Although it’s drifted in and out of pop culture since at least the 1980s, recently the idea of the multiverse—a theory based in science that proposes that there are multiple variants of our universe that are slightly different from our own—has been brought to the forefront of popular culture with shows like Rick and Morty and movies like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. But the more that popular films play around with the multiverse, the more they reveal the limits of this as a narrative concept.
On their face, Everything Everywhere All At Once and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness could not be any less similar, but if you zoom out to their broad strokes plots, they do have a few things in common. Both movies deal with a middle-aged protagonist who's trying to resist getting jaded by what they perceive as a lackluster life. Both of them end up jumping from universe to universe and seeing all the different ways they could have turned out. Each of these films use the multiverse as both a fun way to present fantastical set pieces, and also as a way to enhance and describe the growth of their lead characters.
I’m not the first person to point out these similarities; Jaime Lee Curtis, who plays a supporting role in Everything Everywhere, has been snarkily posting about what the two films have in common on her Instagram. Despite their sharing the same basic concepts, though, the two movies couldn’t be more different in their execution. In Everything Everywhere, the use of the multiverse feels like a tender examination of the possibilities of life, and the way that we tend to ruminate over the choices we didn’t make. In Doctor Strange, it’s more about putting Benedict Cumberbatch in very slightly different costumes.
The multiverse, as a fictional concept, can sometimes be a crutch, a way to suggest character growth or the ways a character could be different without actually showing what’s in between this and their status quo state. In Doctor Strange, we meet multiple variants of the titular Doctor across the multiverse. We see him as a guy with a ponytail, as a master of the eldritch, and posthumously we meet a version of him that has succumbed to the dark power of the Darkhold, a Lovecraftian evil book that exists everywhere in the multiverse simultaneously, and has to be put down. None of the versions of Strange last long enough to say a lot about who Strange is as a person, and they all die pretty quickly. In fact, one of the cooler versions of Strange we see late in the film is a zombie-fied corpse, flying through the air using the power of the demons who would call him to hell. But “cool” is where these versions of Strange begin and end. They feel like variant cover art rather than expressions of who this person could have been if things had gone differently.
On the whole, the way Doctor Strange portrays the idea of a multiverse feels limited in its imagination. While America Chavez, who has the power to jump between different universes, says that one of the most important rules of multiversal travel is not to assume anything, the differences are more cosmetic than anything. In that particular world, you walk on red, pizza comes in ball form, and instead of the Avengers there’s the Illuminati. None of this is descriptive of what kind of a place that world is or why they would have a secret world leadership to keep the peace. As we keep meeting versions of Strange, it feels more like “you go on red” than a meaningful examination of why he ends up being such a jerk in universe after universe. It’s different for the sake of making the plot go forward—without an antagonist, the plot can’t function, and for much of the movie, the Scarlet Witch is meditating on a mountaintop, far away from the heroes. It makes the disparate worlds that we visit feel less like a collection of similar-but-different places, cautionary tales about the choices we make as collectives or individuals, and more completely disconnected, unreal spaces. This also has the effect of making Doctor Strange’s character growth feel unearned. We didn’t see him change, or watch him actually do things he needs to make amends for—we watched a version of that character be worse than the one we’re used to seeing, and that original Doctor Strange essentially saying “sucks to be you but I’m different.”
Everything Everywhere All At Once uses the multiverse in a slightly different way. Instead of physically going to different universes, main character Evelyn Wang, played expertly by Michelle Yeoh, is able to tap into the skills and memories of her counterparts in other universes, and with some effort inhabit them. In the main universe, she’s a mom with an adult child who she doesn’t understand, running a laundromat that seems to be barely held together, and to top it all off she’s being audited by the IRS. Being able to be a different Evelyn—whether it’s the one where she’s a chef working alongside a man piloted by a raccoon similar to Ratatouille, or the one where she has hot dog fingers, or even the one where she has the career of Michelle Yeoh as an action star in Hong Kong.
Each universe is an expression of who she could be if she had been different, and being different and having a different life is all that Evelyn wants when the film starts. Exploring the multiverse allows her to give that a shot in a way we don’t get in our own lives. She gets to be a movie star, a rock on the edge of a cliff, in a romantic relationship with her tax auditor, or spin signs on the side of the road, and then definitively choose to be herself and accept the life she has.
In this way, the multiverse is a tool not just to show off the characters in different costumes, but a way to externalize a personal journey that Evelyn as a character is going on. Other characters in the film interact with the multiverse in different ways. Evelyn’s husband Waymond mostly adheres to its rules, and is the most straightforward character in the film across multiple universes, telling Evelyn in the universe where he’s a successful businessman that he would have been happy just doing laundry and taxes with her. Evelyn’s daughter Joy has been broken by the multiverse and the possibilities it portrays in her life. That uncertainty, exemplified by the nihilism Joy feels across all universes, is the heart of what keeps Evelyn and her daughter from connecting to each other.
It’s unlikely that we’ve seen the end of the multiverse, given that Marvel has gone all in on the concept in the MCU. Not only do they have multiple movies that use the concept extensively, it’s just too useful. If the fans demand that Scarlet Witch return in a future movie, then they can easily snag one up from a different universe where she’s not dead. And hey, she might even wear a different costume, necessitating new merchandise. But it would be a shame for Marvel to keep using the idea of the multiverse as a bag of cheap tricks, when movies like Everything Everywhere—as well as comic books like Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, Johnathan Hickman’s House of X and Powers of X, or even the uneven but ambitious multi-authored weekly series 52 —show the narrative potential of being able to see what might have been.