We’re doing multiverses now. Last weekend, a friend dragged me to see Marvel’s latest product, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. For two hours I watched characters earnestly talk about their trauma, and then fly around firing jets of coloured magic at each other, and then more pompous trauma talk, like five-year-olds playing at adult emotional life, and then more joyless beams of coloured magic. I left the cinema muttering like a deranged war veteran. ‘Someone needs to be punished for this. We need show trials. We need to make them suffer for what they’ve done.’ My friend spoke, but I could barely hear him. I stared at an empty space roughly 50 metres behind his head. ‘You. You brought me here. You did this.’
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madnessis about a woman who has the power to travel between universes, visiting alternate realities where people made different decisions and life took a different path. Limitless potential! Anything you can imagine might be real! In one of these possible worlds, a red light means go, and pizza is served in spheres. In another – actually, there aren’t any others. The whole conceit is eventually revealed as a way for Marvel to waggle a few more of its intellectual properties in your face. In some cinemas this thing is playing 20 times a day, muscling out anything else you might want to watch. The story hints at infinite possibilities, while swaddling the world in a thick layer of the same.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is also about a woman who has the power to travel between universes, visiting alternate realities where she made different decisions and life took a different path. This is Evelyn Wang, a Chinese immigrant who runs a coin-op laundry in southern California, and whose life is falling apart. The business is failing; she’s withdrawing from her dopey husband Waymond, awkward around her queer daughter Joy, still afraid of her crumbling father, and being audited by the IRS. Michelle Yeoh is fantastic in these early scenes: neurotic terror bubbles behind her eyes as she stomps around, barking complaints at her family in a mishmash of English, Mandarin and Cantonese. At one point, she tries to offer her daughter a few loving words. She stammers for a moment. ‘You need to eat healthier food,’ she says at last. ‘You’re getting fat.’
But while Evelyn is on her way to meet with the IRS, she receives an urgent message from another reality. The multiverse is in danger: a great evil is spreading from world to world, destroying everything it touches, and only she can stop it. Why? Because she has failed to fulfil her dreams more times than anyone else in any universe. Which means there are more alternate versions of her than anyone else, living better lives she never lived – which means she can travel to their universes, absorb their powers, and save the infinite worlds.
This is a fun idea, and it sets up some entertaining comedy kung fu set pieces, but it feels uncomfortable. This film can’t quite commit to its interdimensional-war gimmick; it’s an appendage, mostly played for laughs, to the real story, which I kept waiting to arrive – and when it did, I wished it hadn’t. We end up spending very little time exploring these alternate Evelyns, or the spectral sadness of what could have been, or even the full imaginative potential of the multiverse. Instead, if you strip away the sci-fi elements and cut the film down to its narrative core, this is a story about a repressed, neurotic woman who finally learns to open up emotionally to her family. In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon writes, basically apropos of nothing, that ‘there is nothing so loathsome as a sentimental surrealist.’ He wasn’t wrong.
Everyone knows that mass culture is out of ideas: the cinemas are crawling with sequels, franchises, cinematic universes; the same warmed-over crap, over and over again. No wonder studios are turning to the multiverse: the concept is a ready-made stand-in for having lots of interesting new ideas. But the idea of an idea isn’t enough. Without any actual creative substance, we end up falling back on family-values schlock. There are exceptions, but they’re brief. Possibly the best scene in Everything Everywhere All At Once takes Evelyn to a universe where life never emerged on our planet, where she is a rock on the edge of a barren cliff. The scene is slow and quiet and genuinely very funny. What is it like to be a rock? Maybe in another world, the rest of this film would have been more like that.
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