Ever been in a lift where all the wall panels are mirrored, so you can see recursive clones of yourself stretching out seemingly forever? That’s when I feel compelled to do a theatrical window-cleaning wave to all those other Graemes and exclaim (in a Dracula voice, for some reason): “Velcome, my friends … to zee multiverse!” Great fun, and if it bothers the other people in the lift they usually keep pretty quiet about it.
That’s the key thing when it comes to the concept of a multiverse: it should be a blast. An endless domino rally of parallel dimensions where the familiar is remixed or upended in some profound or dizzying way. But so far super-powered cinematic universes seem to be playing it safe. Instead of opening up a fireworks display of new storytelling options, the multiverse is mostly being used as a mechanism to repackage greatest hits from the past.
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Sure, it was a thrill to witness a team-up between three generations of cinematic web-slingers in Spider-Man: No Way Home but in the end it was more of a group hug than an actual story. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness introduced alternate versions of familiar heroes (including the return of a beloved baldie mutant) and then promptly eviscerated all of them. But that’s OK, right? Because the beauty of a multiverse is that you can grab a spare from another dimension, as in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3. But subbing in a replacement Gamora – albeit an entertainingly aggrieved one – diminished the original character’s sacrifice back in Avengers: Infinity War. Turns out playing in a cosmic sandpit of infinite options can sand down the dramatic stakes.
Judging by the busy post-credits scene for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Marvel is going all in on the concept. And their great comic rivals DC, whose superhero films have long been marshalled by Warner Bros, are about to make their own belated visit to the multiverse buffet. This month’s much-delayed blockbuster The Flash somehow heralds the return of Michael Keaton as the Tim Burton-era Batman. When Ezra Miller’s cosmically nimble Flash uses their super-speed to wear down the barriers between different DC dimensions, the studio are hoping it will remind audiences of cool heroes past while also preparing the ground for a new pic’n’mix era. From this Flash point on, the DC movie universe could feasibly showcase any old Batman, a brand-new Superman, probably the same Harley Quinn and maybe even a financially viable Green Lantern. This is where we find ourselves in 2023. In superhero cinema, everything is going to get ’verse before it gets better.
There is one shining light in a world of endlessly reflected Dark Knights. This week sees the release of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the follow-up to 2018’s Spider- Man: Into the Spider-Verse. That fun, frantically animated adventure saw novice web-slinger Miles Morales tutored by weird and wonderful Spider-Men – and Spider-Women, and even a Spider-Pig – beamed in from other dimensions. With its vibrant, graffiti-influenced visual style, it was that rare comic book-inspired movie that looked like an actual comic book, and it deservedly won the Oscar for best animated feature.