a christian perspective on the world today

Finding Meaning in the Multiverse

Love him or hate him, Marvel’s raunchiest superhero, Deadpool, is once again here to save the world—and this time he’s bringing some beloved friends with him.

On July 26, Marvel Studios is set to release Deadpool and Wolverine, the long–awaited third film starring the sometimes–controversial character. While the character’s foul–mouthed and innuendo–laden exploits may give some fans pause, the edgy anti-hero is big business—his last two films are the third and fourth-highest grossing (American) R-Rated films of all time, surpassing even Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ. It’s this success that Marvel is hoping to leverage to rejuvenate their somewhat-shaky brand after a string of underperforming films and television shows.

Indeed, many eyes are looking towards Deadpool and Wolverine as a possible antidote to audiences’ superhero fatigue. In addition to Marvel’s recent woes, DC Studios’ last four films have failed to make back their budgets while Sony’s Spider-Man universe is in shambles after the catastrophic failure of Madame Web. To this end, it seems Marvel is pulling out all the stops to try to make the trilogy caper a surefire success. Not only are they pairing Ryan Reynolds’ anti-hero with Hugh Jackman’s fan favourite Wolverine, trailers promise that the film is diving deep into the well that has reaped the company dividends in previous projects: the multiverse.

here we go again

Like the two-billion-dollar success of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the bizarre Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness or the critically acclaimed Loki TV series, Deadpool and Wolverine promises to be a pivotal part of what Marvel has called “The Multiverse Saga”. For Marvel, the use of the multiverse for their next big saga works in two ways. Firstly, it solves the problem of where to go after Avengers: Endgame featured the Avengers saving the entire universe. If bigger is better, then setting up a conflict where every universe is at stake is the natural escalation of events. More importantly though, it provides the promise of endless opportunities for nostalgia and fan service. Sure, nobody really loved The Amazing Spider-Man films but the opportunity to see Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker team up with Tobey Maguire and Tom Holland is too enticing for audiences to ignore—and Marvel are hoping the same will hold true for seeing the two solo X-Men team up in Deadpool and Wolverine.

Of course, whether this ends up succeeding remains to be seen. The movie is still forthcoming at the time of publication but it’s clear they at least feel like the demand for more multiverse movies is there. After all, Marvel is hardly the only studio in recent history to use the multiverse. Indeed, the idea that there are innumerable worlds, each defined by choices we have made or will make, is a concept with a long and storied history. In 1998, the Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy Sliding Doors uses the idea to explore how even mundane moments like catching or missing a train can have large ripple effects on how our lives will turn out. Similarly, author CS Lewis used the concept of the multiverse in his book The Magician’s Nephew to explain the origins of Narnia, the setting for his most beloved stories. The idea even allegedly predates Christ, with early Greek philosophers proposing the possibility of numerous worlds existing beyond our own.

But while the concept is well established, it has seen something of a boom in popularity in recent years. 2022’s Oscar award winner for best picture, Everything Everywhere All At Once, used the concept to tell a touching story about an immigrant family while acclaimed game developer Bethesda Studios had mixed success in implementing the idea in their recent space epic Starfield. And the list goes on and on. Star Trek, Final Fantasy VII Remake and Rebirth, The Flash, Rick and Morty, Doctor Who—all these TV shows, videogames and films are interested in exploring the concept of the multiverse. All of this works to highlight a pertinent question surrounding the concept: why is the multiverse an interesting idea in the first place?

laws of attraction

One explanation is that different versions of heroes across different realities reflect the many different hats we find ourselves wearing in today’s increasingly chaotic and demanding society. Writing for The New Yorker, Stephanie Burt argues that “we may feel like different people . . . as we move between work and home and parent-teacher conferences . . . hence a TV show like Loki, whose titular antihero has numerous manifestations”. The multiverse, according to this theory, provides us an opportunity to examine the potentialities of “what could have been” as a way of understanding how we ended up where we are.

(L-R): Wunmi Mosaku as Hunter B-15, Owen Wilson as Mobius, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Eugene Cordero as Casey, and Ke Huy Quan as O.B. in Marvel Studios’ LOKI, Season 2, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Gareth Gatrell. © 2023 MARVEL.

While the scope may be infinite, the focus is on helping us make sense of the personal—the everyday lives we find ourselves confined in.

Another possibility is that these stories, rather than helping us understand the ways the world has shaped us, provide an opportunity to showcase how our actions can shape the world. It is not uncommon for stories dealing with multiverses to deal with apocalyptic stakes–the scale of infinite universes requires a similarly large threat to deal with, of course–but it is in tying the apocalyptic to the personal that many of these stories gain a greater meaning and resonance. In Everything Everywhere All At Once, the potential end of all universes is not brought about by a towering villain like Thanos, but by the broken relationship between mother and daughter. To prevent it, the relationship must be mended. Similarly, in Loki, the universe is saved, not through physical fights, but through conversations which help the protagonist accept his purpose in life.

what’s in the box?

In this way, multiverse stories hit a nerve that many of us can relate to–the idea that our world is flawed, and that a better world is possible. But while many of these stories posit that a better world can come from a few key decisions, effecting change in the real world is rarely as simple. However, that does not mean that these stories have no value. Indeed, a better future often starts with the choices we make. One of the most fitting examples of this comes from the complicated and sometimes controversial game BioShock Infinite, which positions the birth of the multiverse as springing from protagonist Booker DeWitt’s choice of whether or not to be baptised. In one universe, DeWitt refuses to take the plunge, overwhelmed by the guilt of his sins as a soldier fighting in the Battle of Wounded Knee. In another, he uses baptism as an excuse to absolve his guilt without taking steps to change and becomes the monstrous ruler of a nation perpetuating slavery. In both universes, issues persist and spiral. It is only at the games climax, where DeWitt revisits the baptism and acknowledges that he cannot solve his problems on his own and accepts the help of others in the ritual, that a better world can be built.

This then helps illustrate the enduring appeal of the multiverse. The world we live in is flawed and broken–wars, famine, disease, poverty—the problems we face are myriad and often overwhelming, so much so that change may seem impossible. A better world may be possible, but it is not something we can reach alone. The first, and most important step, is acknowledging our limitations and seeking help. Once we do that, the possibilities become endless.

Ryan Stanton is a PhD student studying media and communications at the University of Sydney. He’s a passionate follower of Jesus, avid board gamer and admirer of science fiction. 

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