Since the 2018 release of Sony Pictures Animation’s Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, it has seemed as though the entirety of our entertainment landscape has been obsessed with the idea of the multiverse.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken cinemas by storm with its expansive storylines, shows like Rick and Morty have led pop-culture frenzies and indie films like A24’s 2022 blockbuster Everything Everywhere All At Once have shown that the multiverse can be dramatic, comedic — and in some capacity — tragic.
For modern audiences, the idea of the infinite, ever-expansive multiverse has become an infatuation. While it would be easy to say this is merely because “we enjoy the long ever-expanding stories” or that “it’s fun to get lost in a limitless fictional universe,” I think our obsession with the multiverse comes from a different, more existential and anxiety-ridden part of our modern psyche – one that is driven by the questions of, “what are we doing here?” And, “where are we going?” Spurred by a world that is ever-so-quickly creeping further into uncertainty.
You see, since 2018 — and more ostensibly 2020 through 2022 of the COVID-19 pandemic — depression and anxiety rates among the public have increased 25 per cent according to the World Health Organization, with young people being the most affected. Over the same period, Gen-Zs have come to adopt philosophies of absurdism, nihilism and existentialism to cope with a world facing climate change, political turmoil and growing wealth inequality. These factors are obviously going to have some impact on the media we see and produce, and I feel the absurd, nihilistic and existential multiverse has proved to perfectly fit this concept.
What do I mean by this? Well, the concept of the multiverse offers every option to solve the difficulties of our modern reality. We live in a world where many things are finite. Decisions and actions can be made in the moment, but we cannot go back to change them. There are global crises that impact us daily, but are still out of our control. We can do so much, but so little all at once. Limitations mixed with the uncertain trajectory of our world feed grief and anxiety. The concept of the multiverse meanwhile stands in direct opposition to such realities.
The multiverse — unlike our reality — is infinite, replete with versions of ourselves and worlds that provide every opportunity we did not get, every decision we did not make, and every thing we did not have. In the multiverse there is a universe where climate change has been solved, a universe where we become the ideal version of ourselves and a universe where we did not make that one cringey mistake that keeps us lying awake at night.
In spite of its never-ending possibilities, the multiverse can, rather contradictorily, provide a feeling of security through infinite abundance. It is this security provided by infinite opportunities that I believe has made the concept of the multiverse the favourite trope of modern movie-goers.
Through a combination of heightened anxiety and depression rates, while also living in a world filled with social media that constantly shows us what other people are doing, have — or don’t have — it has become essentially impossible for someone to not spend time thinking that, if they had just slightly difference circumstances or made slightly different decisions, things would be slightly better for them. In some vein, it’s as though we have adopted multiversal thinking into our own daily-lives. This is the plight of the modern obsession with the multiverse — it can incite within ourselves a never-ending pursuit of perfection that is impossible to realize due to the inherently limited nature of our universe.
The multiverses we see paralleled in modern cinema aren’t there just to suck us into these fictional stories that ultimately churn out the big-bucks for film conglomerates. Modern multiverses are a product of distress management for a world that is seemingly ever-expansive and extremely limited at the same time. They are a way to play out comforting, sometimes even encouraging fantasies in our heads that serve as reminders to the ever-present version of ourselves that we can change, do new things and lead different lives, while simultaneously burning ourselves out with decision paralysis.
The concept of the multiverse is a fun concept to ponder, an infinitely fun concept one might say, but it can also be destructive as it is used in media and in our own lives, as a way to escape the duties and struggles of our complex world. Regardless, as we continue to trudge forward into an uncertain future, I’m sure that more films, television shows and books will adopt absurdist and existentialist themes to combat — but also rather unfortunately — feed our grief, anxiety and stress about who we are, what we are doing and where the future is going.
Although, perhaps in some universe that doesn’t happen. Perhaps in some universe the modern love for the multiverse dies post-haste. Perhaps in some universe such stressors have changed our cultural landscape into one that’s more positively focused and less infinitely-inclined. Perhaps in some universe my writing has convinced you of this modern plight – in another it has only angered you. Perhaps in another you even feel that all this cultural-theorization is far-fetched baloney. But hey, don’t worry, the multiverse is also a little far-fetched.