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.
The multiverse has been gathering steam for some time, but in 2022 it asserted its dominance in the film industry, surfacing in indie movies and superhero blockbusters alike. In late July, Marvel Studios announced a five-year “Multiverse Saga” — comprising 16 films and multiple shows — bound together by the idea. Highly-disputed quantum physics theories rarely receive this kind of airtime.
For anyone in need of a refresher, the multiverse is the concept that multiple, perhaps infinite universes exist side by side, overlapping or linked and containing endless permutations of everything, including us. The word “multiverse” is well over 100 years old, with philosophical roots stretching back to the Ancient Greeks, as well as in both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. Yet we’ve arrived at a moment ripe for the idea to take hold in film — where both consumer and capital have played a role in its newfound popularity.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
In Kwan and Scheinert’s hands, the multiverse possesses potent symbolism. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” became a Rorschach test of contemporary anxieties: it’s been read as a commentary on social media, ADHD, depression, determinism, code switching, family dynamics, the immigrant Asian American experience, the American Dream and the philosophy of optimistic nihilism. There’s enough room for all that and more to be true.
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.
Other studios have targeted the multiverse precisely because it’s a useful way to create lucrative crossovers with valuable intellectual property. Fan favorites meeting up on screen “is as old as Dickens,” said Lord, pointing out Universal Pictures did so with films like “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy” back in 1955. But it’s never been this profitable.
In the latest Doctor Strange installment, the titular character meets The Illuminati, a secret society of superheroes working together in one of the multiverse’s universes. Featuring an alternate Sorcerer Supreme and Captain Marvel, and Captain Carter instead of Captain America, among others, The Illuminati also includes Mr. Fantastic and Professor Charles Xavier — characters from the Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises, which Marvel Studios acquired when Disney purchased Fox in 2019. Extraordinary hype was built around who might feature in The Illuminati ahead of the film’s release, no doubt contributing to its $955 million worldwide gross.
Continuing this pattern, the recently announced “Deadpool 3” will bring together fan-favorite superheroes Deadpool and Wolverine, played by Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman, respectively. For now, however, the high watermark remains 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” In what was largely an open secret, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire reprised their past turns as the superhero alongside the MCU’s current Spider-Man, Tom Holland. The film made $1.9 billion worldwide — and is currently the sixth highest grossing film of all time, proving also just how profitable re-introducing old incarnations of characters could be.
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.”
By the end of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Evelyn and Joy’s newfound acceptance of each other’s perspectives provides resolution; a far cry from the zero-sum game often laid out in multiverse narratives. The film is already being talked about as both a possible Best Actress and Best Picture contender at the Oscars, and Kwan and Scheinert have received plenty of praise for their approach — including from fellow multiverse filmmakers.
“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.)
Warner Bros. Discovery (CNN’s parent company) will expand the DC Extended Universe into its own multiverse with “The Flash” in 2023. Director Andy Muschietti told Vanity Fair next year’s film “implies a unified universe where all the cinematic iterations that we’ve seen before are valid.” At least two Batmans reportedly feature, played by Ben Affleck (who last appeared as the character in 2021’s “Justice League: The Snyder Cut”) and Michael Keaton (who last donned the Batsuit in “Batman Returns” in 1992).
DC and Sony will be hoping their movies won’t be overshadowed by Marvel Studios’ aforementioned plan. “The Multiverse Saga” will culminate in “Avengers: Secret Wars” in 2025 — which, if it draws on the plot from Marvel Comics’ 2015 series “Secret Wars,” could involve the multiverse collapsing.
Superheroes don’t hold a monopoly on the multiverse, though. Upcoming Blake Crouch novel adaptation “Dark Matter” on AppleTV+ will see Joel Edgerton play a professor abducted into an alternate life and fighting through the multiverse to return, and Matt Haig novel “The Midnight Library,” in which a woman experiences the millions of lives she might have led, has been optioned for a potential film adaptation.
“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.
Waldron, who has reportedly been hired to write the forthcoming “Avengers: Secret Wars,” added: “I hope we’ll treat the multiverse in storytelling the same way we use space — as an opportunity to explore fascinating worlds that reflect our own lives back at us.”
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.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Miller’s role in the film.