Parts of physics seem like sci-fi, something I have been fascinated by since the sixth grade. Specifically, the idea of the multiverse — that there is more than one universe, splitting off from the universe we inhabit at certain pivotal moments — has probed my ideas of consciousness, free will and perception of physics. Such fascination has evolved from a thought experiment to a coping mechanism, as I found myself wondering at every turn of my life at how many different universes had been created and how my other selves were faring in them. After nearly a decade of living like this, it seems everyone else has been broken into the multiverse too, one created by our modern media landscape.
The multiverse has been opened.
It seems to dominate modern media: alternate timelines, dimension-hopping and quantum mechanics are all encased in this singular concept that controls the big screen. The most popular examples within the entertainment industry include film projects like “Loki,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” video games such as Disney Mirrorverse or Warner Bros’ Multiversus and TV shows like “Russian Doll” and “Riverdale.” But what is the multiverse? When did humanity conceive of an existence that encompasses infinity and how did it come to dominate the media?
In order to understand this pop culture craze, accept the possibility that every possibility can exist simultaneously. The explanation itself branches and splits, so please, make your choice and let’s delve into the depths of the modern media multiverse.
I choose the first path
In quantum physics.
The uncertainty synonymous with quantum science arises from the observation of an event being an interaction that changes what is being observed due to relative size. In analogous terms, seeing things is like throwing apples at a house and catching them: we process the elementary constituents of light — or photons — that bounce off objects into our eyes. Quantum observations are like throwing apples at tennis balls, sending the tennis balls flying upon impact. Objects larger than the quantum level are not affected by the momentum of a photon, but quantum particles are so small that there is a significant effect. The house does not move, the tennis ball does.
This issue is worsened by wave function collapse — the observation of a wave that causes it to collapse into two or more states, where the option between collapsed states is seemingly random — leading to experiments on the quantum level relying heavily on probability. The “many worlds” interpretation of this phenomenon resolves this by splitting the universe into each probable possibility at the moment of observation.
In the context of media, the scientific multiversal proposal — given around the 1950s — gave rise to sci-fi stories like the works of Michael Moorcock, who first used the term “multiverse.” The popularity of this genre laid the groundwork for multiverse media and how it could operate in fiction. The first type of variation can be exemplified by the 2017 film “Fireworks,” which portrays a boy reliving the same day over and over again. But there’s a catch: each day takes place in a different universe where physical laws work differently; for example, fireworks explode into flat circles and then into round spheres. The second type of variation can be seen in the “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode of “Community” in 2011, where multiple timelines are created from the six probable outcomes of a die roll. Finally, the idea of free will and sentient choice creating alternate timelines can be seen in nearly every story-based video game where choices determine how you progress. That last variation asserts that consciousnesses possessing free will can alter the course of an infinite multiverse with their decisions, implying that free will is potentially as entropic as quantum phenomena. The most widely-known multiverse stories use a combination of all these variations, as seen in the progenitor for our current age of multiverse media, the animated sci-fi family drama “Rick and Morty.”
It all boils down to …
Option 1: Characters
Multiversal stories with variations on probable events or character decisions revolve around character reactions to the same string of events with minor variations. This allows writers to push characters to the greatest extent. Traditionally, a character is not a real person with free will but rather is a collection of traits — meaning the character will always react to the same event in the same way in every story.
Hamlet always dies, Orpheus always looks back and Gatsby always takes the blame. Stories and their characters have perhaps become oversaturated in this universe, every plot structure and archetype echoing each other. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it gives reason for the universe to split and expand into the modern multiverse. Entire episodes of “Rick and Morty” have been dedicated to the almost infinite variations on just two characters, and in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” one family’s love is a universal constant between all these variations. There’s a beauty in both ways that characters are granted free will by breathing existence into all of their possible choices — whether those characters lose themselves in their infinite possibility or make the most important choice of retaining what is important to them in the infinite. This is something that couldn’t be done in just one universe.
Option 2: Crisis
We can find clear connections between media trends and the real-world events that have shaped them. There are two such cases: superhero and zombie media.
Specifically, there is a very clear connection between 9/11 and superhero media that reignited patriotism, faith in American institutions and a deep connection to New York. Likewise, zombie media echoed the trials of the Great Recession. In a society entrenched in an economic existential crisis, horror was cathartic and becoming undead was an equalizer, the same way 2008 devastated those on every level of the American class system. This sentiment evolved over the years as “The Walking Dead” was picked apart for displaying the fears of the white-collar class — for in a zombie apocalypse, manual workers are much more useful than stockbrokers. As the economy recovered, zombies ingrained themselves in mainstream media as more than a fad and became sympathetic, the proletariat of movie monsters that find power in their masses.
When the world and economy blew up further from the pandemic, we entered a new case — the multiverse. Discussions of being in “the darkest timeline” (a term coined from “Community”) flooded social media as everyone discussed the “what-ifs”: what if we were more prepared, what if we took necessary action, what if we knew what we had to lose? The universe we inhabited seemed not only one of the darker out of an infinite number but our collected tragedy seemed more and more preventable, like the universes that held the brighter timelines were very close by. In these multiversal musings, we got a taste for what type of art lay outside of our world.
I choose the second path
In ancient religious texts.
The concept of the multiverse has been found in ancient Greek religious texts, Abrahamic thought and Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Atomists proposed that the structure and beauty of the world arose from the collisions of atoms in a void, each collision producing another universe. Aristotelian thought asserted that the existence of only one world was heretical, for the infinite power of God could no doubt create infinite universes. Three centuries later, multiversal assertions fell out of line with the Catholic church’s geocentric teachings.
In the East, Hindu texts describe the universe as being in a constant cycle of rebirth. While not every universe exists at the same time, there is still more than one. Buddhist texts took this a step further by stating that the infinity of worlds all exist parallel to each other and are also each undergoing cycles of rebirth. We can see two uses for the multiverse in this lens: using infinite worlds as a logical extension to tackle deeply existential questions and resolving discontinuity across time periods.
Said lenses are reflected in comic books, where characters with decades of history across countless different writers are thrust into the multiverse for the sake of …
Option 1: Cash.
Comics use the multiverse for money — they’re able to pump out several stories about a single character without having to worry about how it will affect the fate of their brand icons. DC Comics reset its multiverse yet again. Marvel’s Avengers comics are now against the multiverse’s worst villains while legacy characters have been launched headfirst into their own (insert name)-verses, such as the “Spider-Verse.”
Hence, cinematic multiverses that DC, Marvel and Sony are all trying to create ultimately ripple back into the industries that informed them — comics. While the comic book universe has been wildly profitable itself, the movie multiverse opens new financial possibilities. DC can unite its CW TV series with its movies in the “Flashpoint” project, as well as bring past castings of characters. Similarly, Marvel can tease cameos. Sony can (and did) revive interest in the canceled Spider-Man films, with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” gaining huge profits from the brand of infinite Spider-Men to “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
Expansion of the universe is therefore overall an expansion in profit.
Option 2: Creativity and continuity.
Considering comic companies and their characters have existed for almost a century, the multiverse has been a handy workaround for decades-old icons to maintain relevance, keep continuity and bolster creativity. For example, nearly every Marvel comic takes place within the same massive universe despite decades of different writers and artists. DC Comics took a different approach — their heroes initially started out in their own universes, only to then be brought into one “prime universe” as a result of multiversal events.
However, the characters are icons for the comic brands, and therefore have to be kept at a relative status quo. The multiverse, though, is a sort of loophole, allowing for creating retroactive continuity that avoids contradictions. This same kind of creativity extends to other media as well, like the mixed-genre animated hit “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” that has inspired other films like “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” to push the limits of their genres and movie title lengths.
This creativity also extends to the works of fans. When fandoms of media create their own alternate interpretations of characters and events they subject the original piece of work to the multiverse, allowing for fan creations to exist in the canon (the most prevalent example being fans reimagining themselves with spider powers in the “Spidersona”). The multiverse allowed these creators to explore their creativity both within corporate constraints and in celebration of their characters.
Over the years, the multiverse as a coping mechanism became crippling. When COVID-19 trapped me in isolation and in my own head, I felt the splitting of the universe escape from me as my mind fractured itself across the infinity of what I felt I could have been and done, the weight of every possibility pressing down on me. I was in mourning for my multiverse, grieving for every possibility across existence. Facing myself in infinite iterations, I was fighting to accept my own identity in an all-encompassing existence.
I cheered for Spider-Man in the theaters. I cried on my couch at my comfort media multiverses. I sat with every version of myself in my car, alone in the parking lot after a late-night showing of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” I felt every timeline converge back onto me, grounding myself in my own universe and leaving behind my multiversal crutch.
The multiverse is less about who we could be and more about who we get to be and who we get to be with. Ultimately, the more we bring the multiverse into our existences instead of our art, the more we have to forget about the multiverse and bring it back to a close.
Statement Correspondent Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.