The multiverse is upon us!
Everywhere you turn in popular culture these days, it seems like the world is not enough: From hit TV shows to blockbuster films, plot lines run through multiple parallel realities, a cosmic cornucopia that invites us to feast on “what-ifs” and “if-thens.”
Confused? Some examples are in order. In Spider-Man: No Way Home—with $1.89 billion of box office business, the sixth-highest grossing film ever released—the protagonist, one Peter Parker, copes with a personal crisis by fidgeting with the space-time continuum, forging a crack in the universe just wide enough for baddies from other planes of existence to weasel their way in. Thankfully, into the merry fray prance two more Spider-Men, each a Peter Parker in his own right and in his own universe. The fun isn’t just seeing all three actors who have portrayed the iconic character in different reboots and iterations stand together in one epic fight scene; it’s also hearing the three Peters compare notes and realize that the singular life each thought was inimitably his own is just a variation on a theme—and that somewhere out there another Peter is making slightly different choices, facing slightly different obstacles, and falling in love with slightly different women.
If you’re wondering how well the conceit worked for the mythmakers at Marvel Studios, the Disney subsidiary responsible for pretty much all of the superhero-themed entertainment we’ve been gobbling up for nearly two decades, you need only look at the title of their newest release. For his sophomore solo entry, the cranky sorcerer Doctor Strange will, we’re told, be launched into something called “the multiverse of madness,” which means even more characters confronting alternative iterations of themselves. And if that’s not enough, another multi-part animated exploration of the Spider-Verse is coming out next summer (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse). Disney+ recently released Moon Knight, a TV show about an unassuming museum employee whose other-dimension personalities are more, well, assuming. Everything Everywhere All at Once, a rollicking and impossible-to-define film starring Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis, plays with the comic-book trope of parallel worlds. It is a masterly and heartfelt love letter to the idea that each time we’re confronted with a decision, we unspool not one but two timelines—one for the choice we’ve made, one for the one we didn’t. Thus each individual life isn’t a linear progression from one point to another, but a combinatory thicket made up of many parallel decision trees. The list goes on.
Why so much attention to such a mind-bending idea? Why the sudden infatuation with all things multiversal? The answer, as always, lies not in our stars but in ourselves. Take a step back from all the head-scratching Hollywood wizardry on display, and you realize that under all the masks and capes and special effects, a simple human vulnerability lies bare: the crippling anxiety that comes from having free will.
As the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga noted in his magisterial Homo Ludens (“Man the Player”), our ancient ancestors emerged from the dim dawn of human consciousness only to realize how much they didn’t understand about the world around them. Why did the sun rise each morning in the east and set in the west? Why did the heavens at times shine with an unremitting brilliance, and at others grow dark and stormy? Early man had no answers, but he did have an elegant way to wrestle with the crippling anxiety of not knowing: He invented games. When you play, Huizinga astutely remarked, you’re truly free, because unlike life, whose infinite permutations are unknowable to mere mortals and thus produce anxiety and can even be paralyzing, games proceed from a basic set of rules. Tic-tac-toe, for example, among the simpler games concocted, offers no fewer than 362,880 different ways to fill one small grid. In clear and simple rules begin many possible paths.
It doesn’t take a theologian to see that religion seizes on this exact same principle. Religion understands that the only way to close the gap between the omniscience of the creator and the charming cluelessness of his creatures is to introduce the latter to a panoply of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” because free will is only free if it can choose between A and B, not between A and an endless array of other possibilities. Ask a young child to pick whether she’d like a cookie or a candy bar, say, and you’ll see some deliberate and fruitful reasoning at work. Drop her off at the supermarket and tell her she may buy anything she’d like, and she’ll most likely walk away empty-handed and frustrated. Shopping with no guardrails or guidelines is an ordeal, not an invitation to freedom. That’s even more true of life taken as a whole.
Unfortunately, while those of us who remain rooted in faith have restrictions and revelations aplenty to instruct us, many—the majority these days, alas—do not. They are forced to approach every choice they make afresh, without the benefit of a coherent ethical blueprint or a reliable moral compass. Family and romance, work and leisure—each and every other aspect of human life is governed not by some external and superior set of aspirations and beliefs but by the crippling fear that the choices we make might not be the right ones. When dating, say, is powered not by the desire to form families that make up the building blocks of a cohesive community organized around shared traditions but by the much more inchoate rumblings of individual carnal appetites, each encounter with a potential lover is as likely to lead to mortifying anxiety as to giddy eros. Is she the one? Should I marry him? How would we even know?
That’s why so many seek refuge in the multiverse fictions. There can be no more comforting notion, to a godless neurotic, than that all of your missteps are redeemable; all of your unrealized potential is being realized somewhere just around the cosmic bend; all of your unknowns are known somewhere else, where a different you has finally figured it all out. After all, if you believe that you are alone in the world, it helps to believe that there are many of you out there knocking about, filling the void with multiple meanings and increasing your odds of attaining happiness—or at least something less dreary than what you’ve got in this particular universe.
The lights turn on; the show’s over. Those of us not bit by radioactive spiders or gifted with boundless magical powers are alone. We learn once again that our verse is decidedly uni. Those crushed by the dissonance between the multiverse’s promise and the universe’s reality needn’t worry, though: Our forefathers, canny storytellers that they were, understood perfectly well just how lonely life can get, which is why they bequeathed to us an enchanted world of saints and miracles, of divine transformation and sweet salvation. And now that we’ve learned just how eager we are for tales of transcendence, all we have to do is recalibrate our spiritual algebra. In life, it turns out one soul in one world under the governance of one God is far greater than many anxious souls in many worlds with no divine conductor.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.