The struggle between art and commerce has found a new battleground. This time the landscape is larger and more amorphous than ever before — bursting with creative potential but vulnerable to exploitation too. It’s a place where new art is born and old art is resurrected. It’s expanding, it’s proliferating and it’s coming to a screen near you.
Yes, we’re talking about the multiverse.
So why now?
Bringing an ‘egg-headed’ idea to the masses
Christopher Miller and Phil Lord produced, and the latter co-wrote, the Oscar-winning animated movie “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The 2018 film features Miles Morales, an Afro Latino teenage Spider-Man, who teams up with other alternate “Spider-people” — including Peter B. Parker and Gwen Stacy’s Spider-Woman — when the villain Kingpin opens a portal into the multiverse.
Lord was initially anxious that the multiverse might be “too egg-headed an idea” and wrote an explanatory scene into the movie — one that was eventually cut after test screenings. “All of the marketing and studio executives were baffled, but basically everyone under 45 was like, ‘Yeah, of course there’s multiple variants of worlds and whatever,'” Miller added on a video call.
Lord believes our fractured real lives may factor into why the idea is so easily accepted. “I think we’re living multiple lives in parallel dimensions sort of all the time,” he said. “We’re living an online life — or lives. Then we’re living a work life that’s on a screen … Then there’s a home life, and then one with your friends. Trying to resolve those things is going to be something we’re all thinking about all the time.”
He added that the concept is also intuitive. “In terms of storytelling, it’s about imagining possible outcomes of our lives. The whole reason we have narrative brains is in order to imagine future outcomes of our actions.”
“Sliding Doors” is a prime example of how this concept plays out on screen. In Peter Howitt’s 1998 romcom, we watch Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Helen live two lives in parallel, depending on whether she catches — or misses — a London Underground train. It’s a temperate take on the multiverse (the two Helens never meet, for example) but it pushed the idea toward the mainstream. Recent films have built on that concept in more grandiose fashion, adding more alternate lives, more sci-fi and more byzantine plotting — in a nutshell, more spectacle.
Gwyneth Paltrow as Helen and John Hannah as James in “Sliding Doors.” In the film we see two versions of Helen’s life play out in parallel. Credit: Alex Bailey/Paramount/Shutterstock
In 2018’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” different versions of the superhero, including (from left) Peni Parker, Spider-Woman, Spider-Ham, Miles Morales, Peter B. Parker and Spider-Man Noir, team up. Credit: Sony Pictures Animation
In 2022’s “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as Daniels), Michelle Yeoh’s protagonist Evelyn Wang laments her life choices and what might have been had she made different ones. She then experiences just that, cycling through dozens of fantastical parallel lives after she enters the multiverse.
Stylistically, the film’s various universes draw on cinematic pastiches, from a tribute to Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” to Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” creating a visual shorthand to help audiences keep track. Costume designer Shirley Kurata created 36 looks for Evelyn, along with a flamboyant wardrobe for the film’s supposed villain, an alternate universe’s version of Evelyn’s daughter Joy, called Jobu Tupaki. But despite their wild variety and abundant flair, the costumes subtly tie the multiverse together, Kurata explained to CNN, with outfits appearing in different colorways and matching patterns across different storylines. The film’s multiverse is very big in some ways, and, in others, very small.
From the sublime… Credit: Allyson Riggs/A24
… to the ridiculous, “Everything Everywhere All At Once” shows how chance, luck and our own decisions combine to shape our lives. Credit: Allyson Riggs/A24
In Marvel sequel “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” also released this year, “Sliding Doors” moments have Earth-shattering implications, as multiple versions of our planet, from the utopian-but-autocratic to the outright apocalyptic, are colored by the decisions of multiple Stranges’ choices. It’s “Sliding Doors” by way of Nietzsche’s übermensch.
Michael Waldron wrote “Multiverse of Madness.” He was also showrunner for the 2021 Disney+ series “Loki,” and before that was a writer and producer on “Rick and Morty,” the Adult Swim animated series that has dabbled in the multiverse since 2013. Few people in TV and film have engaged with the concept more.
“What about the present moment doesn’t make you yearn for an alternate reality?” he said in an email. “Exploring the multiverse allows characters to physically realize and confront those fantasies … for better or for worse.”
Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. In “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” the sorcerer enters the multiverse thanks to the powers of America Chavez, played by Xochitl Gomez. Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios
He finds it can be a rough ride at times. Credit: courtesy Marvel Studios
The dizzying potential of infinity
The head-trip of infinity poses a significant obstacle to storytelling, however. “To play in the playground of infinity is not as satisfying as following a story that has a beginning, middle and end,” said “Into the Spider-Verse” producer Miller. The very concept that piques our storytelling brain can also break it.
“The idea of an infinite number of other universes — that is scary. That’s non-narrative. That’s crazy stuff,” said Scheinert, who co-directed and co-wrote “Everything Everywhere All at Once”.
“For every choice you go down, the other choice also exists. It starts to water down everything in a way that is incredibly frustrating,” explained Daniels’ other half, Kwan. “The audience detaches. There’s no connection to it, because it doesn’t feel like any of it mattered in the end.”
However, Marvel Studios made the case that storylines in the multiverse do have consequences in Disney+ series “Loki,” starring Tom Hiddleston. In a painstaking process that involved “a lot of squiggly lines on whiteboards and Advil” in the writers’ room, according to Waldron, “Loki” maps out alternate timelines and variations of the titular god of mischief (who also appears in different forms). We’re told that keeping parallel universes separate is key to maintaining the existing world order, and that universes coming into contact with one another could spark multiversal war, threatening the characters we’ve been watching for well over a decade. It’s become the blueprint for future storytelling in the MCU.
Disney+ series “Loki” featured multiple versions of the character regularly played by Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Credit: Marvel Studios
He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors), a cosmic Oz-type character in the series, provides an explanation of how the multiverse works. Another version of the character, known as Kang the Conqueror, is thought to be an important villain in upcoming Marvel films. Credit: Marvel Studios
Daniels took a different path in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” leaning into the disillusioning nature of infinity. “We wanted to explore that,” said Kwan. “Can we send our character through so many different iterations of herself that she literally loses all meaning and all purpose, and the hero’s journey basically stops?”
Yeoh’s Evelyn questions the consequences of every choice, whereas her daughter Joy can’t see any way to affect change — and thus sees few consequences for her actions. The multiverse supercharges these feelings. “They’re each reacting to an overwhelming world in opposite ways,” said Scheinert. “Neither is a good way to live your life, and the whole movie was a dialogue and exploration, where we wanted to land somewhere in between.”
The film has grossed $100 million worldwide, a record for production company A24 and evidence that Daniels’ big swings in the multiverse have resonated with audiences.
Doctor Strange meets superhero supergroup The Illuminati in “Multiverse of Madness,” including Professor X, in a cameo by Patrick Stewart. Credit: Marvel Studios/IMDB
Professor X and Mr. Fantastic (John Krasinski) were characters owned by Fox, which was bought by Disney in 2019, meaning they could be introduced to the MCU. Credit: Marvel Studios/IMDB
Three for the price of one: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” featured three incarnations of the web slinger, played by (from left) Toby Maguire, Tom Holland and Andrew Garfield. Credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel Studios/IMDB
While Miller praised “No Way Home,” he has reservations about how the multiverse has been used by some.
“A lot of places are going, ‘Well, now we can raid our catalog and show everyone all of the various versions of the things, and they all are valid and everything is real, and look at how fun and what nostalgia catnip this is for everyone,'” Miller said.
“I think in a very cynical way, that may be part of why it has sort of exploded… But I think that it’s kind of the wrong reason to do a multiverse story.”
Kwan and Scheinert were similarly candid while acknowledging audience appetite. “We both loved ‘Super Smash Bros.’ when it came out. Suddenly all your favorite characters were in the same place,” said Scheinert, namechecking the 1990s Nintendo crossover game. “But the inspiring part is when (the multiverse) goes somewhere philosophically interesting or emotionally interesting. That’s rare — and always has been.”
The Wang family — (from left) Stephanie Hsu as Joy, Yeoh as Evelyn and Ke Huy Quan as Waymond — are the heart and soul of “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Credit: Allyson Riggs/A24
“They confronted the staggering smallness of our being — the ultimate stake-lessness of life itself. But their resolution argued that the pull of that existential abyss could be defeated by love. That’s a very powerful, beautiful idea,” said Waldron.
The future of the multiverse
So what should be expected of the multiverse going forward? The forecast is an ever-more crowded marketplace — and one still largely dominated by superheroes.
Lord and Miller have teamed up again for two “Spider-Verse” sequels, coming in 2023 and 2024. The filmmakers are understandably tight-lipped about the plot. (“All things are possible in the multiverse,” mused Miller when probed.)
Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore) in 2023 movie “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One).” Credit: Sony Pictures Animation
Ezra Miller as The Flash in 2017’s “Justice League.” The actor will return next year in standalone movie “The Flash,” which preview footage suggests will contain multiple versions of their character. Credit: Clay Enos/Warner Bros/Evertt Collection
“It’s certainly a multiverse moment,” said Miller, but in the long term he sees it as becoming another “tool in the toolbox” for storytellers.
It will require constant reinvention from filmmakers to keep audiences engaged. Because ultimately, the multiverse doesn’t make a movie compelling. People do.
“You have to keep the characters and their relationships front and center the whole time,” said Lord. “Essentially, write the story like the multiverse is boring.”
Top image: Leah Abucayan/Adobe Stock/A24. Looping videos courtesy Sony Pictures Animation, A24 and Marvel Studios.