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Monday, April 15, 2024

The Internet Gave Rise to the Modern Multiverse Movie

Since its inception, science fiction has served as a prism through which to view technological anxieties: Godzilla and Superman rising out of atomic dust, robot lovers that make viewers question the uniqueness of human life, the thrilling and perverse march of extractivism beyond the solar system. The genre’s most original narratives exorcise those fears through catharsis. Humanity outsmarts the kaiju; science cures the runaway contagion. Of all the modern worries, the disconnect between our internet selves and real lives might be the most slippery thing yet to fold into the dramatic arcs of science fiction. Yet somehow, in the last six months, cinema has exploded with a type of film that might be best suited to containing its unwieldy contours: the multiverse movie.

It’s somewhat surprising that such an apt manifestation of the internet has taken so long to develop. Sure, there have been other attempts; movies from Tron to Hackers to Ralph Breaks the Internet have attempted to visualize entering cyber worlds where globs of data travel in candy-colored networks. But what these movies illustrate is a desire for the metaverse, not our actual experience of how it feels to live an internet-augmented life.

The issue, narratively speaking, is that once you take away the fantasy element of stepping through the looking glass/screen, there’s not much left to play with. The experience is mental, not visual or physical. The internet is explosive and revolutionary, but the lived experience of being online is kind of an oversaturated drag—how do you make a story out of the scroll? Watching someone type or tap a smartphone isn’t engaging; creating multiple worlds that mimic the social web’s various pockets is.

The multiverse, like the internet, is not immersive but expansive. The theory of the multiverse posits that there are an infinite number of universes in which all and any combinations of possibilities are playing out. In movies like Everything Everywhere All at Once, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and last week’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the multiverse is less a view into limitless mashups of chance and more about the fracturing and potential of the self and society.

Take Evelyn, the protagonist in Everything Everywhere. She is bitter, distracted, and can't enjoy her family or her life as she expends all the RAM in her brain trying to keep her business running while dealing with a tax audit. But when Alpha Waymond, her husband from another universe, bursts into her life, she is introduced to all the people she could have been if she made different choices. Had she stayed at home in China instead of emigrating with her husband to America, she might’ve become a kung-fu master and movie star. In another life, a chef. In yet another, a woman with hot dogs for fingers, enjoying a tumultuous lesbian relationship. A deep-seated fear is confirmed. “You’re the most boring Evelyn,” Alpha Waymond explains.

In this mortal life, is there anything more heartbreaking than knowing, or suspecting, that you were just one chance encounter, one brave decision, away from being better, richer, more skilled, more loved, less lonely? Maybe if you hadn’t hit your head in just that particular way as a kid, you’d be a prodigy. We spend a long childhood wondering if we’ll turn out to be good-looking or smart or popular. Then there are those years where it’s in your hands, but so much already feels decided; the window is closing—fast, and then it’ll all be over. And then it’ll really be over.

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Like that verse-jumping device that Evelyn uses to tap into her other selves, the internet is its own kind of scrying glass. In the lives of others, so magnified, minute, and measured, we see paths not taken, experiences unlived. But the internet is more than a depressing video feed of other people’s parties. With curiosity and the blessing of anonymity, alt accounts or just the complete lack of norms, the internet is also a place to embrace all kinds of potentialities, to mold yourself beyond your current, physical circumstances—a lesson Evelyn learns as she taps into the skills of her other selves to fight off bad guys with butt plugs and Benihana knife skills.

But those are just the upsides of exploring one’s identity online. All that anonymity can also turn heroes into monsters. Peter Parker learns this in the first four minutes of Spider-Man: No Way Home when he’s framed for murder in a misleading video that gets publicized by a pundit with a huge platform. (Unsurprisingly, he turns out to just be some guy with a ring light and a greenscreen.) Peter is canceled, a fate worse than death because now he and his friends can’t get into college. Though his girlfriend, MJ, says she has no regrets, Peter is “trying to live two different lives,” as his aunt explains it, and he can’t handle it. The disconnect between the real Peter and the guy the internet knows is too taxing.

When the line between public and private is blurred, or outright destroyed, there is a demand to relinquish the private and the public self, to take hold of a personality that can traverse many different spheres while holding up to scrutiny. It’s daunting. Like Evelyn in Everything, there is a deep longing to “return to the way things were.” For Peter that means a time when he had a private self; for Evelyn, the simpler times of her youth. Instead, both characters are splitting at the seams while encountering an onslaught of enemies: vicious foes ruled by motives foreign to our protagonists’ worlds. Isn’t that the nightmare of the internet, that we say private things in a weird semi-public space and are judged by strangers who don’t know our context or intentions?

The multiverse narrative that’s playing out in these films is one that ultimately strives toward wholeness. Though fragmentation has to first be acknowledged and even celebrated, jumping between worlds and selves isn’t a sustainable state. Peter and Evelyn both find this elusive wholeness, which Everything likens to enlightenment, in not just embracing a range of selfhood but by embracing their enemies. In a moment that makes whole theaters burst into tears, Evelyn’s husband pleads with her. “I know you’re a fighter,” he says, but asks her to relinquish her defensive stance. “The only thing I know is that we have to be kind. Please, be kind, especially when we don’t know what’s going on.” Both Evelyn and Peter realize that defending themselves and the people they love means treating enemies with empathy. That’s all well and good when watching superheroes and fantastical villains fight on screen, quite another when you’re facing dehumanizing attacks online.

Evelyn and Peter have powers. Their care for their enemies literally transforms the enemies into other people, people who no longer threaten them. It is disheartening and even patronizing to be told that the reason that ideologues like transphobes, anti-abortion activists, and garden variety trolls haven’t relinquished their agendas is because they haven’t been treated with enough empathy, that people who fear for their rights are just too mean.

To shed one’s defensiveness in real life can be life-threatening, to shed it online is to feel that because you are no longer protecting your identity, you must think it is not worth protecting. To feel safe and empathetic online will require that we take advantage of the internet’s unique characteristics of experimentation, community organizing, access to boundless knowledge, and an abiding compulsion to share, to form new ways of celebrating and supporting our diversity. It is in that spirit that we might be able to take seriously the lesson in the multiverse-as-internet movies. We’re all traveling from different worlds, all aliens to one another, and we might as well say upon meeting: I come in peace.

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