Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, has finally hit theaters as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) forges ahead. The film is quite messy in tone and style, as horror-master Sam Raimi was hired to direct after Scott Derrickson left the film deep into production. The result feels like two completely different films—perhaps fitting given the multiverse motif. Audiences are bounced between universes full of CGI-heavy visuals and genre twists (including a touch of horror).
When the MCU launched in 2008 by taking a gamble on the embattled Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, nobody knew the entire Hollywood landscape would change. By 2012, it further evolved when The Avengers did the unthinkable in bringing together different worlds and characters. The Cinematic Universe is ubiquitous now, as studios and streamers rush to pull off similar crossover blockbuster events. A new chapter was written in the genre with the runaway success of No Way Home, using the multiverse to gather different iterations of the same character to deliver an emotionally satisfying spectacle. If Disney’s WandaVision, Loki, and Multiverse of Madness are any indication, the multiverse isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
But why is this theme so prevalent?
Why the Multiverse?
If you had told me a decade ago that the multiverse theory would anchor the plot of the second- and third-highest domestic-grossing movies ever made (Avengers: Endgame and No Way Home, respectively), I would’ve said the idea was too high-concept and niche. But here we are. Why the multiverse in the 2020s? Film critic David Ehrlich speculates:
Multiverses are so hot right now. And why shouldn’t they be? At a time when people can’t even look at their phones without being confronted by a seemingly infinite number of competing realities—a time [in] which everything seems close enough to touch, but almost nothing feels possible to change, and even the happiest people you know are haunted by the endless possibilities of who else they might have been—telling a story that only takes place on a single plane of existence might as well be an act of denial.
There’s a lot in that theory that makes sense. Let’s reflect a bit more on some of the reasons the multiverse resonates so widely today.
It’s hard to dispute the research showing how smartphones have made us more distracted, less able to read, and more anxious and sad. Our brains are being rewired, our souls depleted. In Multiverse of Madness and Everything Everywhere All at Once, you’ll immediately notice how the dizzying pace and plot feel handcrafted for a generation raised in the always-scrolling, always-swiping, always-clicking smartphone posture. For digital natives especially, the smartphone’s unprecedented ability to let users access near-limitless ideas, experiences, and worlds means narratives follow suit. One universe is simply not enough.
Smartphones let users access near-limitless ideas, experiences, and worlds. One universe is simply not enough.
Competing Truths and Subjective Realities
In 2016, the Oxford Word of the Year was “post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” A quick glance at today’s digital environment shows a reliance on appeals to emotion rather than reason. This is the “speak your truth” world of subjectivism and the “death of expertise” world where anyone with a keyboard and opinions can claim authority. A multiverse makes sense when it feels like people are living in completely different ideological universes, each with their own truth and set of “alternative facts.”
Despair and Lack of Change
Because of social media, smartphones, and the 24-hour news cycle, the burdens of the world can feel overwhelming. The glut of bad news—another mass shooting, another war, another abuse scandal, another racially charged police shooting—is crushing. Digital observers can start to feel despair and anger. Why does this keep happening? Why aren’t things changing? With the slow wheels of justice in our world, an escape to a different universe—one where justice is carried out swiftly and systems are changed for the better—deeply resonates.
Paradox of Choice
The modern age has brought an explosion of choices, though it has not led to less anxiety, but more. In You Are Not Your Own [read TGC’s review], Alan Noble addresses this paradox, writing, “In my experience, asking a college student, ‘What do you plan to do after college?’ is the fastest way to induce a panic attack. . . . The more options there are available to us in life, the harder it is to be confident in your choices.” If you don’t pan out as a doctor, the regret of choosing to go to medical school is nobody’s fault but your own. Your mind goes to questions like “What if. . . ?” (fittingly, the name of another Disney+ MCU show). With more choices comes the paralysis that one choice could send you irrevocably down the wrong path.
The Church’s Alternative Path
In Multiverse of Madness, characters ask one another often, “Are you happy?” It’s the driving force of the entire movie. Because we’re not happy in this universe, perhaps we will be in another. The spirit of the age is one of cynicism, anger, anxiety, and a longing for a different world where we might be happier.
Christianity can be a beacon of hope in a world longing for a different universe. After all, the multiverse fantasies of superhero movies can only go so far in answering the anxieties of our age. The church can offer a more satisfying alternative.
The church can combat digital distraction with digital balance and wisdom. Andy Crouch encourages believers to put technology in its proper place by bonding with real people in real community, intentionally fighting mindless consumption, and cultivating awe for the created world. In a lonely, disembodied digital world of empty (and endless) scrolling, the church can offer a vision of human flourishing in which we’re present, attentive, deeply connected to others, and rooted in the physical world God made.
The church can combat the subjective realities of a “post-truth” world with the objective truth of Scripture and the gospel. We need not choose between love and truth, but indeed we can love the world by proclaiming the truth. Proclaiming and standing for God’s truth, rather than enabling the confusion of a “your truth” free-for-all, must be done with gentleness and love—but it’s a powerful way we can love our lost neighbors, pointing them to a more definitive and satisfying Truth than the infinite “truths” on offer in the multiverse worldview.
Hope for Justice
The church can combat despair over injustice with the hope of justice. This doesn’t mean we only shrug our shoulders at the injustice in the world and simply hope for heaven. To be sure, we do have a powerful hope for a final, ultimate, complete justice that will come when Christ returns (Isa. 2; 32:1). But as we wait and long for that, we are to actively fight against injustice and protect the marginalized, vulnerable, and oppressed. Our God loves justice (Isa. 61:8) and calls his people to do justice (Mic. 6:8; Isa. 1:17). He instructs them: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” (Jer. 29:7, NIV). We seek human flourishing not only in the world to come but also in our communities where God has us as exiles and pilgrims.
The church can combat the paradoxical anxiety of choice with contentment. Our contentment in this world comes from our certainty about the next. Our treasure is in heaven. We’re free to live each day with intention, care, and faithfulness wherever God has us, even if we’d rather do something else or be somewhere else. As missionary Jim Elliot wrote, “Wherever you are, be all there.” At the same time, we acknowledge our discontentment in this universe points us to one where ultimate contentment, peace, and justice will be found. We can join C. S. Lewis in saying, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
Perhaps this is the point at which the church can connect most with a multiverse-hungry secular age. We’re all restless for a better world—but what a movie can offer for only a few hours at a time, the Christian God offers for eternity.