If you’ve ever taken a film history class — or attended a liberal arts college with a robust film program and plenty of cinephile mansplainers — you might’ve looked more deeply at genre films, and the ways in which certain narratives come in waves. Often, particular genres or themes have A Moment™, either sparking a trend or, at the very least, tapping into a kind of collective need the audience has to see a particular something reflected on screen — and in art as a whole.
So, in a world where we literally say things like “we’re living in the darkest timeline,” it’s no surprise that films about the multiverse are hot in Hollywood right now.
The Connection Between Genre & the Zeitgeist
When I think about the ways a film can reflect the zeitgeist, director George A. Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) comes to mind. While not the first zombie film to grace the silver screen, Romero’s hit certainly popularized the beings. (Well, even though he never refers to them as “zombies” in the movie.) Night of the Living Dead took horror to new places; instead of monsters in masks and makeup, Romero’s film brought terror to ordinary places and ushered in the “splatter film” subgenre.
But part of Night of the Living Dead’s resonance stems from what it was responding to, whether intentionally or not. There’s, of course, the carnage — a reflection of the unpopular war in Vietnam. The monsters in the film aren’t vampires, aliens or demons — they’re us.
In science-fiction and horror movies, filmmakers can use the innate reality-bending nature of the genres to explore a very human feeling, fear or truth. While the machinations surrounding the film’s meaning — people reanimating into flesh-hungry hordes, for example — are fantasy, this unreal element actually allows creators to interrogate something that’s otherwise hard to pin down. Maybe something a grounded, based-in-reality film just couldn’t get at in the same way.
In recent years, we’ve seen genre trends in film and television that reflect larger cultural anxieties or questions. Take the superhero movie, for example. Thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), superhero movies have dominated theaters for over a decade. Writing for Vox, Emily St. James argues that superhero films are a response to 9/11, noting that “It’s tragedy reimagined as cartoon — a version two steps removed that lets us glance at the real wound in our peripheral vision.”
So many of those early Marvel movies center on ordinary folks who’re given extraordinary opportunities; they find the inner strength to overcome and, later, avenge. There’s tons of destruction, but it’s rare when someone dies — it’s rare when a hero can’t save the day. With the first Avengers (2012) film, the parallel is made all the more evident; at its center is Captain America (Chris Evans), defending New York City from skyscraper-toppling, airborne leviathans.
Even before the MCU debuted, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) saw the titular web-slinger (Tobey Maguire) saving Manhattan, and being saved by the collective efforts of New Yorkers. Whether you feel Marvel’s tapping into our collective grief to be compelling, cathartic or exploitative, there’s no denying that it was a reflection of society’s desire to rewrite a traumatic moment and recast ourselves as day-saving heroes.
So, How Are Multiverse Films Reflecting Our Present Moment?
Adapted into a movie a decade ago, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, while not exactly a multiverse story, did tap into a particular kind of “what if.” In Cloud Atlas, characters’ souls “cross ages like clouds cross skies,” taking different shapes in different times, but remaining “them” in some capacity. Told from multiple points of view, the novel, and all of its “everything everywhere,” is given structure thanks to the flow of time. Without it, one of Mitchell’s characters posits, every moment would happen at once. Co-directed by the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), it’s no surprise that Cloud Atlas was ahead of the trend.
While 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse brought us face to face with a fun version of the multiverse, the concept is having an even bigger moment now. In 2021, the MCU churned out Loki, What If…?, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, all of which touched on the multiverse — or the idea of other concurrent timelines — in some capacity.
Andy Samberg’s sci-fi rom-com Palm Springs (2020) touched upon a related genre convention: the endless time loop. Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman (2021) blurs the lines between past and present. Alex Garland’s 2020 sci-fi thriller series, Devs, dove into the many-worlds interpretation; that is, all possible outcomes of quantum measurements are realized in some world or universe.
In 2022, arguably the biggest movie to hit screens has been Everything Everywhere All at Once. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively referred to as “the Daniels” (Swiss Army Man), and starring Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema legend Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the film centers on Evelyn Wang (Yeoh), a Chinese American woman who’s just trying to run a laundromat, keep her family in line and get through an audit.
Soon enough, Evelyn finds herself swept up in some multiverse madness. There’s quite a bit going on in the movie, to say the least, and the feeling of “you never know where it’s going next” is part of the thrill. It’s a bold, fearless take on the “chosen one” template; an omnipresent being is destroying worlds, and, hopefully, this version of Evelyn can stop it. She borrows abilities from other selves — all living lives she could’ve had if she’d made different choices, or one little detail had been different. As one character tells Evelyn, “Every rejection, every disappointment, has led you here — to this moment.”
With Marvel’s Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hitting screens this week, it’s clear that the trend is more than mere coincidence. And it’s not just a cinematic trend either; currently, several bestsellers, including Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, touch on “what if” and multiverse tropes. (Maybe this isn’t shocking coming from the author of Station Eleven — she clearly has a knack for predicting the zeitgeist.)
Why are alternate timelines and the very possibility of the multiverse speaking to us so strongly right now? Really, time in general is messy when it comes to the stories we’re most invested in at the moment. Not to mention, it feels messy in general. How long ago was 2019? Sometimes it takes a minute to adjust, to remember. In a world where a pandemic caught us off guard and reshaped our day-to-day lives — and, in some cases, the trajectory we envisioned for the coming years — there’s something about the “what if?” of it all.
Not just, “what if this never happened?” but “what if there’s a version of us that isn’t dealing with the pandemic and its many fallouts?” Like I said before, we’ve grown accustomed to making jokes about this being “the darkest timeline,” given not just COVID-19, but the wars, political gridlocks, hateful extremism and looming climate crisis. And that’s just to name a few of the terrors.
The escapist fantasy of having the power to change our reality is more tempting than other narratives. Instead of imagining we have the superpowers needed to thwart a big bad or evil made manifest, we’ve reached a point where we want to exercise our ability to choose. If we’d known what would unfold in 2020, and the years following, would we have done something different? In a larger sense, would we choose a different now with a kind of omnipresent/multiverse hindsight?
“What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable,” Mitchell writes in his novel. “To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.” While it’s hard to imagine exactly what we’d choose to do differently, if anything, it’s nice to dream, or live vicariously through a multiverse movie. As Everything Everywhere All at Once illustrates, the ability to choose something else, or elsewhere, can feel liberating — if only for a moment.