2021 was a little bit… different. Wait, is that what I mean, “different?” Largely horrible. Actually, come to think of it, so was 2020. Wait a minute, what if this isn’t different, and this is just how years are now?! Speaking of disturbing patterns, maybe that desire for escape from our own bleak reality into one familiar yet different enough is one of the factors that fueled the abundance of Multiverse stories in 2021.
Did you notice that? The Multiverse as a concept was huge this past year, not just within the MCU, which is getting even more Multiverse-y next year, but in everything from gaming to Star Trek to DC to goddamn Phineas and f***ing Ferb. Okay, that actually happened in 2011, and I probably shouldn’t swear so much about a Disney show, but, s**t, you get my point. Let’s dig into the whats and wherefores a little and hopefully find out why 2021 was The Year of the Multiverse, and why it’s a trend that won’t let up any time soon.
Infinite Realities and Other Basic Concepts
All right, so, first things first: In 2011 on the children’s show Phineas and Ferb, the titular characters discovered the 2nd Dimension, and in fact a whole host of alternate dimensions that can only be traversed in one direction — think of it like a clock that can only run clockwise, and not counter-clockwise. They eventually make it home by going all the way around, which is a neat concept and really complex for a Disney show aimed at kids. Then two years later, they released Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel, which officially made their universe a part of the MCU’s Multiverse, both of which are overseen by Disney. Again, pretty complex structures to lob at children.
But I’m sure the kids of 2013 went right along with it, because kids today are pretty dang smart, which is the whole reason I’m talking so much about Phineas and Ferb. We’re all pretty dang smart when it comes to pop culture and storytelling, because we’ve all been steeped in it from birth in a way previous generations weren’t. The advent of the internet and smartphones has made us all fluent in the specialized lexicon of film, television, comics, and other media. Doubly so in an era where the biggest mainstream hits are sci-fi and superhero blockbusters about characters and worlds that were once nothing more than obscure niches to be discussed at Comic-Cons.
That fluency is a big reason I think Multiverse stories thrived in 2021. If creators had tried to tell a sprawling interconnected story, like what Marvel pulled off with The Avengers, in the 1970s, not only would the graphics have been hilariously bad, I think it would have confused the audience.
Remember, before shows like Oz and The Sopranos in the ‘90s, we were barely even linking TV shows together into longer story-arcs. Media builds on the media that came before it, and audiences tend to get savvier over time because of that. So it makes sense that only now, with things like Super Smash Bros. and Harry Potter under our collective belts, are we ready for more sophisticated Multiverse takes like Into the Spider-Verse to come into the mainstream, slay at the box office, and win over the bulk of average movie-goers.
Monetizing the Multiverse
Story literacy is a major factor, but let’s face it, there’s a financial incentive at play here too. Once companies realized consumers would accept worlds colliding, super-teams of popular IPs could come together for meta projects like Space Jam: A New Legacy and Mario and Sonic at the Olympics. Why reinvent the wheel when consumers have proven that they’ll line up to pay for the same old wheels with a new set of tires? Less risk, less R&D overhead — it makes sense in a cynical way.
But that tactic didn’t always work on us. There was absolutely a time consumers couldn’t hang with stuff as heady as the Multiverse. We had to walk before we could transapparate. Heck, there was a time movie-goers were totally blown away by footage of a train coming at the screen. It takes time for humanity to fully bake an idea and weave it into stories and culture to the point that it becomes second-nature. 2021 was the year our brain-ovens went “ding! The Multiverse is ready!”
Nowadays it seems like every facet of pop culture is leaning into the trope. In gaming, two platform fighters that combine different universes á la Smash Bros. were either released or announced this year, and one of them even has Multiverse in the title! MultiVersus, coming next year, lets WB characters as varied as Batman, Arya Stark, and Shaggy beat the snot out of each other, and Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl does the same for Nicktoons across the decades. In both cases, the only thread connecting them is that they’re all owned by the same company. We the audience are aware that the same brand owns them, even if only some of them hit the right nostalgia buttons for each of us. That’s objectively so weird. Imagine pitching that in 1989. Imagine pitching that at any time before the audience was already familiar with Smash Bros., or at least Marvel vs. Capcom.
Of course, cramming a bunch of franchise players together into a fighting game isn’t the only way 2021 tackled the Multiverse idea and set the stage for it to become a bedrock of storytelling into (at least) 2022. Spider-Man: No Way Home did something we’ve never seen before: combine three separate, already-established film versions of the same character, owned by different companies, into one movie. The same movie may even tie the Sony and Marvel Multiverses together in order to let one company use the other company’s characters in its own future movies. The horse-trading of IP is now driving story decisions, when it used to be the other way around. Then we get Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, which seems likely to weave the idea of the Multiverse not only into its own plot, but into the continuing MCU over-plot as well, in an attempt to clean up or pivot outstanding story strands. It’s Brechtian as all hecktian.
DC is doing something similar — because when are they not? — with both the continuing Arrowverse on the TV side, which has been dipping into the multiverse for years, and the upcoming Flash movie, which will feature multiple Batmen from across movie history (based in part on the “Flashpoint” comics arc). Star Trek: Discovery has carried on the long tradition of dipping into the Mirror Universe from time to time, Rick and Morty’s whole thing is basically messing with a series of nested multiverses (the main cast actually live in a universe different than the one they started from), and of course Marvel’s What If…? series dispenses with any kind of plot-driven reason for the multiverse to be in play and just tells the audience, “Look, it’s just a show, so for funsies let’s make Wolverine sprout full-length didgeridoos from his fists for a while.” Oh, that wasn’t an episode? Weird, that was the pilot in my universe….
And we haven’t even mentioned the second Warner-Brothers-based Multiverse spawned in 2021: all those weird movie-planets from Space Jam 2. The less said about Casablanca-world, the better. I’d even argue the 2020 Animaniacs reboot counts as a third Warner Brothers Multiverse, since the Warners live in a standard toon-lookin’ universe while Starbox and Cindy occupy some kind of watercolor nether-space. The idea has saturated our thinking at all levels and across genres in a way I certainly haven’t seen in my lifetime. It has flaws, but it works (and more importantly it makes money), so we’re doing it.
New ‘Verse, Same Song
But accepting all that, the Multiverse isn’t a brand new idea. Technically, it could be looked at as one of our oldest storytelling tropes. Homer’s The Odyssey combined a number of popular characters already made legendary by other epic poems that came before. Even the upcoming God of War: Ragnarok is a Multiverse story, with Midgard at the hub. That’s especially interesting, because it reminds us that the idea of “other realities” overlaid on our own is already there, woven into Norse mythology and many other schools of thought and faith dating back to ancient times.
The Empathy Engine
So even though our stories have gotten more structurally sophisticated in a way that suits the Multiverse idea, it’s more like we’ve re-discovered a kind of story that feels especially relevant right now. Which leads me to the nice thing about the rise of Multiverse storytelling: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that at a time when our culture is undergoing a drive toward expanded empathy for broader categories of people, we’re also into stories that encompass multiple points of view at once or embrace nuance by presenting several versions of the same person — several ways “it could have been different.”
The multiverse setup is inherently empathetic that way; it invites you to inhabit a diverse set of viewpoints. It’s also inherently meta, in that it expects an audience to understand a movie is a movie and not reality, and for that audience to be at least passingly familiar with the components that make up that story. What If…? makes a whole lot less sense if it’s your very first experience with Captain America as a concept. Multiverse stories exist in reference to other stories, and need you to have done your homework.
That’s, I think, the pretty cool thing about 2021 and its glut of Multiverse narratives. For all the wonky things metaverse stories may do to pacing, screen-time per character, and the like, they’re inarguably dense with information, and therefore potentially packed with wisdom, resonant ideas, and truths we may not otherwise be able to get at. By referencing entire continents of story that we’re already familiar with, Multiverse tales allow us to grapple with nuance and the broader galaxy of humans outside ourselves.
Michael is IGN’s Manager of Video Programming. You can follow him on Twitter.
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Author: Jordan Sirani