As far as concepts go, ‘Multiverse Theory’ is a fairly ingenious one. The idea that our universe is just one of almost infinite universes allows for endless storytelling opportunities. However, it would be easy for someone to view this as a cheap, perhaps even lazy way of expanding the limits of a story.
Comic book companies, such as Marvel and DC are not afraid to employ the multiverse concept. Time and time again, DC has rebooted the universe that their main branch of stories take place in and have introduced multiple universes that run concurrently to it. Whether it is an ‘Earth 2’ where Superman’s name is ‘Kal-L’ or an alternate version of our universe due to the effects of time travel, such as ‘Flashpoint’, DC will tap into the well of the multiverse whenever they see fit. This can also be seen in live action projects such as the Arrowverse and the DCEU, so that they can explain why we are seeing so many versions of a character on screen. In the early 2000’s, Marvel decided to launch the ‘Ultimate Universe’ with their first title of Ultimate Spiderman. This served as a slightly more modern reboot of the characters we had come to love, retelling stories we had become accustomed to under a slightly different light. Peter Parker was a web designer for the Daily Bugle instead of a photographer and Captain America was thawed out at the beginning of the Avengers’ careers’, rather than after they had already formed. Earlier this year, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness came out in cinemas, expanding upon the idea of a multiverse within the MCU. Doctor Strange finds himself in a universe that contains variants of characters we had seen in the past on screen, such as Patrick Stewart’s Professor X.
It isn’t just the realm of comic books that employ this concept. The latest entry into the mainline Star Trek TV shows, Star Trek Discovery, showed a mirror universe where good characters were bad and vice versa. Doctor Who established that parallel universes exist but the walls between them remain sealed, mostly for protection. One of the main plot devices in the popular cartoon, Rick and Morty, is in fact the titular characters’ ability to leap through parallel universes with a portal gun.
So, why is the idea of a multiverse so appealing? The primary reason would be the ability to provide a refreshing change to a previously established narrative, allowing for an innovative spin on characters that an audience has come to know and love. Marvel’s What If series on Disney Plus examines hypothetical scenarios that divulge from previously existing scenarios in the MCU. For example, what if Peggy Carter received the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers or if T’Challa was taken by the Ravagers instead of Peter Quill? Another reason to employ the multiverse is to introduce even more wacky premises to a narrative. For example in Rick and Morty, they constantly go to universes where the laws of physics are completely different. They also raise philosophical questions, pondering if someone is truly your family member if they come from a parallel universe and the ramifications of escaping to a new universe when yours becomes messed up beyond repair. ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’, which came out in cinemas earlier this year, provided a unique approach to traversing different universes. In this film, an individual can access skills/knowledge from one of their multiversal counterparts by performing a specific, random action that they would not normally do. In general, a multiverse gives writers a chance to further flex their creative muscles.
However, in the spirit of fairness, we must also look at the possible negative side effects of this phenomenon. It can be quite easy for story writers to rely on the idea of a multiverse to provide a ‘quick fix’ or lazy approach to their story telling. After all, why bother crafting a tight and linear narrative, when you can explain away any inconsistencies or unwanted developments by saying ‘it happened in another universe.’ Inconsistency can also make it harder to attract new readers/ viewers for the product that you are trying to put out. Marvel and DC have been making comics for the best part of 75 years. As daunting as that can be for someone who simply wants to pick up a comic book for the first time, they now have to contend with parallel universes where recognisable characters now have different backstories. Understandably, this may cause a lot of confusion and be seen as too much effort to keep up with.
When done correctly, a multiverse allows for a wider approach to storytelling. Intrigue and wonder take centre stage as writers ponder the infinite possibilities that this concept produces. With that said, care must be taken to ensure that this phenomenon does not devolve into a cheap cliché used to simply get a story out of a rut.