Scott Hardie | May 14, 2022
There have been lots of different takes on multiverses in pop culture for many years now, but Marvel has recently popularized the idea and it seems to be everywhere right now. Different multiverses are portrayed with different internal logic, but a frequent element is the infinite: There are an infinite number of variations between universes, often with a "butterfly flaps its wings" ripple effect, such as, say, your decision to have toast for breakfast instead of bacon leads unexpectedly to significant changes in your life and thus the lives around you and thus the influence that those people have and so on.

I wonder if anyone else has the same fundamental problem with this idea that I do, which is that an infinite multiverse is inherently meaningless. So what if a villain collapses one universe after another? There are an infinite number more. So what if something good or bad happens in one universe? There are an infinite number where it didn't happen. I find it impossible to care about the dramatic stakes under such circumstances.

For instance, and I'll try to avoid spoilers here: There is a moment in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness where a caretaker is trying to protect someone else in the multiverse, and they get asked, "What happens if your ward gets sick?" And the caretaker responds, "I'll just go to a universe where there's a cure and bring it back." They're missing the point that there are an infinite number of universes where the ward gets sick, just like there's an infinite number where they don't. Hell, there's also an infinite number of universes where those two characters had that conversation and an infinite number where they didn't. Thus, it doesn't matter what you do to protect the ward in one universe; there's an infinite number where you fail to protect them and they die, and it's impossible to solve that problem.

They say it's hard for humans to grasp the concept of infinity properly, but I grasp this: All effort that you can possibly make is finite, and thus you can never make a difference in the big picture. You could live for ten billion billion years and spend every waking moment helping people, and there would still be more universes where those same people went without your help and suffered, because that's how infinity works. It's a depressing and nihilistic concept, eliminating any possibility of meaningful impact. Existentialists might have the answer: The best that you could do is make your own meaning on the small scale, as in, I helped this person today and it was worthwhile no matter what else happened elsewhere.

Incidentally, that's one of the many things that I appreciated about Everything Everywhere All at Once: Its use of the multiverse is primarily symbolic rather than literal. For all of the wild cross-dimensional stuff happening, the story really is about this specific family in this specific world, and everything else that happens serves as metaphor to dramatize their emotional conflict. It succeeds by focusing on the infinitesimal instead of the infinite.

So, when you see a story about an infinite multiverse, do you find it as hard to care about the stakes as I do for the same reasons?

Evie Totty | May 14, 2022
Absolutely - I commented on the fate of the villain in DS2 and whether they would return in future movies. I'm confident they will be because of this infinite supply.

I can't help but think of Fringe and the Peter problem. I actually re-watched this within the past two years (I can't remember exactly) and that multiverse operated on the assumption that there were only the two universes. And the stakes were much higher. I don't recall there ever even been a mention of other universes outside of them. So that scenario was acceptable.

With an infinite number, deus ex machina becomes a real problem.


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