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It’s Time to Kill the Multiverse (at Least in This Timeline)

Don’t let ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ and its Oscar front-runner status fool you: The supposedly limitless storytelling device has been pushed to its narrative limits. Just look to ‘Quantumania’ for proof.

Disney/Adult Swim/A24/Ringer illustration

The multiverse is cooked. After years spent sucking at the teat of Big Time Travel, Hollywood found a new concept to hurl itself at. And in record time, the town beat its new prized horse to death. If we’ve learned anything from the recent glut of multiversal content, the same thing probably happened to the horse across countless timelines and parallel worlds. We just happen to live in the timeline where the narrative glue factory shows no signs of slowing down.

It’s hard to believe that we’re only four years removed from the critical and commercial heights of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Long before Everything Everywhere All at Once transformed from the little A24 engine that could into an award-season juggernaut, Into the Spider-Verse was reshaping an entire industry in its image on its way to an Oscar of its own.

But since last March, the multiverse’s once bright future has hit multiple hitches. February’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is among the most critically reviled movies in Marvel cinematic history, while also earning the distinction of having the worst second-week drop-off at the box office for an MCU film. This year will feature two DC movies—Shazam! Fury of the Gods and The Flash—that will soon be retconned to make way for a new universe. And Rick and Morty has gone from one of the most valuable titles in the Warner Bros. Discovery portfolio to a distressed asset in the wake of domestic battery and false imprisonment charges brought against cocreator Justin Roiland.

Creatively, the multiverse was supposed to mean boundless opportunity, a chaotic narrative device to mirror our turbulent times. Instead, it’s only highlighted the rotting foundation of the entertainment industry and its inextricable tie to the stories we tell. It’s a magic eraser used to undo missteps and add a fleeting sense of grandeur to studios overly reliant on formula. Decades of never-ending franchises, rehashed IP, and mismanaged, interconnected universes were always going to bring us to this moment.

When all the Oscars are won and film Twitter finds a new shiny discourse toy to obsess over, Everything Everywhere will stand as the watershed moment of multiversal storytelling. The fact that a movie as absurd, bombastic, and earnest as Everything Everywhere works is a mini-miracle. In many darker timelines, it probably doesn’t. The irreverent action-comedy is a monument to risk in an industry hell-bent on sanding it away for the greater good of its balance sheets. Its directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, and cast commit to hundreds of bits (e.g., hotdog fingers, googly-eyed stones, a raccoon chef). For two-plus hours, the film travels to every crevice of creative id and refuses to flinch at the emotion and corniness that stare back.

But long before Everything Everywhere All at Once was an everything-bagel-shaped twinkle in its creators’ eyes, they were worried. As they worked on early drafts of the script in 2017, the two directors already sensed which way the multiversal winds were blowing thanks to Rick and Morty and other projects. The concept that would fuel their future movie was already in the middle of its ascent in Hollywood. “As we were working on the movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse came out,” Kwan told Vulture last year. “It was a little upsetting because we were like, ‘Oh shit, everyone’s going to beat us to this thing we’ve been working on.’”

“[Rick and Morty] was actually hard to watch because we had already been working on the draft for a while,” he added. “I was like, ‘They’ve already done all the ideas we thought were original!’”

This was the beginning of a renaissance for all parallel-world-adjacent content, and if there’s a patient zero for this moment, it’s hard not to point the finger at the coughing kid wearing the Rick and Morty T-shirt. Created in 2013 by Dan Harmon and Roiland, the Back to the Future send-up featured an alcoholic inventor grandpa and his relentlessly horny grandson hopping from universe to universe. By 2017, the Adult Swim cartoon became the no. 1 TV comedy among millennials; at the same time, the world started to curdle against the show’s often toxic fan base and the embarrassing Szechuan sauce fiasco it spawned.

As the streaming boom commenced and traditional comedies disappeared from the big and small screens, Rick and Morty filled a void. It was an angry show for turbulent times, and its nihilistic bent often masked rare moments of warmth. The show’s meta and self-referential qualities seemed engineered to circumvent the expectations of a hyper-jaded and connected audience. This was an audience similar to the one that Kevin Feige was trying to sustain after concluding the decades-spanning 23-movie colossus called the Infinity Saga. It also didn’t hurt that Rick and Morty was giving these viewers a crash course in the Gordian knot of multiversal storytelling. So instead of reinventing the wheel, Feige simply ported it over.

If you’ve heard about an MCU movie or show in recent memory, there’s a good chance it was written by a Rick and Morty alum. Loki, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania were all helmed by former writers on the show. Two of Marvel’s most important movies going forward (Avengers: Kang Dynasty and Avengers: Secret War) will also have that distinction.

It’s become such a thing that even show cocreator Harmon has joked about Feige poaching his staff. Jeff Loveness, a former Rick and Morty writer turned Quantumania scribe, admits that the “shorthand multiverse knowledge” he honed on the show was a boon to his hiring, along with the fact that the Rick and Morty brand of comedy is currently “en vogue.”

When Feige announced the Multiverse Saga last summer, it was supposed to be a creative coup. He was basing the studio’s trajectory on beloved source material. The magical space gem MacGuffins that fueled the first decade of the MCU’s existence were jettisoned in favor of Jonathan Majors yelling about variants, timelines, and incursions.

The problem of how to replace beloved movie stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans was seemingly answered. If you can’t beat ’em, simply promise that somewhere off in the near future, there will be infinite versions of them (or at least of their characters).

The results were mixed. For every beloved Spider-Man: No Way Home—which reunited three generations of white boys with spider powers—there were critically derided missteps like Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, and, most recently, Quantumania.

So far, the weirdest things that have happened in the multiverse era of the MCU involve one world having pizza balls instead of slices, a Norse god getting horny for the female version of himself, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Majors playing evil alter egos with goatees.

The MCU was already showing signs of stress before Quantumania opened the floodgates of disdain. Its rushed CGI, stitched-together plot, and paper-thin character motivations continued a trend that started in the aftermath of 2019’s Endgame. Despite what Rotten Tomatoes would have you believe, it’s nowhere near the second-worst MCU entry. But even though it was designed to bring us one step closer to understanding the wonders of the multiverse, Quantumania simply spun its wheels. It doesn’t help that a sentient piece of broccoli and an alien obsessed with holes are the most outlandish ideas it could offer an audience in 2023.

The problem unfolding on-screen is the same one that’s burdened writers of the source materials for decades. In practice, setting a story in the multiverse is asking the audience to perform free labor. It’s homework porn delivered by the type of guy who thinks all of society’s ills are engineering problems. Understanding, categorizing, and labeling the sheer abundance of narrative choices becomes a more lucrative endeavor than developing the emotional weight of the movie or TV show you just watched.

There’s such a thing as too much story. And often, the very thing you create to keep a universe growing exponentially is what ends up making it impossible to parse for anyone who isn’t interested in devoting their lives to YouTube explainer videos.

Even worse, it lowers the stakes of the storytelling. Even Loveness has acknowledged as much: “The downside to multiverse stories is that it can make your characters seem disposable, or it can make your story line seem unimpactful if there’s an unlimited amount of these characters out there,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.

“The audience,” he added, “is a bit smarter than we give them credit for, and the trick is to find the humanity in the middle of it.”

The multiverse has had many lives that predate geriatric cartoon scientists and actors padding their retirement plans with MCU money. Thousands of years ago, Greek philosophers like the Atomists and Stoics argued about their place in an infinite universe. At various points, there’s been whatever is happening on Dr. Who in any given timeline. By 2008, even J.J. Abrams was running a Fox show about parallel worlds starring Anna Torv that’s been lost from our collective consciousness. But the most persistent home of the multiverse has always belonged to the world of superheroes, where the idea of parallel universes is ingrained into the fabric of comic book storytelling.

In the Marvel Universe alone, there’s Earth-616 (where most of the comics you know are set), Earth-2149 (home to the Marvel Zombies), and Earth-1610 (Ultimate Universe, sometimes the residence of Miles Morales). While Marvel introduced the concept in 1962, DC Comics is still the keeper of arguably the most lucrative and influential multiverse in recorded human history.

The home of Batman, Superman, and James Gunn has made it a nearly biannual tradition for its characters and, by extension, the publishing house to argue over the merits of the device. In 1961, the retooled version of the Flash that we know (a.k.a. Barry Allen, the guy played by Ezra Miller and the less problematic Grant Gustin) met his World War II counterpart (a.k.a. Jay Garrick, who wears a Frisbee on his head) in a comic book called The Flash of Two Worlds.

Quickly, one Earth became two, then hundreds and thousands. Every trip to another world was aptly titled a “crisis.” A crisis on Earth-One turned into another on Earth-Two and Three and A and Prime. Predictably, by 1985, that amount of continuity became new-reader repellent, and Crisis on Infinite Earths was born. The 12-issue series by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez was meant to be a onetime spring-cleaning event to reconcile years of publishing chaos. (Wolfman admitted as much to The Village Voice in 2011.) But instead of simply bringing much-needed accessibility to an ever-expanding universe, Crisis and its commercial success took the guardrails off an entire industry.

Since 1985, there have been eight subsequent events of varying quality in which a collective of writers decides whether to kill the multiverse or bring it back. One event featured an evil Superboy punching reality; another included a Barack Obama Superman. “Its sales is what made everyone suddenly decide to copy the concept,” Wolfman told the Voice. “Crisis spawned an entire industry of mega-events when it should have only given birth to those kinds of events where something vitally important had to be achieved.”

The problem Wolfman tried to solve almost 40 years ago is no longer reserved for the comics. As Hollywood’s IP factory continues to churn, hoping to chase the financial heights of comic book movies, every franchise is now seen as a never-ending story, whether or not it can support itself under that weight.

The DCU, formally known as the DCEU, is on its second interconnected universe in under a decade. Miller’s Flash movie is rumored to reset years of Zack Snyder chicanery so that Gunn can start fresh. The Lord of the Rings is currently torn between an emerging Amazon-backed canon and Warner Discovery’s attempts to woo back Peter Jackson to helm more films. The problem has gotten so out of hand that Will Smith and Michael B. Jordan are making an I Am Legend sequel based on deleted scenes that are now canon and that contradict the ending of the original film. But it was always destined to go this way. The multiverse problem isn’t about people but about the machine. It takes only a few years for a nifty storytelling device to atrophy into a gimmick.

At this point in award season, Everything Everywhere has become a symbol through the sheer momentum of its wins at smaller ceremonies, but also out of necessity. The fact that this will be the first year in Oscar history when four Asian actors will receive nominations is a perfect encapsulation of how long overdue this moment has been. When you factor in nominations for RRR, Turning Red, All That Breathes, and Living, it’s a banner year for white organizations finally honoring Asian films.

If there is one unifying theme in Everything Everywhere acceptance speeches, press runs, and interviews, it’s multiple generations of stars from the movie coming to terms with how thoroughly they were marginalized by the industry.

In 2021, Ke Huy Quan struggled and failed to book the one job necessary to keep his health insurance. In an impassioned SAG Awards speech, James Hong went back to the days of Clark Gable to describe the racist treatment actors like him received in the industry before he told the crowd, “The producer said that Asians were not good enough, and they are not box office. But, look at us now, huh?” Even Michelle Yeoh, despite her lengthy career, has made sure to use any and all airspace to demand more seats at the table for actors who look like her.

Everything Everywhere has the unenviable task that many POC-led Oscar contenders face. In its theatrical run, it made more than $100 million worldwide. This weekend’s Creed III made that much in its debut. That comparison isn’t meant to take anything away from the Yeoh-starring film, but to illustrate how vastly the A24 picture has transformed from a wildly inventive action movie with a modest budget to a prestige film at the center of the conversation. By virtue of having the most nominations in a record-breaking year for Asian filmmakers at the Oscars, it must contend with past transgressions it didn’t create and hope that it’s not one of the last to achieve these heights. In a poetic sense, that’s the nature of the multiverse as well. It expands exponentially, whether planned or not.

The line that will define Everything Everywhere years from now is delivered by Quan’s character, Waymond Wang, at the climax of the movie. “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you,” Waymond says to a version of his wife, Evelyn, that he never got to marry. The line has been immortalized, cherished, memed, and ridiculed. It’s a microcosm of the film it comes from. If you look at it one way, it says so much about the beautiful mundanity of true love, and from another vantage point, it’s about the enduring quality of caring for another no matter the circumstance.

But in the unsexiest of ways, it’s also about choice. The viewer has already seen what parts of this dream entail for different versions of Evelyn and Waymond. It means a life of late bills, the rise of routine at the cost of passion, and enough misunderstandings to fuel a multiverse. In a movie, industry, and world built on the notion that more is better than less, Waymond still yearns for something smaller and imperfect. For us to get back to that, we might have to look beyond the multiverse.