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The multiverse plot has been all the rage in Hollywood lately, from this year’s best picture–winning Everything Everywhere All at Once to countless comic book blockbusters like Doctor Strange in The Multiverse Of Madness (2022) and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). The multiverse plot is convenient for Hollywood because it provides a semi-logical way to explain and justify franchise reboots and intersecting cinematic universes. It’s also appealing to fans (for reasons I’ll explore below) and has been generally profitable.
But I find the multiverse plot boring, bad for cinema, and depressing as an expression of the meaning crisis in secular modernity. Two recent multiverse movies—Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and The Flash—helped me understand why.
Why the Multiverse Is Boring
Movies aren’t compelling because of their unlimited plots and styles, which can do anything (Hot dog fingers! Random shifts to LEGO universes!) on a dime. Movies are compelling because they work within constraints, bound by the “rules” of a contained world and what characters can and can’t do.
Sure, it’s enjoyable in Spider-Man: No Way Home to watch three Spider-Man actors (Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, and Tobey Maguire) team up together and fight baddies. But as I wrote at the time, this sort of thing ends up underscoring a movie’s artifice and undermining its power, pulling the audience out of the film’s world rather than deeper into it.
In the recently released Across the Spider-Verse, the hundreds of “spider-people” who show up in the film are amusing in the way a TikTok feed is. You never know what will show up next: spider cats, spider dinosaurs, spider monkeys, spider babies, spider parked cars, and so forth. It’s Easter-egg heaven for fans, a frenetic “Where’s Waldo?” of maximalist splatter-paint pop art. And no doubt it’s an impressive artistic feat. But if Spidey can be anyone or anything, does the beloved specificity of Spider-Man lose its appeal?
Similarly, in The Flash, we get to see no fewer than four actors who’ve played Batman dropped into the narrative. We see several Supermans (including a hilarious Nicolas Cage Superman). Fun pastiche? Yes. But engrossing drama? Not particularly.
The multiverse plot may be good for fan-service pleasure, but it’s bad for thrilling drama. It guts a film of stakes. When literally anything is possible, nothing is scary because no death is final and no peril is ultimate. There’s always another universe where things turn out differently.
The multiverse plot may be good for fan-service pleasure, but it’s bad for thrilling drama.
Recently, I rewatched childhood favorites Jurassic Park (1993) and Terminator 2 (1991). These are utterly engrossing, terrifying films because they exist within enclosed worlds that abide by their own sets of rules. They work because they can’t just switch between “worlds” willy-nilly. Imagine if, in Jurassic Park, animated dinosaurs from The Land Before Time were given cameos in Spielberg’s live-action scenes. Or imagine if, in Terminator 2, James Cameron had Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from his Aliens (1986) enter the world via a time-travel wormhole, joining Sarah Connor in protecting John from the T-1000? Such universe-crossing shenanigans might hold some initial amusement, but they would kill the immersive drama of those films.
In drama and in life, “anything is possible” does the opposite of making things compelling and beautiful; it makes things boring. As Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne describes it in The Flash (with an amusing spaghetti metaphor), the multiverse is a “hot mess.”
Why the Multiverse Is Appealing
Still, the multiverse’s appeal is understandable. For nostalgic viewers raised on the diverse worlds of pop culture, it’s fun to see them collide. I smiled when Keaton, in The Flash, uttered his iconic line from 1989’s Batman: “You want to get nuts? Let’s get nuts.” These sorts of “wink wink” intertextual nods are fun. Multiverse movies are playing with pop culture reflexivity, taking viewers on a joyride down a memory lane filled with childhood toys, games, and comics.
Actor Michael Shannon, who plays General Zod in The Flash, recently observed, “These multiverse movies are like somebody playing with action figures. It’s like, ‘Here’s this person. Here’s that person. And they’re fighting!’” The multiverse functions as a sort of vicarious childhood toy chest: we can pull out our Batman and Zod action figures and smash them together in a fantasy fight. That’s essentially what plays out ad nauseam in your average multiverse movie today.
This offers a foretaste of what movies could increasingly be like in our AI future, when we’ll likely be able to generate custom-made movies with a simple AI prompt. We may give a narrative prompt like “Spiderman faces off against the Joker, set in Jane Austen’s England, with a cameo by Peter Pan played by my own photorealistic avatar, as if directed by Terrence Malick.” And boom, a whole movie is made by AI according to our specifications—however outrageous. It’s the free play of our childhood toy box, rendered in CGI on our flat screen. Why not? The “anything is possible” appeal of the multiverse is just a preview of the open-ended future of entertainment (see Black Mirror’s season six episode ‘Joan Is Awful’ for a dystopian vision of this).
Meanwhile, the multiverse aesthetic mirrors the social media aesthetic of disconnected, constantly churning bits of ephemeral amusements. Gen Z receives the world in feeds of wildly different styles and divergent ideas, collapsed into one “narrative” plane where a multiversity of meaning isn’t an ethereal concept as much as an everyday reality. Social media’s eclectic buffet has trained our imaginations for the all-over-the-place experience of a film like Everything Everywhere All at Once or (especially) Across the Spider-Verse. These zany films come at you lightning fast, offering a kinetic stream of visual and auditory amusements in place of a coherent narrative. They mimic the experience of social media.
Multiverse as Secular Transcendence
Beyond these aesthetic and consumerist reasons for the multiverse’s appeal, I think there’s a deeper reason why the multiverse resonates. It functions as a sort of secular, sci-fi substitute for heaven. Where former generations found hope in the reality of life after death, the multiverse generation finds hope in the prospect of life in other universes. It’s a coping mechanism in an anxious world that feels fundamentally uncontrollable. Maybe my life is better in a different universe. Perhaps I can just timeline-shift or reboot myself.
The multiverse functions as a sort of secular, sci-fi substitute for heaven. Where former generations found hope in the reality of life after death, the multiverse generation finds hope in the prospect of life in other universes.
The Flash is built around this alternate-timeline hope. [Spoilers ahead.] The film’s tension revolves around Barry “The Flash” Allen (Ezra Miller) grieving the death of his mother when he was a child and trying to go back in time (or to other multiverses) to prevent her murder. Even if he can’t save her in his universe, he finds consolation in the prospect there are millions of universes and doubtless she lives on in some of them. “My mom will always be alive, somewhere in time,” Allen says near the end of the film, essentially reframing the idea of eternal souls in sci-fi terms of infinite timelines and universes.
Here again, you can see why the multiverse plot mutes dramatic tension. Because even if the stakes may be high in one universe (e.g., Barry feels the urgency of going back in time to save his mom in his universe), doubtless they’re lower or nonexistent in others. If Barry’s mom is dead in some universes, she’s surely alive in many others. And if this is true for any trauma we endure, pain we cause, or mistake we make, then our actions don’t have ultimate consequences and the world is meaningless. “We can do whatever we want,” to quote Evelyn in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
But a “hot mess” world of nihilistic meaninglessness isn’t sustainable or particularly appealing. We need some handles of meaning. In both The Flash and Across the Spider-Verse, this comes in the form of “inevitable intersections” and “canon events” that function as divinely orchestrated, fateful moments where multiple timelines and universes intersect. In a world where so much is within our power to control, reboot, or timeline-shift, canon events are unavoidable, preordained moments we can’t manipulate. They’re on a higher plane that approximates godlike transcendence, and in some mysterious way, they bring purposeful meaning to an otherwise anything-goes multiverse.
True and Better ‘Canon Event’
The need for “canon events” and “inevitable intersections” in the multiverse plot reveals a fundamental human need for unified meaning and truth that exist beyond us, whether we like it or not. A multiverse may be amusing to watch and stimulating to think about, but a universe—one tangible place, with a beginning and an end, to which everything in existence is irrevocably tied—resonates in our hearts. A singular, linear, no-other-option universe may feel limiting and scary, but it’s what we have and it’s what gives life meaning, purpose, and urgency.
Christians know there’s but one created universe, formed in totality and held together by the one true God (Gen. 1:1; Prov. 16:4; Col. 1:16–17). And we have but one life to live, at least on this side of eternity. This means the stakes are incredibly high and life is inherently dramatic. Paul puts it plainly in Galatians 6:7–8: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”
We have but one life to live, at least on this side of eternity. This means the stakes are incredibly high and life is inherently dramatic.
Our actions have eternal consequences. If a loved one dies without knowing Christ, there are no alternate universes where we can reverse time and share the gospel with him before it’s too late. And if we squander our lives in rebellion against God and rejection of his grace, there’s no “reboot” option when we come to our final breath.
The stakes are high because real life isn’t a movie and the multiverse isn’t real.
As Christians in a world where widespread anxiety is channeled into the secular hope of a multiverse, let’s be clear that fake hope will disappoint, but real hope exists. It’s a hope we don’t find in an infinite array of paths, truths, and lives we might find for ourselves—but a hope we receive in a man who declared himself the way, truth, and life (John 14:6). He’s the true and better “canon event,” around which everything else turns.
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