After 22 films culminated in Iron Man’s universe-saving snap in Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now finds itself where it was in 2008. Before all the cosmic Infinity Stones united heroes from across the galaxy to fight a common purple threat, there was only Iron Man and a whole lot of unused IP at Marvel Studios’ disposal. Moments after Tony Stark said, “I am Iron Man” for the first time, Samuel L. Jackson’s appearance as Nick Fury in Iron Man’s post-credits scene teased the existence of other superheroes and worlds well beyond the scope of the film we’d just watched. “You think you’re the only superhero in the world?” Fury asks Tony. “Mr. Stark, you’ve become a part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”
Spider-Man: Far From Home marks the end the MCU’s third phase of films, tasked with addressing all the fallout from Endgame while simultaneously ushering in a post–Iron Man era. Eleven years after introducing us to the prospects of a bigger Marvel universe—one full of gods, warring alien races, and talking trees—Nick Fury is back to say that we’ve only scratched the surface.
In the first official Far From Home trailer following Endgame’s April release, we see Fury introduce Peter Parker to Quentin Beck, a man who claims he’s from an alternate universe. “Beck is from Earth, just not ours,” explains Fury. “The snap tore a hole in our dimension.”
Before we dive into what any of that means, it’s important to point out that Beck shouldn’t be trusted. First of all, he seems way too nice to be coming from a dimension where massive elemental beings (like the Titans in Hercules) are popping out of nowhere. And, secondly, he’s played by freakin’ Jake Gyllenhaal! Our guy wouldn’t sign up for a Marvel movie just to play some straitlaced dude who wears a fishbowl on his head and not get a little weird.
Anyway, Beck’s arrival marks the official integration of the multiverse to the MCU: the theory that there are parallel universes existing simultaneously across time and space. Reading that sentence will probably make your eyes roll into the back of your head, but don’t worry, you’re probably more familiar with the multiverse than you realize. The concept has been teased several times over the years; 2015’s Ant-Man and 2016’s Doctor Strange were the first MCU films to focus on alternate dimensions, as our heroes encountered the Quantum Realm and the Dark Dimension, respectively. In Doctor Strange, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) attempts to illuminate the great beyond to the good doctor by guiding him on a trippy tour through the multiverse where he, at one point, reaches a disturbing dimension where tiny baby hands begin sprouting from his fingertips:
“This universe is only one of an infinite number, worlds without end,” the Ancient One says to him. “Who are you in this vast multiverse, Mr. Strange?” When she dies, Doctor Strange supplants her as the new highest-ranking member of the Masters of the Mystic Arts, an order of sorcerers who draw their powers from the multiverse. The group’s sole purpose is to protect the Earth—and the reality it exists in—from all interdimensional threats, such as Dormammu, the ruler of the Dark Dimension. Though it largely serves as a backdrop in the film, Doctor Strange is the only movie to directly reference the multiverse before Far From Home.
Along with the crucial roles it plays in Ant-Man and its 2018 follow-up, Ant-Man and the Wasp, the Quantum Realm is essential to the Avengers’ Endgame plans to reverse the Snapture. Tony Stark figures out a way to utilize the time-defying Quantum Realm to travel back in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones before Thanos gets his hands on them. Time-traveling is an often flawed and absurd narrative device (as several Avengers make sure to point out), and the multiverse is at the heart of Marvel’s attempt to explain it. Endgame’s time-traveling may be just as nonsensical as the mechanics of time travel in, say, Hot Tub Time Machine, but the fact that it employs the Quantum Realm, a dimension already introduced in the Ant-Man films, at least aligns with Marvel’s past world-building methods.
One of the most unique elements of MCU films over the years is the real consequences that seep into Marvel’s ongoing narrative. Adult Groot sacrifices himself in Guardians of the Galaxy, so he has to slowly grow from baby Groot into the angsty teen Groot throughout the subsequent films. Thor’s hammer is destroyed in Ragnarok, so he needs to forge a new weapon (with the help of a gigantic, sad-boi Tyrion Lannister) in Infinity War. Iron Man is dead, so Spider-Man has to try and fill that void in Far From Home.
The emergence of time-jumping could ostensibly wipe away these kinds of consequences. Some supposedly meaningful events have already been undone—like Thor’s sister, Hela, shattering his hammer in Ragnarok only for him to simply retrieve an alternate version of it in an Endgame time jump. This may all seem a little unearned to movie watchers, but the MCU films are beginning to feel more and more like the comics, where stories have always adhered to a rule: No one stays dead forever.
Even so, Marvel has already addressed that not everything can simply be reversed by a little tinkering in the past. The Ancient One explains to Bruce Banner that the loss of the Time Stone in her reality could potentially create a new “branch reality,” one that would be left without its greatest defense mechanism. Loki, after stealing the Space Stone in Endgame, is alive and well again, but now his character will exist in a new branch reality with an entirely new future ahead of him (sounds like a potential Disney+ series). Gamora from a past timeline can rejoin the Guardians, or she can choose a new path of her own.
While Far From Home may be Spider-Man’s formal introduction to the multiverse in the MCU, it won’t be the first time the character’s faced alternate dimensions in a recent Marvel film. Last year’s Oscar-winning animated feature, Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, directly builds upon the very same concept. In that film, the villain Kingpin attempts to bring back his wife and child from the dead by finding different versions of them in parallel universes, and when his plans are interrupted by Spider-Man, he accidentally collapses the multiverse. Miles Morales—the Spider-Man of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe—teams up with a number of alternate Spider-beings, ranging from a cartoon pig to a hard-boiled Spider-Man voiced by Nicolas Cage, in order to stop Kingpin and save the city.
Into the Spider-Verse seamlessly blends the contrasting styles of each universe, mixing anime and Looney Tunes–esque tropes and visuals into the comic-book feel of Miles’s reality. The MCU won’t be able to emulate much of the animated movie’s style, but it can certainly learn from the way Sony utilized the multiverse’s endless possibilities. Bizarre characters can logically appear out of nowhere, doppelgängers can interact with one another (like in the Captain America vs. Captain America fight scene in Endgame), and disparate worlds can collide on common ground.
The potential additions of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four to the MCU following the Disney-Fox deal present exciting prospects and challenges for Marvel Studios. Now that the two franchises share the same cinematic universe as the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, the studio will have to address the question of where these groups have been this whole time; you can’t just use the excuse that characters have been off saving alien worlds every time narrative issues arise.
The best solution could very well be the multiverse, especially given the trippy nature of the X-Men and Fantastic Four in general, where time travel and alternate dimensions are fairly commonplace. The X-Men frequently travel through time (as seen in Fox’s Days of Future Past) to prevent future apocalyptic events and explore alternate dimensions like the Astral Plane (as seen in FX’s X-Men–inspired TV series, Legion). The Fantastic Four—a franchise in dire need of a proper feature treatment—is a group of scientific explorers that frequently visits alternate dimensions like the Negative Zone and the Quantum Realm. Despite all the forthcoming headaches and scientific gibberish that may make you want to call upon the nearest quantum physicist, the multiverse could be the easiest entrance point for major franchises that have been sidelined in the MCU thus far.
The multiverse may end up playing only a small role in Far From Home, as I’d bet my money that Beck isn’t exactly the hero he’s making himself out to be. After all, Mysterio, who is one of Spider-Man’s greatest villains in the comics, is also a master illusionist capable of conjuring up the creatures from the trailers that he’ll probably claim to be the result of the multiverse tearing, even if it isn’t. Basically, this seems like a Syndrome situation. But even if it’s only a footnote to this particular film, the introduction of a character from an alternate dimension builds upon the limitless landscape that Doctor Strange once floated through. It’s a bit of a scary thought, given Marvel’s already-extensive catalog of 23 films, as well as the growing number of “verses” they’ve inspired in the process. But whether you’re ready for it or not, it seems like Marvel Studios is heading into infinite reality.