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The Death of The Multiverse

Seen any good multiverse movies lately?

I mean, chances are you probably have. As I write this, the biggest movie in the world and the biggest movie of the past six months are both multiverse movies. A multiverse movie won the Oscar for best animated film a few years back, and its sequel is just around the corner. The multiverse is all around us (figuratively and, quite possibly, literally).

The Multiverse is an incredible storytelling engine. But when it comes to ongoing stories, more often than not it can seem to grind the storytelling engine to a halt.

Embarrassing confession time: for me, the Multiverse is all about choice. Why is that embarrassing? Well, I’m not finished yet. When I was in college, I took a philosophy class that was way above my head. Like, way way above my head. It didn’t help that I hadn’t started drinking coffee yet, and I’d frequently fall asleep in class, even though it was a small class with only a dozen students sitting around the professor. It was not great.

So for my final paper in the class, I didn’t feel comfortable analyzing any philosophies and decided to create my own. I chose to try to reconcile the concept of an all-knowing god (which I still was attempting to believe in) with the concept of free will (which I very much believe in), by basically describing a multiverse.

In this case, it was a multiverse that sprang into being at the big bang and contains everything that might ever happen, ever. And while we as humans are able to make our own choices and propel ourselves down a certain path, there are some events that are so likely that they create their own gravity — like sledding down a hill and being pulled towards a big depression, was how I described it. And this entire multiverse is so huge and complex that only an all-knowing god can comprehend it all.

There are some major holes in this theory, I realize. But what I like is that it does put control of the multiverse in the hands of people. It’s driven by our choices, in the same way that narrative in stories must be driven by character choices.

In sci-fi, too often, the multiverse is where choices go to die.

In Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (and I won’t spoil anything the trailers don’t), we meet some characters in another universe. We don’t know them within the context of the film, but we’re meant to care about them based on our knowledge of the Marvel IP. But we don’t really care about what happens to them in the movie. They’re not from “our” Marvel Cinematic Universe, and they don’t really count.

The multiverse is frequently used to hand-wave away choices and consequences. Think of Rick and Morty destroying their entire universe, only to move into a universe that’s exactly the same as their old universe, except that they’re dead there. (Something that’s eventually revisited, but at the time struck me as so cynical it nearly turned me off the series entirely.) Or the use of a parallel world in Doctor Who to give Rose Tyler a happy ending where she gets to live with her father, who’s dead in our world, plus a pesky clone of the Doctor who can’t stay in our world, but who can fall in love with Rose. Or how both Marvel and DC comics have used multiversal handwaving to try to reset their continuities to keep the aspects they want and jettison the ones they don’t. (It didn’t stick. Nothing sticks in comics.)

The problem with the multiverse is that when everything is possible, nothing really matters.

Everything Everywhere All At Once, the other multiverse movie in theaters now, succeeds because this paradox — everything is possible, so nothing matters — is at the heart of the movie, in a way that’s so beautiful I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it. It is everything a multiverse story could be, using the concept to tell an incredible story that could only be told in the multiverse, and taking full advantage of the multiverse to show us worlds that are truly creative and bananas, not just slightly different than our own.

I’ve had a multiverse story that I’ve been tinkering with on and off for years, but I think I’m going to set it aside for now. I don’t think I can possibly tell a multiverse story that’s on par with Everything Everywhere. Maybe in another timeline. But in this one, I think I need some distance.

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