How Do You Make a Multiverse Work?

Why the MCU Probably Will Never Nail It

Look, I’m writing this as we’re on the cusp of Deadpool & Wolverine coming out, and it’s entirely possible that somehow that film could launch a renaissance for the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. and suddenly Disney renews their license to print money. I’m willing to say that’s a possibility… I just don’t think it’s a big one. We’re a phase and a half into The Multiverse Saga and it’s pretty clear that Marvel and Disney overplayed their hand, putting out too much content based around a franchise that really needed a period to cool off and chill before the next big whatever came along. Fans had been riding the MCU high for ten years straight, there was no way that momentum could continue forever. In retrospect, that should have been clear.

Instead, though, Marvel put out more material in Phase IV than they’d put in the previous three Phases combined (for The Infinity Saga), and they did it across movies and TV shows, absolutely flooding fans and overloading them with “homework” they had to keep up with if they wanted to continue enjoying the MCU. And that doesn’t even get into the fact that the quality suffered during this period, with Marvel putting out a lot of crap shows and middling movies that drained whatever residual energy was left post Avengers: Endgame. Even if the next set of stories had been built around a cohesive idea, it would have been hard to keep people engaged with the MCU during this time.

But the idea of the “Multiverse” is in no way as compelling as The Infinity Saga. For one, Marvel’s first big cinematic saga was built around an easy to understand premise with an easy to hate villain. Thanos was big and powerful and what he wanted was a set of stones. He sent his people out, they caused carnage, and eventually the stones came together. It was a fetch quest, with the heroes eventually realizing they needed to keep the stones away from the big guy. They failed, and then they had to cheat and get them back so they could save the universe. When you boil it down, it’s easy to understand: bad guy, bad stones, get stones, save universe.

What is the point of The Multiverse Saga? Well, it’s the Multiverse, so there’s a lot of different dimensions with a lot of different versions of heroes and they can all interact and stuff. Plus there’s a bad guy who wants… to do… something? See, we’re already at a point where it’s hard to define what exactly is going on, and we’re well past the point where the whole of the saga should have come together. Again, we’ve had more content in just one phase of this saga than everything that came before. We’re that deep and I still can’t tell you what is going on with the MCU.

Part of the issue is that Kang, the would-be villain of The Multiverse Saga is in no way as compelling of a villain as Thanos. In part that’s because we’ve so far only seen one villainous version of him, the Kang from Ant-Man and Wasp: Quantumania, and that movie was a cinematic disaster. He’s a multiversal set of villains… that aren’t even all villains. He Who Remains, from Loki: Season 1, had good intentions and could hardly be called a villain, really. An omnipotent force, sure, but not really a villain. Victor Timely, from Loki: Season 2, was just a dude. A smart dude, sure, but a mortal dude, and not a villainous one at all.

What we lack, in Kang, is cohesion. He’s too many ideas, too many beings, too many different forces pulling the concept of the villain in too many directions, and most of the versions we’ve seen so far haven’t even been evil. It’s hard to understand a villain like that, let alone care about whatever he’s plotting, when we can’t even understand who he is. The fact that we also, as of yet, don’t even know what he’s planning to do also makes it hard to care. Kang just doesn’t work for what Marvel had planned.

Of course, there’s also the fact that Johnathan Majors was fired from the MCU after his legal issues, and now we may not even see Kang in this series at all. Current rumors still point to Dr. Doom becoming the villain for this saga, so… who knows? Doom is certainly a more compelling villain, and he always has clear, interesting plans and clear, understandable motivations. Ditching Kang will seem weird since Marvel has spent a fair bit of time trying to build him up, but that’s no worse than keeping Kang around to the disinterest of audiences.

Still, that doesn’t really get to the big issue which is that the MCU is not the kind of place meant for multiversal stories. As Kang proves, it’s hard in this medium (of TV shows and movies) to get people to care about a long running, massively scaled, multiversal saga. When you consider how many characters are in the MCU at this point, and how many variations you’d then expect people to keep up with and care about, that feels like too much for your average consumer to even care about. Which, clearly, they aren’t since the movies and shows that tied into The Multiverse Saga are the ones people seem to skip.

That’s not to say you couldn’t do any multiversal stories within the bounds of the MCU. What If...?: Season 1 and Season 2 have proven that there’s fun to be had from seeing familiar characters and stories from new perspectives. But that shows works because, even when it’s taking stuff we know, it remains fairly self-contained. It doesn’t bleed over into the movies and other shows, it just tells its weird stories (sometimes with its own, in-series crossovers) and has fun being a joyous, doofy lark. That’s where the Multiverse can shine. Loki found that same energy and it, too, was brilliant when it wasn’t trying to tie into the MCU and tell a grander narrative. Just let us see weird stuff and have fun with the concept of the Multiverse.

I would also point out another franchise that tried to introduce the Multiverse to the general displeasure of audiences: the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe.. The Flash, which was meant to be a soft-reboot of that franchise until it failed, gave us a time-hopping, multiversal story that, in its last act, even tied in other DC film franchises as if to say, “behold, the Multiverse.” This annoyed fans, and was ignored by everyone else, and DC’s big plans died with a sad whimper. Audiences don’t want you to just shove the Multiverse into whatever. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it organically, with the fun of the concept inherent to the story.

That, naturally, leads us to the one place where the Multiverse is being done right: the animated SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. films. Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse set up it’s hero, Miles Morales, in his own pocket universe and then let other versions of Spidey pop in from other dimensions. The whole point of the story was that it was meant to be a multiversal tale, but from the very outside it had fun with the goofy nature of the material. The Multiverse is a concept meant for fun. Parallel dimensions, alternate characters, Spock’s beard – these are goofy and silly and weird, and that’s Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse to a tee. If you’re not having goofy fun with it, you’re doing something wrong.

Of course, Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse also works because it’s a massively awesome movie that puts its characters first, and has a ton of heart. Seems like Marvel and DC could both learn from that lesson, too…

Still, it seems like the Multiverse works when it’s done as its own thing. You build on familiar concepts but, despite how big and wide the Multiverse is, you have to keep the story contained. In a massive, long-running franchise, it’s hard to see how you can build a multiversal story set in the main continuity and have it feel relevant to audiences. Even the Spider-verse films, great as they are, aren’t pulling in the Billion dollars that the MCU was making. They also cost less to make (which is another less Hollywood could stand to learn), so clearly there is an upper limit to what audiences will accept in their storytelling.

It all comes back, of course, to telling good stories. Instead of putting the cart before the horse and saying, “we’re going to Multiverse now,” Marvel (and DC as well) needs to come up with stories that matter. If there’s a multiversal aspect to the story, then that’s cool. But you can’t so Multiverse first, story second, and expect it to work. As Marvel and DC have illustrated, that path doesn’t work.