The rise and obsession of the superhero cinematic multiverse

The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) in Marvel Studios' WHAT IF...? exclusively on Disney+. © Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.
The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright) in Marvel Studios' WHAT IF...? exclusively on Disney+. © Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved. /

More comic book movies and television series appear to rely on having a multiverse. So why do they seem so fixated on having one?

Watch any movie or television series about superheroes and you’ll notice that the word “multiverse” keeps popping up. If not that specific word, then some character will utter phrases like “they’re from an alternate reality,” or “I’m from different dimension,” or “the walls between universes are collapsing.” The Disney + series Loki revolved around this very concept. Even the most recent trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home shows this very thing happening, as Benedict Cumberbatch ominously proclaims, “They’re starting to come through, and I can’t stop them.”

What we’re talking about, of course, is the notion that our universe isn’t the only universe. that somewhere there is a universe is which the dinosaurs never went extinct, another where President John F. Kennedy was never assassinated, another where you might’ve had pancakes for breakfast instead of cold cereal, and so many more. That there a multiple universe, a “multiverse” if you will.

The idea that there are other realities just like ours only slightly (or vastly) different stretches all the way back to the ancient Greeks, theorized by noted physicists, and has been a science fiction staple since the early Twentieth Century. And nowhere has this been more prevalent than in comic books. In fact, the first comic book which featured a story about a parallel universe was “Wonder Woman’s Invisible Twin” from 1953’s Wonder Woman Vol. 1 #59.  Yet, It wasn’t until 1961’s “The Flash of Two Worlds” from The Flash Vol. 1 #123, wherein the Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, teamed-up with the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, that the notion of there being “multiple Earths” really took hold.

Before long, DC Comics had crossovers between the Silver Age Heroes of “Earth-1” and the Golden Age Heroes of “Earth-2.” Modern day versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman would meet earlier versions of themselves from a different Earth. Believing this was getting too cumbersome and confusing, DC attempted to “streamline” their line of comics with Crisis on Infinite Earths. The popularity of this limited series not only created other events, but multiple sequels, including Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis, and Final Crisis. 

Multiverse, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Peter Parker, The Death of Doctor Strange, Mephisto
Tom Holland stars as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Strange in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. /

A cinematic multiverse…can claim that a new film featuring a popular character played by a different actor is not set in the “same universe” but a “different universe,” thus still making the previous films just as valid.

Comic book adaptations had multiverse stories, too, such as the two-part finale of Spider-Man: The Animated Series  (1994 -1998), Turtles Forever (2009), and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010). Yet the concept of the multiverse didn’t really register with general audiences until season 2 of The Flash. Not only did this season introduce “Earth-2” and multiple Earths, it was the season that had a crossover with Supergirl, which, at the time, aired on CBS instead of The CW and, therefore, was set on a “different Earth.” No coincidence that the moment Supergirl changed networks is when The CW began their annual multi-show crossover events, including an adaptation of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

For moviegoers, the notion of superheroes being part of a multiverse came as a one-two punch. First there was the Academy Award winning animated movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), followed by Avengers: Endgame the following year. The success of both movies, with Endgame becoming the second highest-grossing film of all time, it’s no wonder that both Warner Brothers and Disney saw potential dollar signs in having superhero movies and television series featuring a multiverse.

As you may have already guessed, having a multiverse is what allowed comic book writers and artists to flex their creative muscles. Since they didn’t have to be bound by the constraints of the main continuity, they could tell all manner of stories featuring variations of popular characters. For DC Comics, this came in the form of Elseworlds, wherein you could find stories about Batman in the 18th Century fighting Jack the Ripper, or Superman growing up in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. For Marvel, it was What If…?, in which one aspect of an in-continuity story would change and result in an entirely different story.

But for film and television, it potentially solves the dilemma of long-standing franchises. Unlike the heroes and villains in comics, actors and actresses are bound by the laws of time. They get old, out-of-shape, injured, disinterested, fired, move on, or simply die. In the past, studios would just recast the parts and pretend the new actor was playing the same character, like they did in the James Bond movies. A cinematic multiverse, though, can claim that a new film featuring a popular character played by a different actor is not set in the “same universe” but a “different universe,” thus still making the previous films just as valid.

Multiverse, The Flash, The Flash season 8, The Flash season 8 episode 1, Armageddon, Osric Chau, The Atom, Ryan Choi, The CW, Arrrowverse
Arrow — “Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Four” — Image Number: AR808A_0125r.jpg — Pictured (L-R): Jon Cryer as Lex Luthor, Melissa Benoist as Kara/Supergirl, Osric Chau as Ryan Choi, Ruby Rose as Kate Kane/Batwoman, Grant Gustin as The Flash, David Harewood as Hank Henshaw/J’onn J’onzz and Caity Lotz as Sara Lance/White Canary — Photo: Dean Buscher/The CW — © 2019 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved. /

[Having a multiverse] explains the rise of another practice occurring in movies and television on a regular basis, a practice that’s become known as “nostalgia baiting.”

Furthermore, this creates a potential in-story rationale for another of Hollywood’s long-standing trends: the franchise reboot. Just as time-travel was used to explain the recasting the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise in 2009’s Star Trek, movies and shows could now say that two different actors who look nothing alike really are playing the same character, albeit they come from “different universes.” In some cases, this even allowed for in-jokes, such as Brandon Routh playing both Ray Palmer and Superman in Crisis on Infinite Earths, or, in the Spider-Man: No Way Home trailer, Doctor Octopus’ (Alfred Molina) mistaken belief that Tom Holland’s Spider-Man isn’t Peter Parker because he doesn’t look like Tobey Maguire.

In the case of Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment, having a multiverse helped to salvage the failures of their own cinematic universe. Thanks to the disappointments that were Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and the theatrical cut of Justice League (2017), Warner Brothers and DC jettisoned their plans for an interconnected universe like Marvel and decided that everything was canon. Thus the “Synderverse” is just as valid as the “Arrowverse,” and can also co-exist alongside HBO Max shows like Titans and Doom Patrol. It’s also why they can have The Dark Knight Trilogy, Joker, and The Batman feature different interpretations of Batman and Batman-related characters without contradicting one another.

This also explains the rise of another practice occurring in movies and television on a regular basis, a practice that’s become known as “nostalgia baiting.” Not only do these movies or TV series merely reference a beloved movie or show, they bring in the same characters or even plot points from that movie or TV series, turning them into stealth sequels. Granted, this is nothing new, but the conceit of a “multiverse” gives film studios even more of an excuse to engage in this, hoping that an appeal towards fans’ nostalgia will generate increased ticket sales or higher ratings. It’s why the upcoming Flash movie teases images of Tim Burton’s Batman, and why Spider-Man: No Way Home has returning characters from both the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb Spider-Man movies. And we’ll likely see more in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

All of this may sound cynical, and for good reason. Having a multiverse means a near endless supply of potential sequels and relaunches. It’s also a means for them to keep creating comic book movies so long as they remain a marketable entertainment commodity. What we can all hope for, of course, is that comic book movies and television series that have good, riveting stories with believable characters continue to be made as well.

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Do you think comic book movies and television series having a “multiverse” is a good thing? Or is it becoming a tired concept? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.