For the past few years, a certain trend has been on the rise in mainstream genre filmmaking — the multiverse movie. The concept of the multiverse is far from new in fiction, particularly in the sci-fi genre. However, never before have so many big-name movies focused on the idea in such a short span of time, popularizing parallel universe stories like never before.
This trend was heralded by the breakout success of 2018’s animated hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but it’s especially picked up in the past year. Spider-Man: No Way Home, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness all hit theaters within the span of just a few months. It’s safe to say that multiverse movies are the next big thing in genre film. The question is, why are we seeing so many right now, and why does everyone love them?
Like so many Hollywood trends of the past decade, the popularity of multiverse stories can likely be attributed to the superhero genre. Parallel universes have been a mainstay of superhero comics since 1961, when Barry Allen, the Flash of Earth-1, met his Earth-2 counterpart Jay Garrick. Garrick was actually the original Flash, who was phased out after Allen’s introduction. But thanks to the introduction of the DC multiverse, both iterations of the character were able to coexist simultaneously. Since then, the multiverse has been a crucial aspect of both DC and Marvel Comics lore, with countless stories focused on alternate timelines and multiversal travel. However, superhero movies wouldn’t explore the concept of the multiverse until 2018, when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse hit theaters.
By now, it’s practically a cliché to sing the praises of Spider-Verse for its awe-inspiring visuals and expertly-crafted story, but the film also deserves credit for having a plot that focuses on multiversal travel without ever coming off as bloated or convoluted. Spider-Verse uses its multiversal elements to support its story and themes, not the other way around. And because of that, it’s able to explore the concept of the multiverse in a fun, imaginative, and easily digestible way. But of course, Spider-Verse wouldn’t be the last Marvel adaptation to delve into the multiverse. 2021’s Loki TV series was the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to explore alternate timelines, establishing the MCU’s own multiverse while also setting up the arrival of Kang the Conqueror, the next big villain of the MCU. And of course, it wasn’t long until this newfound focus on parallel universes bled into the MCU’s films.
2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home sees Tom Holland’s Peter Parker teaming up with his big-screen predecessors, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men, to take on a group of returning villains led by Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. And of course, right off the heels of No Way Home came Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, in which Stephen Strange is pursued across parallel worlds by the Scarlet Witch. Along the way, he meets the Illuminati, a group of heroes from another world that includes the likes of Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and John Krasinski as Mr. Fantastic. Both characters have yet to be properly introduced to the MCU, but they can nevertheless appear alongside Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange thanks to the endless possibilities of the multiverse.
Over 60 years after Barry Allen first met Jay Garrick in the comics, parallel worlds are still being used to let superheroes team up with alternate incarnations of familiar characters. Even the upcoming Flash movie has been said to include a team-up between the Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton versions of Batman. As such, the cynical explanation for the popularity of multiverse movies is that it’s a cheap gimmick to allow for attention-grabbing fanservice. However, that’s not the only side of the story.
Out of all the recent multiverse movies of the past few years, one in particular stands out for having no connections to the superhero genre — or to any big-budget franchise at all. 2022’s Everything Everywhere All At Once is a genre-bending sleeper hit that combines action, comedy, drama, and of course sci-fi. The film centers around Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a middle-aged immigrant with a failing laundromat, a dysfunctional family, and no particular passions or talents in life. But one day, Evelyn is visited by a parallel version of her husband Waymond from an alternate timeline, who enlists her aid in stopping an all-powerful multiversal entity from destroying all existence.
The alternate Waymond grants Evelyn the ability to “verse-jump,” accessing the skills of her alternate timeline counterparts, from martial arts to sign twirling. Not only is verse-jumping a creative way to facilitate the film’s many fight scenes, it also serves a crucial thematic role, allowing Evelyn to confront the problems in her own life by showing her the various other paths her life could have taken. The multiverse is a prism that shows Evelyn her own reflection, highlighting both her biggest weaknesses and her potential for greatness. And as it happens, Everything Everywhere isn’t the only film to use the multiverse in this manner.
The multiverse is a perfect thematic tool for stories focused on the hero’s quest for identity. In all the previously discussed films, the protagonist finds their purpose by seeing it reflected in their alternate selves. By witnessing the consequences of his variants’ arrogance, Doctor Strange is able to put his trust in others instead of trying to control everything himself. Thanks to the guidance of his other selves, Tom Holland’s Peter Parker spares the Green Goblin, affirming that being Spider-Man means fighting to save everyone. And with the parallel Spideys as his mentors, Miles Morales finds the resolve to take on the Kingpin — even if the leap of faith is one he must make alone.
Even for moviegoers who aren’t superhero fans, Everything Everywhere proves that the multiverse is far more than just a marketing ploy. It’s a storytelling tool that can be used to explore themes of identity, existentialism, and holding onto hope and compassion in the face of an uncaring reality. Ultimately, it’s the cosmic scope of the film that allows its message to hit as hard as it does. Like its superhero contemporaries, Everything Everywhere isn’t just a movie about the multiverse, it’s a story that uses the concept of the multiverse to support its deeper themes.
Marvel Studios recently revealed that Phase 4 of the MCU is the start of the newly-branded Multiverse Saga — needless to say, multiverse movies won’t be going anywhere any time soon. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While some may worry that audiences will soon find themselves burned out by multiverse fatigue, multiverse movies are good for much more than cheap fanservice. At its best, the multiverse and its associated tropes can be used to elevate the themes of a story to phenomenal effect. When they can combine cosmic, reality-bending action with hard-hitting drama and character development, it’s not hard to see why moviegoers can’t seem to get enough of multiverse movies.
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