Originally a concept for superhero comics, the idea of parallel worlds has much to show us about modern life.

The multiverse is everywhere these days — but what does that mean for you? For most of its fictional history, the concept of an infinite expanse of parallel worlds was solely the terrain of superheroes and other larger-than-life adventurers. But the brilliance of the new film Everything Everywhere All At Once is how it turns the multiverse into a metaphor that works for everyone.

The reason its protagonist Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) can traverse so many parallel universes — in which she alternates between being a chef, a rock with googly eyes stuck to it, and Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love, among other personas — is precisely her normalcy. It's Evelyn's everydayness, running a laundromat alongside her husband and struggling to understand her teenage daughter, that makes her able to step into other paths.

This is a welcome evolution of the multiverse as a concept, which originally entered pop culture in the pages of superhero comics and has mostly stayed in the realm of fakeness — until now.

A brief history of time

The Flash of Two Worlds Comic
'The Flash' #123 by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino first introduced the DC multiverse in 1961.
| Credit: DC Comics

A science fiction concept since at least the early 1960s, the multiverse has long existed. But the superhero version of the multiverse initially began as a way of bridging different publishing eras.

The first flowering of costumed crusaders occurred alongside the Great Depression and World War II; this era is retroactively referred to as the "Golden Age" and produced several icons that are still with us today, like Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. After the comic-book industry rebooted following the prudish witch hunts of the postwar period, the "Silver Age" introduced a new generation of superheroes with a particular passion for science. Foremost among these scientist-heroes was speedster Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash — but he wasn't the first character to bear that name.

Jay Garrick had been the Flash during the Golden Age, but his comics were canceled amid that postwar purge. He and Barry finally came face-to-face in the pages of 1961's The Flash #123. This story, "Flash of Two Worlds," revealed that Barry and Jay actually existed on parallel Earths and could visit each other via the pseudo-science of vibrating at different speeds. The DC multiverse was born — and only a few months before The Fantastic Four #1 hit stands. The newly-renamed Marvel Comics took a different path towards internal cohesion. Its superheroes all lived within blocks of each other in New York City, and didn't need a Cosmic Treadmill in order to team up.

Marvel's success over the years represented the triumph of a straightforward, singular continuity, and eventually DC followed suit. The 1985 event comic Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman and George Perez destroyed DC's multiverse. A cosmic monster named the Anti-Monitor consumed each parallel world until only one was left for all DC characters to live in together going forward. Barry Allen, who had been the first hero to traverse the multiverse, died in the conflagration, the martyr of a changing era.

Eternal recurrence

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) are all Spider-Man in 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.'
| Credit: Sony Pictures Animation

The superhero multiverse is an idea with varying levels of commercial success over the years, but it certainly makes for a great way to revive a fading brand. Marvel's much-vaunted continuity, one that rewards fans for the more comics or movies they know, only works up to a point. Once you hit the 20th film in a series or the 300th issue of a comic series, the amount of homework required to enjoy new installments becomes oppressive.

The 2018 animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse took a different approach. Its protagonist, Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), was a fresh, 21st-century revitalization of the working-class Queens hero. Into the Spider-Verse envisioned the multiverse as a horizon of possibilities, where the heroic figure of Spider-Man could just as easily be a high-flying female drummer or a kid genius from a cyperbunk anime future. At the time of Spider-Verse's release, the film's story of a multidimensional Spider-hero seemed like the kind of thing that would only be allowed to exist within the sidecar of animation. But after it became an Oscar-winning success and the sheen started to wear off the MCU following the climactic Avengers: Endgame, it provided a template for the most successful live-action Spider-Man movie ever.

Spider-Man: No Way Home, which eschewed the former sacredness of Marvel Studios' self-contained narrative to bring Tom Holland's Peter Parker face-to-face with versions previously played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, was a movie that may as well have been titled Spider-Man of Three Worlds. It shattered pandemic-era box office records and became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time (currently its worldwide haul hovers at $1.8 billion). The upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness looks to continue the trend by incorporating Patrick Stewart's Professor X from Fox's X-Men movies.

Horizons of possibility

The multiverse has provided various commercial uses for superhero stories, but is that all it can do? Not according to Everything Everywhere All at Once directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (a.k.a. Daniels).

It turns out that the multiverse actually makes a great metaphor for the internet, where people can inhabit the same physical space but have wildly different perceptions of reality based on which online spheres they flock to. As many of us have experienced in our own lives, this can easily foster generational conflict: e.g., parents on Facebook who can't understand why their kids on Tumblr and TikTok are learning new ways to speak about their identities.

Michelle Yeoh in 'Everything Everywhere All at Once'
| Credit: David Bornfriend/A24

It's clear from the beginning of Everything Everywhere that Chinese grandfather Gong Gong (James Hong) doesn't have an intuitive understanding of his granddaughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), or that she has a girlfriend (Tallie Medel). But what becomes clear as the story goes is that Evelyn, Joy's mother, also struggles to accept her daughter. No wonder these family elders have a harder time comprehending the multiverse than Joy, who becomes capable of seeing and experiencing every parallel reality at once. The sensation is overwhelming, turning her into the monster known as "Jobu Tupaki" and inspiring her to destroy everything, if only to stop the noise.

Living on the internet every day as so many of us do, it's easy to feel like you're living through a never-ending crisis. Every feed you check makes it seem like another world is ending: distressing updates about the climate or a new war breaking out or a public shooting ripping through families and communities. We have access to more information at any time than ever before in human history, yet this abundance leaves us feeling more alienated and depressed than uplifted and inspired.

But all that knowledge can be helpful; we just have to use it in the right way. The fictional concept of the multiverse encourages thoughtfulness by showing us what could've been. In other universes, Evelyn's husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is a scientist, a skilled fighter, a suave gentleman, not a schlubby laundromat operator. Offscreen, the same is true for Quan himself, who starred in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies as an '80s-era child actor before leaving the industry for lack of good roles for Asian men. Having finally returned to a more diverse cinematic landscape, Quan is now demonstrating that he could have been playing Tony Leung-style leading man roles this whole time. Seeing those possibilities and roads not taken can inform our approach to our own present, and remind us not to underestimate anyone's potential.

In comic books, you need a Superman to destroy the Anti-Monitor. But the beautiful thing about Everything Everywhere All at Once is that it reminds us that we're all capable of traversing (and saving) reality. Humility, empathy, a willingness to admit mistakes — these are the things that stop Jobu Tubaki from destroying the multiverse, not a cosmic fistfight.

The multiverse isn't just for superheroes anymore. We're all stuck in it. So better off opening up to the possibilities, like some inspired filmmakers are already doing.

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