How “Everything Everywhere All At Once” Gets the 'Multiverse Movie' Right
By now, it doesn’t matter what your profession is — physicist, photographer, professional ping pong player — everyone knows about the multiverse. A long, long time ago, this concept was really only talked about by the greatest minds in the fields of science and philosophy. Nowadays the idea of the multiverse permeates pop culture, namely in our cinematic tradition to the degree that the multiverse movie is now a thing.
Thanks to Marvel, the idea of many universes existing at the same time seems about as normal as brushing your teeth.
But I’m here to break the news. Yes, I’m sorry to say it, but the MCU never got the multiverse right.
It took DANIELS, two writer/directors with the same first name, an everything bagel, some googly eyes, and people with hot dog fingers to finally get the multiverse movie right.
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What is the Multiverse?
Before we get too deep, I want to take a minute to talk about the multiverse.
The concept of the multiverse is the idea that there are an infinite number of universes outside of our observable one. These other universes contain infinite versions of our universe, in which every possibility of every conceivable event, choice, action, or scenario is played out.
Basically, if in this universe you had to choose between pancakes and waffles for breakfast this morning and you chose pancakes… there’s another universe out there where you chose waffles.
Here's Neil deGrasse Tyson to explain:
The Multiverse as a Storytelling Device
Though the multiverse really exploded into the public consciousness of pop culture in the past 10 years or so, the idea has been prevalent in storytelling for decades.
Both DC and Marvel comics introduced the multiverse back in the 1960s, first with the Flash, but quickly with many other characters like Captain America, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman.
But this isn’t just a trope seen in comic books; the idea of the multiverse has popped up in Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and the James Bond franchise.
As culture writer David Sims puts it in a roundtable discussion published by The Atlantic, “[The multiverse] is how you explain that both Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck play Batman, right? Comic books publish for decades. Things change, new writers come in, and things get revamped. It’s how you explain everything.”
And that’s how the multiverse was predominantly used for decades — as a storytelling device that helped explain why some characters came back from the dead and others were played by different actors every dozen or so years.
MCU and the Multiverse
Back in 2018, the award-winning animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse used the multiverse to bring together different versions of the web-slinging hero, including a female Spider-Woman, a pig Spider-Man, an anime Spider-Man, and a brooding film noir Spider-Man.
Not long after, the multiverse made its way to the Phase Three movies of the MCU, culminating in Avengers: Endgame, in which the titular heroes rely on the multiverse to defeat Thanos and save the universe.
Endgame spun audiences into Phase Four, which brought WandaVision, Loki, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, to name a few.
While, I’ll admit, seeing three iterations of Spider-Man together on the big screen was pretty freakin’ cool, none of these Marvel movies or shows have used the concept of the multiverse as anything more than a plot device. The "multiverse movie" became a subgenre that was barely entangled in the roots of its multidimensional story engine.
Loki may flit around the many universes and end up meeting a version of himself that’s a crocodile, but he never has to deal with the existential, philosophical repercussions of the multiverse.
For Marvel, the multiverse is just a convenient crutch. It’s an easy way to keep a fan-favorite character alive when another storyline necessitates their death or have two unlikely characters band together for a fun adventure with no consequences to the main timeline of their stories.
But by ignoring the existential, philosophical ideas at the heart of the multiverse, Marvel is doing their cinematic universe a severe narrative disservice, which is exactly what Wisecrack's Michael Burns points out in his video essay about the philosophy of hit film Everything Everywhere All At Once.
The Multiverse as a Metaphor
In his video essay, Burns dives into the history of existentialism, outlining how it sprung from the idealist movement before it and in opposition to metaphysics, as well as the various ways existentialist philosophers of the early 20th century differed in their thinking on the subject.
Burns then details the various ways these philosophical principles show up in the characters of Everything Everywhere All At Once — from Jobu Topaki’s nihilist view of the universe to Waymond’s optimistic call for kindness.
At the beginning of the movie, Evelyn, Joy (AKA: Jobu), and Waymond are all dealing with their own existential crisis in some way. As their world is thrown into chaos with verse-jumping, a monstrous IRS agent, and an everything bagel of doom, the multiverse doesn’t just serve as obstacles in the plot, it compounds and complicates the emotional arcs of the characters.
See, the brilliance of Everything Everywhere All At Once is that it uses the multiverse as a metaphor, not a plot device.
Do Choices Even Matter in the Multiverse?
In an interview with The Ringer, writer/director Daniel Kwan said that when he and Daniel Scheinert started writing, they were already frustrated with multiverse narratives.
“And the frustrating thing about them is that no one is willing to go to the logical conclusion, which is infinity. If every single choice branches off into another universe, there should be an infinite number of universes, which means narrative doesn’t matter; choices don’t matter. Why should you care at all?”
What he’s talking about are stakes. Superhero movies may use the multiverse as a plot device, but because it’s just a handy way to bring characters back from the dead, audiences often leave those movies feeling like nothing they saw matters.
After all, if you watch your favorite caped crusader sacrifice himself to save the world, but the trailer for the next movie he’s in dropped on YouTube last week… what’s the point?
Raising the Stakes Makes the Multiverse Matter
With Everything Everywhere All At Once, DANIELS solved this problem by making the movie center on a single family. ScreenCraft recently featured an interview with DANIELS on the Script Apart podcast, in which Daniel Kwan says:
"Basically, [in the opening act] we were setting up the problem for our character – this idea that in a chaotic world pulling your attention between different things, it becomes impossible to just look at the people you love and see eye to eye with them. And that accidentally hurts people."
Yes, the world might cease to exist if Evelyn doesn’t reach her full potential and verse-jump to stop Jobu Topaki from sucking everything into the black void that is the everything bagel, but the real conflict of the film is between a mother and daughter.
The heart of the story is Evelyn’s tenuous relationship with her daughter, Joy.
In reality, if confronted with the existence of the multiverse, any one of us could descend into a regret-filled spiral about paths-not-taken like Evelyn. Or, like Jobu Topaki, we could end up believing that nothing has any meaning at all.
How DANIELS Got the Multiverse Movie Right
Burns says in his video essay that, in the end, the film seems to perpetuate the idea that, “just because reality doesn’t come pre-loaded with meaning doesn’t mean that we can’t create truth in our own lives.”
In this way, DANIELS finally got multiverse storytelling right. They looked at the infinite, incredibly personal chaos the multiverse presents when added to any story and actually followed that thread to an emotional conclusion.
“The remarkable thing about the structure of this movie is that, however wild its channel-flipping, it’s essentially working you through a logic problem about the point of life,” said writer Spencer Kornhaber in the Atlantic roundtable discussion.
As Burns points out, this all comes to a head in the emotional climax of the movie — when Evelyn and Joy are standing in the laundromat parking lot, faced with the decision about whether or not to give up on each other or keep trying even though it’s painful.
“Here, all we get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes any sense,” Joy says.
“Then I will cherish these few specks of time,” Evelyn responds.
It’s possible to watch Everything Everywhere All At Once and view the multiverse as a metaphor for depression, ADHD, code-switching, generation gaps, digital identities, the 24-hour news cycle, regret, or acceptance. Or it’s possible to watch the movie and see its use of the multiverse as a metaphor for every one of these things, everywhere, all at once.
By embracing the infinite possibilities of what the multiverse could add to their story’s plot, Daniels ended up with hot dog fingers, Racacoonie, arguing piñatas, sentient rocks, and so much more.
But by embracing the multiverse as a metaphor, they were able to inextricably tie this device to the theme of their story and say something bigger, something endlessly meaningful.
So, if you're interested in writing your own multiverse movie, studying Everything Everywhere All At Once should be top priority.