Doctor Strange and the historical roots of the multiverse

Doctor Strange and the historical roots of the multiverse
Remember when saving the world was enough for any self-respecting film character? These days, they have to think bigger. In 2019's Avengers: Endgame, Earth's mightiest heroes went as far as saving the Universe – or half of it, anyway. But since then, even a feat as impressive as that seems woefully short of ambition. In 2022, superheroes are expected to navigate their way around a whole labyrinth of different universes. The multiverse is the place to be.

It's the concept at the heart of two recent Spider-Man films. First there was 2018's animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which introduced the Spider-Man equivalents of various alternate universes, such as Spider-Ham and Spider-Man Noir. Then there was last year's live-action Spider-Man: No Way Home, which presented three separate actors who have played the web-slinger at different times in the last 20 years – Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire – as the Peter Parkers of their own separate realities. Two of Marvel's Disney+ Plus TV series, What If...? and Loki, wander through the multiverse, too, and they paved the way for the company's latest blockbuster, Doctor Strange in The Multiverse Of Madness, out next Friday. The president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, has called the multiverse "the next step in the evolution" of the franchise – the anything-is-possible, nothing-is-off-limits idea that will allow Marvel's new films to go to places where the previous 25-odd haven't.

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Marvel's rival purveyor of superhero fisticuffs, DC, has been getting up to similarly mind-bending tricks, both in its television series (The Flash, Arrow, Batwoman etc) and its films. 2019 animation Teen Titans Go! Vs Teen Titans put super-doppelgangers from dozens of universes into one cartoon, and next year's film of The Flash will feature Ben Affleck's Batman and Michael Keaton's Batman (at least). But it isn't just superheroes who are starting to feel that the one Universe is not enough. In the surreal new dimension-hopping kung-fu comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once, which has been a critical hit in the US, Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn, an Asian-American woman with a failing marriage and a failing launderette, who discovers that she can commune with infinite realities. The film is written and directed by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, collectively known as "Daniels", who in fact turned down the job of directing Loki to make it. Multiverses are definitely "in the cultural conversation and ethos," as Scheinert said to Slash Film – so what on Earth (or rather Earths, plural) is going on?

The scientific possibility of the multiverse
To answer that question, you could go back to the discussions of other realities in ancient Greek philosophy and Hindu and Persian mythology. Plenty of books have been set in two or more realms, too: CS Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. But the notion of countless co-existing universes was posited as a scientific possibility in 1957 by Hugh Everett, a mathematician from Washington DC.

Peter Byrne outlines Everett's "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics in his biography, The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III. "Everett formulated a solution to a vexing problem in quantum theory, the measurement problem. Simply put, the problem arises because, logically, an atomic particle can move through space and time in a multiplicity of directions at once – as if it is an expanding, spherical wave passing through all possible trajectories. But when we interact with the particle – when we measure it – we always find it at one place, not many... Everett showed that it is mathematically consistent to say that when a scientist measures the position of an atomic particle, he splits into numerous copies of himself. Each copy resides in a different Universe. And each copy sees the particle in a different position. The set of all copies covers the set of all possible particle positions inside a multiverse. According to Everett, each Universe inside the multiverse is constantly branching, like a tree, into separate but parallel worlds that cannot communicate with each other... A consequence of the 'many worlds' logic is that there are Universes in which dinosaurs survived and humans remained shrew-like; Universes in which you win the state lottery every week; Universes in which Wall Street does not exist and global resources are equally shared." And, presumably, Universes in which Peter Parker still looks like Tobey Maguire rather than Tom Holland.

Everett's paper, continues Byrne, was "dismissed by most of the physics establishment", so he moved into military operations research. His many-worlds thesis grew in popularity, but it didn't reach the mainstream until after Everett had died of a heart attack in 1982.

But if scientists weren't convinced by Everett's vision, science-fiction authors were inspired by it. One of these was Britain's Michael Moorcock, who brought the term "multiverse" into popular culture via his novel The Sundered Worlds in 1963. "It was an idea in the air, as most of these are," recalled Moorcock in Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy, "and I would have come across a reference to it in New Scientist (one of my best friends was then editor)... [or] physicist friends would have been talking about it. Sometimes what happens is that you are imagining these things in the context of fiction while the physicists and mathematicians are imagining them in terms of science."

Writers were also imagining these things in the context of comics. Back in 1940, DC began publishing a comic about The Flash, a super-speedy superhero whose real name was Jay Garrick. In 1951, the series was cancelled, and when the character was rebooted in 1956, he was given a new costume and a new alter ego, Barry Allen. This new Flash was even shown reading a comic about his predecessor, thus establishing that, as far as Allen was concerned, Garrick was no more than a fictional character, albeit a fictional character with whom he had a surprising amount in common. But then, in a classic story published in 1961, Allen was zapped into another reality where he was face to masked face with Garrick. The current Flash (Allen) lived on Earth-One, it transpired, while the old one (Garrick) lived on Earth-Two, along with all the other antiquated superheroes from DC's so-called "Golden Age", the 1930s and 1940s.

Readers loved this postmodern conceit, and soon DC was publishing regular team-ups between the Golden Age's Justice Society of America and the Silver Age's Justice League of America. Then, in 1964, one of DC's editors, Julius Schwartz, had a brainwave. If there were two Earths, he reasoned, why shouldn't there be a third, a cracked-mirror universe in which superheroes were supervillains, and the Justice League of America was the Crime Syndicate of America? And so, Earth-Three joined the party.

The DC multiverse kept growing, as successive writers used the concept to bring in other characters from other companies that DC had bought, and to explain away stories that didn't fit Earth-One's continuity. Eventually, the multiverse got so unwieldy that the company published a 12-issue mini-series in 1985 called "Crisis On Infinite Earths" in which every reality was wiped out except one. But superhero comics being superhero comics, that downsizing didn't last long, and in 2014 and 2015 there was a mini-series written by Grant Morrison, The Multiversity, which incorporated a map of the DC Multiverse and a handy guidebook to 52 universes. "Each parallel world now has its own huge new backstory and characters and each could basically form the foundation for a complete line of new books," said Morrison. And yet it all harked back to 1961, and the nifty metafictional gimmick that the comic-book stories of one universe might be the real-life adventures of another.

The concept took off in prose fiction, as well. Stephen King's The Dark Tower novels flit around a multiverse, including All World, Prime Earth, and a world in which King himself is writing The Dark Tower. But, in general, the idea has been too expensive and too complicated for cinema. James Wong's The One (2001) starred Jet Li and Jason Statham as agents of the MultiVerse Authority, but most dimension-jumping films – Back to the Future, Sliding Doors – limit themselves to a couple of distinct Universes.

The Marvel effect
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed all that. Beginning with Iron Man in 2008, all of Marvel Studios' films have been set in the same "shared Universe", just as the company's comics always have been. The Hulk can turn up in an Iron Man film, Thor can turn up in a Captain America film, and the Avengers can assemble.

Until recently, shared Universes had been rare in cinema, and unheard-of to this extent, but the MCU has, of course, been a phenomenal commercial success. Audiences are happy to be tangled in its ever-more elaborate web of interlinked stories, and Disney has had similar success with its Star Wars shared Universe, while numerous rival studios have tried (though mostly failed) to follow suit with their own. But why stop there? If a corporation can swallow up the rights to every screen incarnation of Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man, it can thrill fans by squeezing them into the same film. That is, it can progress from shared universe to multiverse. There is no need to stick to superheroes, either. Warner Bros loves to put all of its intellectual property into one basket, and so luminaries from the Harry Potter and The Matrix fictional universes make guest appearances in The Lego Batman Movie.

On one level, multiversal films evoke our freewheeling childhood games and conversations, in which we (or the geeks among us, anyway) pondered whether Han Solo could out-shoot Indiana Jones. On another level, these films are the result of narrative escalation. How do you raise the stakes after the entire cosmos has been in peril? Where is there left to go? But the trend may have deeper reasons behind it, too. It could be a response to the feeling, so often expressed on social media, that our own reality is so absurd and dystopian that there must be a better timeline out there somewhere. It could also be a response to the information overload of the internet, and the sense that incalculable universes are competing for our attention every time we log on. That was certainly one of the thoughts that led to Everything Everywhere All at Once. "We wanted the maximalism of the movie to connect with what it's like to scroll through an infinite amount of stuff," Scheinert told Slash Film, "which is something we're all doing too much."

The Daniels' wonderfully zany yet touching film – imagine The Matrix as remade by Michel Gondry – may have a smaller budget than a Marvel blockbuster, but it is larger than most of them in terms of heart and soul. Beyond all the extravagant fight scenes, the raccoon puppets, and the animated googly-eyed rocks, Everything Everywhere All at Once is about the decisions we make that send our lives off in wildly different directions – and the knowledge that while there may be endless parallel universes, we're always going to be stuck in one of them.

It's unlikely that any multiversal film will top the Daniels' gonzo masterpiece, but, as superhero comics have proven over the decades, there are many more worlds to explore. It's almost inevitable that Disney (the owner of Marvel's superheroes) will do a deal with Warner Bros (the owner of DC's superheroes) and we'll one day have a film in which Marvel's Doctor Strange, Hulk and Spider-Man bump into DC's Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Who knows, maybe they'll bump into Michelle Yeoh while they're at it. If it doesn't happen in this Universe, it's bound to happen in another.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is released in the UK on 5 May and in the US on 6 May. Everything Everywhere All at Once is out now in the US and is released in the UK on 13 May.
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