It's fitting that a genre that gave us a movie called Everything Everywhere All At Once would soon live up to that title's suggestion of ubiquity. It doesn't matter what your preferred medium is: in games, at the movies, in animation, and elsewhere, the multiverse is inescapable.
From the MCU's biggest tent-poles, like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, to mid-budget indies like EEAAO, the multiverse has captured Hollywood's imagination. In video games like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, MultiVersus, and Pokemon, characters from disparate universes are coming together to do battle. But, it's animation that kickstarted the trend. 2018's Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse set a template for what the multiverse could mean creatively and financially, bringing together different Spider-Men, Spider-Women, and Spider-Pigs from various universes to confront a singular threat.
Spider-Verse was successful, raking in over $375 million worldwide on a $90 million dollar budget. But, when the MCU looked to ape its formula in the Marvel big leagues, it focused on the financial potential of the film's conceit, rather than the dazzling creativity on display. How wild would it be to bring all the actors who have played live-action Spider-Man together in one film? How much money could a movie that targeted the nostalgia of Gen X and Millennials within the framework of the most popular Gen Z franchise make? A lot it turns out. Spider-Man: No Way Home, which brought three generations of Spider-Men together through the magic of the multiverse, made nearly $2 billion worldwide.
The multiverse is so popular because, while many C-suite executives will likely understand little about its creative potential, they will intuitively get what it can mean for their portfolio. Never before have a genre's inherent qualities been such a perfect fit for brand integration. Space Jam: A New Legacy used the multiverse (or, at least, a cloud-based equivalent) to collect all of Warner Bros. IP into one place. A sequel to 1996's Space Jam, which brought Looney Tunes characters into the real-world to play ball with Michael Jordan, A New Legacy took the exchange the other direction, sending Lebron James hurtling into the Serververse, a computer world where all of Warner Bros.' IP lived in self-contained worlds. After spending some time chasing a Golden Snitch on a broom, racing through the desert of Mad Max: Fury Road, and meeting up with the denizens of an animated Themyscira, Lebron and the Looney Tunes teamed up to take on Don Cheadle's Al-G Rhythm in a high-stakes basketball game attended by every character from the WB catalog that director Malcolm D. Lee could possibly fit on screen.
A New Legacy doesn't so much have a plot as a toybox of licensed action figures it has been tasked with smashing together. More than a coherent movie, it is an ad for HBO Max. The company has done the same thing with MultiVersus, a (pretty good) fighting game where Batman can duke it out with a screen-filling Iron Giant and a certain wascally wabbit. The individual quality of any of these projects aside, the first few years of the multiverse going mainstream has taught us that corporations will cravenly use its storytelling conceit as an excuse to make commercials for themselves that you pay for.
Outside of the realm of the marketing behind these projects and the profit motive that has made them a hot commodity, I have creative issues with multiverse movies. Primarily, the multiverse can't help but flatten the stakes of whatever story is built around it. Tony Stark may have — spoiler alert for a three-year-old movie — died at the end of Avengers: Endgame, but, with the multiverse in play, there's nothing to stop Robert Downey, Jr. from re-entering the MCU through a gleaming portal a few years down the line. When Wanda Maximoff — spoiler alert for a four-month-old movie, which may as well be three years old given how frantically MCU fans preorder opening weekend tickets — slices and dices alternate universe versions of Reed Richards and Professor Xavier in Multiverse of Madness, she is also shredding any notion that these characters' lives can have real, permanent stakes going forward. That's an issue that has existed in comic books for a long time, but it's one that the movies will have to grapple with in the next few years.
Everything Everywhere All At Once, on the other hand, isn't any of these things. I'm not the biggest fan of Daniels' sci-fi action dramedy — mostly because it has some massive fans — but it is indisputably an original movie. It isn't part of an existing franchise, and its creators haven't billed it as the beginning of a new one. It has no IP to smash together, just seemingly endless versions of the same characters. Unlike Warner Bros.'s and the MCU's attempts at multiverse fiction, EEAAO is genuinely interested in exploring the fullness of what the multiverse can mean for the characters at the heart of its story. But, I worry that Everything Everywhere All At Once's genuine originality will be used as cover for the corporate-driven IP fests that will follow. That the next movie studio marketing a masturbatory ad for its own portfolio will frame its product as no different from the Daniels' film. And though movie buffs will be able to spot the difference, for the general public, it may begin to blur together and lose distinction. That seems inevitable when anyone or anything could be on the other side of a portal from anywhere.
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