multiverse can get so crowded with alternate realities that each one starts to lose its significance. A 1964 Justice League comic introduced Earth-3, “where every super-being is a criminal,” and DC Comics eventually manufactured dozens of alternate Earths. Then, in 1985, editors at DC decided to simplify. “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” written and drawn by the industry-leading team of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, visited oblivion on Earth after Earth until just one, with one Superman, remained. Overlong, with ultra-high stakes on every page, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” makes tough reading today, though the line art by Pérez (who died in 2022) holds up beautifully. In one array of parallel panels, heroes watch entire worlds fade into the emptiness of the white page. The single remaining Earth, for a while, evokes Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time”: the Empire State Building shares a city with dinosaurs, biplanes, and “Jetsons”-style futurism, and we witness “the past and future merging with the present, creating impossible anomalies.” Later in the story, heroes try to traverse the multiverse by running on the Flash’s “cosmic treadmill.”

Marvel Comics began to assemble its own alternate Earths in the seventies, and they have piled up over the years: Earth-616, Earth-811, Earth-1191. DC, for its part, orchestrated “Crisis” after “Crisis”—“Zero Hour: Crisis in Time!,” “Infinite Crisis,” “Final Crisis,” and so on—merging, destroying, and remaking its multiverses again and again to accommodate new slates of characters, some of them acquired from other publishers. Black Adam, an ancient Egyptian with magical powers and the antihero in the 2022 story line, “Dark Crisis on Infinite Earths,” entered DC Comics as a resident of Earth-S, along with Billy Batson, a.k.a. Captain Marvel or Shazam, who originally appeared in Fawcett comics. Shazam got his own big-budget film in 2019. In October, Black Adam got one, too, starring Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson.

The multiverse first appeared in fiction as a plot device or a philosophical notion that could power interesting stories. But in the second half of the twentieth century multiplexes multiplied, superhero films found commercial success, and franchises that returned to popular heroes, such as James Bond or Luke Skywalker, dominated the box office. Against this backdrop, the multiverse evolved from a storytelling tool to a business tactic, one of several that enable vast entertainment companies to recycle beloved characters. The multiverse may be one of the reasons that the critic and writer Elizabeth Sandifer decries “the Marvelization of all things.” Francis Ford Coppola has made a similar complaint: “A Marvel picture is one prototype movie that is made over and over and over and over and over again to look different.” According to Martin Scorsese, these big-budget movies displace real works of art: “In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen.”

It’s true that the age of corporate intellectual property has swallowed Hollywood. Just a handful of companies—Disney (which owns Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm), Warner Bros. Discovery (which owns DC Films), Sony Pictures, Paramount Global—now hold the rights to the fictional people who stride across our screens. Watching their pulse-pounding prequels and sequels can itself feel like running on a cosmic treadmill: because corporate owners tend to resist change, heroes often end up right where they started (and we get a “new” Spider-Man movie every few years). Multiverses seem to make it easier for big companies to create new-yet-old heroes. No wonder cinephiles have had enough.

And yet this explanation for multiverse mania—that it’s a cynical ploy to squeeze money out of moviegoers—does not fit all the facts. Marvel hits such as “Iron Man” were blockbusters well before the studio embraced the alternate time lines and multiple universes found in the comics. And superhero fans, especially diehards who have explored multiverses for decades, love to see creators riff and reimagine. Marvel Comics readers are proud, not annoyed, that “every little story is part of the big one,” as Douglas Wolk writes in “All of the Marvels,” his book-length history of the comics and their heroes. In those tales, alternate Earths and time lines often allow familiar characters to step off the metaphorical treadmill, to do big things that they could not otherwise do. Prestigious and straight-arrow heroes die, or turn evil, or come out as gay; in a 1994 issue of Marvel’s “What If?,” Jean Grey, from the X-Men, burns our solar system to ash. In one 2003 issue of the universe-hopping series “Exiles,” Tony Stark becomes a totalitarian technocrat until the Fantastic Four’s Sue Storm takes him down; in another, Spider-Man’s girlfriend Mary Jane dates the woman of her dreams. These characters aren’t the “real” Jean Grey or Tony Stark or Mary Jane, so audiences and advertisers need not worry that their favorite characters will never be the same.

Some comics even seem self-aware about their own status as intellectual property. In “Secret Wars,” the ambitious 2015-16 series from Marvel Comics, by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribić, a mysterious catastrophe obliterates the cosmos. The forward-thinking Doctor Strange and the masked tyrant Doctor Doom create, “from the shattered remnants of broken Earths,” a planet to hold the surviving Marvel heroes. They then carve up the planet into genres, much as a corporate manager would carve up an entertainment company: mythic warriors inhabit Doomgard, while Howard the Duck lives in New Quack City. Doom thinks the planet belongs to him, but we know that he in turn belongs to God Disney.

To Coppola and Scorsese, multiversal blockbusters may represent the dark time line of popular culture. But, at their best, these works can still amaze and inspire. When “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” came out, in 2018, many film critics judged it a cinematic achievement and the best superhero movie to date. It owed its success not to any brand-new character but to how the movie helped us to see new sides of a familiar one. The film illustrated, especially for young people, that there are multiple ways to see yourself in a hero, even if you don’t look much like the white male Peter Parker with whom Spidey began. “Today, there is a Spider-Man for every kid,” the comics critic Zachary Jenkins wrote. “It’s not just about representation,” he went on, but “about giving kids options to express themselves.” When so much of our culture is sequels and prequels and reboots, we might need multiverses all the more, so that we can imagine what else is possible.

“Maybe try turning the mug around so its inspirational message faces you?”

Cartoon by Sophie Lucido Johnson and Sammi Skolmoski

Why do we live in a multiversal moment? One theory holds that the ascent of the multiverse matches our need to keep up many identities. We may feel like different people as we slide from Instagram to Slack to the family group chat; we code-switch as we move between work and home and parent-teacher conferences. Victorians might have been wowed by the two-faced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this theory goes, but nowadays we require something stronger—hence a TV show like “Loki,” whose titular antihero has numerous manifestations, including a man, a woman, a child, an alligator, and a President. Every time I try to answer questions from both my kids at the same time, without burning their cinnamon toast or showing up late to a Zoom call with my students, I think there must be something to this hypothesis.

But it still doesn’t explain why the English singer-songwriter Grace Petrie would invoke the multiverse in her heart-crushing song “Done Deal,” about an affair: “I know that out there somewhere in a fairer universe, we were a done deal, darling, and you met me first.” Nor does it explain why political commentators, during the Trump Presidency, tweeted longingly about Earth 2, where Hillary Clinton became President. When the poet Stella Wong writes, in her thoughtful collection “Spooks” (2022), that she was “taken as an only child / with multiverses. There’s nothing // worse than the sense of being alone,” she does not seem to be writing about the fragmentation of our postmodern identities. Neither does the hip-hop duo Atmosphere in their new single “Sculpting with Fire,” with its melancholy refrain, “So many other realities exist simultaneously.” These everyday multiverses contemplate comforting but fragile alternatives to our one and only Earth.

Multiversal stories, told well, can reveal not only what might have been but what could still be. In “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” an exhausted Chinese laundromat owner named Evelyn, played with verve by Michelle Yeoh, discovers very suddenly that her reality is one of many. Her husband, Waymond, tells her to walk into a supply closet, then claps a Bluetooth headset onto her; he has come, we learn, from another time line. The headset lets Evelyn tap into the talents of her alternate selves—a spy, a martial artist, a chef. “Every tiny decision creates another branching universe,” Waymond-from-another-time-line later tells her.

On Evelyn’s too-real time line, her daughter, Joy, is rebellious, sullen, and—to the dismay of Evelyn’s father—gay. But somewhere else in the multiverse her daughter has become a villain determined to scramble all reality. “Nothing matters,” Joy’s alter ego says, echoing the Borgesian spy for whom choices lose their meaning. “Everything we do gets washed away in a sea of every other possibility.” The symbol of Joy’s nihilism is an everything bagel, shaped like a zero, or like the iris of an eye. Evelyn starts out quietly despising—or, at best, reluctantly resigning herself to—the laundromat, the family, and the world she knows. But in order to save the multiverse she has to accept herself and her kid.

In a different world, “Everything Everywhere,” with its many moments of absurdist comedy, might feel like a parody of Marvel movies. Yet critics praised it, rightly, for originality. The director-writers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert fuse the psychology of multiversal fiction—its potential for despair over endless, meaningless choice, for example—with the open-ended, high-stakes storytelling of superhero tales. Marvel may own the idea of Tony Stark, or at least the right to make money from him, but the notion of the multiverse belongs to anyone who can use it to tell a good story.

Our fears about the future, and our hopes for the children who will inhabit it, may be a final reason that twenty-first-century audiences welcome tale after tale of multiple Earths, and why alternate time lines are flourishing in our time. In so many multiversal stories, from “Sidewise in Time” to “Everything Everywhere” and “Spider-Verse,” members of the rising generation take long and skeptical looks at their elders. They may wonder whether they will become their parents, or whether they can choose something else altogether: whether history must repeat, or whether it can be rewritten. We parents, meanwhile, learn from our children what is possible and what could have been. Children are bringers of change and agents of chaos; they can seem to come from another dimension. But their very presence can balance out our multiversal ennui. Shouldn’t we at least try to give them a better world than this one?

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