It’s a tired cliché to note that the movie industry is derivative. Anyone who owns both “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” on DVD could speak from similar authority.
But the most unique insights about our culture are found in such repetition. With apologies to Tipper Gore, our media doesn’t shape us; rather, our societal neuroses craft media in our image. It might seem odd to close out the 1990s with two films about extinction via meteorite, but then again, a country that had recently learned more than necessary about its president’s proclivities might just long for sweet annihilation instead.
So, what do we make of the recent cultural takeover of the multiverse? For anyone who doesn’t follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter, the multiverse is a theoretical concept that trades the conventional understanding of the universe with one where every single possible permutation exists simultaneously. For example, there could be a universe where your skin is blue, or where you are the fifth Beatle, or even one where you chose to do something more productive than read this.
Two films currently in theaters, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” have fun entertaining this theory. The popular animated TV show “Rick & Morty” has made it its bread and butter for years now. (If you don’t know about “Rick & Morty,” ask the nearest 13-year-old boy you encounter. If none are available, simply insult the show on social media and they will find you.)
Then what societal longing are these media fulfilling, enough to justify enough elbow room for mutual coexistence? Quite simply, everything. The multiverse is modernity’s fumbling grasp for meaning, transcendence cloaked in the guise of tolerable science. In a world that’s in a hurry to abandon religion, the multiverse tries to fill the growing void left in its wake.
“Doctor Strange,” “Everything Everywhere,” and “Rick and Morty” all make feints at nihilism, if not absurdism. Nihilism in the multiverse does make some sense. It’s hard enough to be alone in the universe, but when there are trillions of universes and thus trillions of versions of yourself, you lose even your authenticity. There is no lonelier place than a crowd.
But interestingly, all three of these media ignore the implications and insist on their preeminence to a bored cosmos. Protagonist Rick Sanchez is consistently the smartest scientist in whatever world he enters. Michelle Yeoh’s lowly laundromat owner in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is sought out across the multiverse because she alone possesses the skills to defeat a trans-universal evil. And the “Doctor Strange” from our universe proves to be the only version of himself that doesn’t betray his friends.
Devotees of reincarnation are unfailingly convinced they were Charlemagne in a past life. None suspect that they cleaned his chamber pot, or perhaps were the pot itself. The same goes for proponents of the multiverse. They understand statistically that they are just a sprinkle on the galactic donut, but can’t shake the notion that they are somehow the filling. A character in “Everything Everywhere” decries that ever since the emergence of the heliocentric theory, humanity has been in steady retreat from cosmic importance.
Christianity affirms that despite one’s location, we are made in the image of God and can thus safely reconcile our conflicting significance. But the secular world cannot justify that innate self-worth. The world still requires a savior, and somehow the savior that rises is always the audience surrogate. Everyone else is merely a side character; they, and thus we, are the protagonists of reality.
The contradictions continue with morality. By the logic of the multiverse, moral relativism should be the name of the game. Yet oddly, none of the multiverses pursue this ethical freedom. Instead they opt for a more fuzzy framework. In the cinematic multiverse, a declawed Christian ethic becomes, quite literally, a universal moral code.
Look no further than one of the many climaxes of “Everything Everywhere” (it makes “Return of the King” look positively concise), where a character argues that “we have to be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.”
This is a truly marvelous trick. It dissolves any demands to traditional strictures, reducing morality to a peacefully vague platitude. In a truly indifferent multiverse, true kindness has no real rationality besides not rocking the proverbial boat. In yet another climax of that film, Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn uses her trans-universal knowledge to satisfy her various combatants with material or sexual satisfaction. But this isn’t true benevolence, it’s more like pacification by satiation. In the morality of the multiverse, “kindness” is more sedative than love.
The real danger of the multiverse is that it replaces not only the fruits of religion, but even God itself. The main thesis of “Everything Everywhere” is that our lives are meaningless to the infinity of the cosmos, so whatever meaning can be found in creation lies in the material. But that’s like saying we need to pretend oxygen exists in order to breathe.
Similarly, the message of “Doctor Strange 2” is that if you can’t be happy, you can at least find solace that a version of you out there is living your best life. Heaven does become our own earth. The multiverse provides a do-it-yourself solution to age-old questions of purpose and the afterlife. Perhaps most revealing is a quote late in “Everything Everywhere,” where our hero declares that “the universe made me your mother.” Rather than killing God, the multiverse subtly replaces it. God remains a Father, but a cool one that lets you drink in the house.
If this interpretation of the metaverse sounds like a freshman course in existentialism, that’s because it ultimately is. The cinematic portrayal of the multiverse is fundamentally juvenile, allowing budding Sartres, too cowardly for Camus, to have their cake and eat it too. The multiverse is essentially the Netflix version of theology; when presented with thousands of options, it becomes far preferable to scroll instead of simply select.
As Chesterton said, the danger of losing God isn’t that we’ll believe in nothing, but rather anything. Even all at once.