Why Movies and TV Are Obsessed with the Multiverse

The multiverse is everywhere in popular culture. What gives?
Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once
"Everything Everywhere All at Once"
Allyson Riggs/A24

In an early scene of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the spell-casting superhero (Benedict Cumberbatch) encounters a character from another universe who offers him a primer on the multiverse concept. He shrugs it off: They went through all this in the “Spider-Man” movie released last year. 

These days, the multiverse is everywhere. In both “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Multiverse of Madness,” it provides the corporate excuse to import characters from other franchises, previous iterations of the same franchises, and even franchises that don’t exist yet. But it’s also the ultimate embodiment of an idea that has growing appeal in popular culture for other reasons. In chaotic times, the potential of other realities can be an enticing proposition. On the surface, the existence of the multiverse means that nothing is permanent and everything is fungible. Who wouldn’t want an edit function for their own life?

Not so fast: The multiverse has more profound ramifications than wish fulfillment. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” got the drop on “Multiverse of Madness” as the multiverse movie of the year for good reason: It’s a personal way into the multiverse concept. In Daniels’ rousing and inventive odyssey, a Chinese-American woman (Michelle Yeoh) contending with an IRS audit for her laundromat ends up careening through a seemingly infinite spiral of alternate universes in an unexpected quest to take on her wayward daughter (Stephanie Hsu).

While Doctor Strange is forced into action by a higher calling, the hero of “Everything Everywhere” isn’t trying to save the universe so much as her own stable place within it. You don’t need a whole cinematic universe to relate to those stakes. 

Even “Multiverse of Madness” touches on this sentiment at a key moment that finds the sorcerer wondering why he can’t feel happy even when he manages to do his job. Having careened through a hodgepodge of other worlds, he seems more lost than ever. In this reading, the multiverse isn’t a comforting concept at all; it’s a reminder than nothing, not even individuality, is sacred or unique. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange in Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Dark stuff. But Marvel franchise-building has proven time and again that every bleak twist can be undone with another installment, and the multiverse concept (imported from the comics) provides an easy excuse for a do-over.

In “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” there is no escape from the inevitable layers of time and space, the endlessness of existence surrounding its characters at every turn. If you think of a universe, it exists: a concept both entrancing and terrifying at once. Part of the journey for the movie’s characters involves making peace with that, and that’s quite the topical conceit. The modern world demands a constant navigation of ubiquitous data from multiple directions at once. In that respect, we are all living in the multiverse, while trying to find some clarity to the noise. 

Maybe that’s why Alex Garland’s harrowing miniseries “Devs” holds such eerie power. The story of a deranged Silicon Valley guru (Nick Offerman) and the software engineer (Sonoya Mizuno) who investigates his schemes, “Devs” is a complex meditation on determinism, but ultimately turns on a multiverse theory of its own. As its anti-hero attempts to predict endless futures, it builds to the radical suggestion that its own finale is one of several possibilities coinciding with each other, some bleaker than others. As with “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” this opens up some inventive editing tricks to weave between multiple realities, with the much grimmer implication that every happy ending is also a sad one. Doctor Strange’s situation may be comparatively sanitized, but even he can relate. 

Regardless, all modern multiverse stories owe a debt to the ludicrous shenanigans of “Rick and Morty.” Even “Multiverse of Madness” screenwriter Michael Waldron has confessed that his experience in the writers’ room for that show set him up for his latest gig. That’s because the antics of the raunchy mad scientist and his whiny nephew embark on a delicate juggling act. For Rick and Morty, the multiverse is a portal to pure nihilism — as well as its antidote.

With his various gadgets and spaceships, Rick holds the power to travel between endless realities to the point where any single one holds little value in his mind. He and his family have died many times over, confronted themselves, killed themselves, and lived again. But no matter the vanity of these endless showdowns, the multiverse pushes them along.

If everything is indeed everywhere all at once, then everyone faces the same fundamental challenge of getting through each day. More realities means inescapable purpose. The existence of the multiverse isn’t a reason to give up: It’s the ultimate reason to keep going. 

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