Tom Jolliffe on the current preoccupation with the multiverse…
Cinema is all about cycles. Genres flit in and out of prominence. An action landscape which was once dominated by Westerns was then temporarily displaced by gangster films, then epics, then Westerns again, then a brief parley into pessimistic cinema, before Star Wars laid a significant blueprint for the blockbuster as we know it.
In smaller terms we see things that fall into fashion, either briefly, or more considerably drawn out. Fantasy films in the 80s, a wave of creature features in the wake of Jurassic Park in the 90s, a wave of wire-fu martial arts films after The Matrix (and lots and lots of leather-clad emo heroes). In more recent cinema history, everything is about superheroes. If Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi laid serious foundations, humbly begun with Wesley Snipes’ Blade, then Marvel broke into a whole new way of creating movies with Iron Man. No sooner than that first movie landed, Marvel toyed with the notion of a shared cinematic universe. Step forward a decade or so and things came to a crazy head with Avengers: Endgame, where the Kevin Feige formula peaked with a gargantuan blockbuster which had every character imaginable bar Kitchen-Sink Boy.
In the constant studio battles to maintain relevance and ride the tides, we see a number of tactics. One is to just remake as many properties as possible, no matter how irrelevant the IP might be in 2021. Disney is bashing out masses of increasingly lazy reboots via their streaming service, from a universally reviled Home Sweet Home Alone, to He’s All That, a new Turner and Hooch and more. Oddly, Disney, having monopolised everything by delivering what audiences wanted, and generally to at least a solid standard, are getting a bit lazy post Disney+. As if the streaming content doesn’t particularly matter. Disney aside we’re seeing innumerable Hollywood bastardizations of good foreign films (The Guilty, Riders of Justice) and a whole array of entirely unnecessary reboots of mid-level properties of yesteryear like Road House, Hellraiser, and Under Siege.
Then it’s all about trends. Right now the in thing appears to be the Multiverse. A few years ago, maybe only Marvel and DC comic aficionados could have told you what a Multiverse was. Now, any vaguely sentient movie-goer who watches more than a couple of superhero films a year probably has an idea about what it is. It’s already been touched upon with Doctor Strange and further in the big Avengers films (in as much as that ability to just bring a fantasy football league of heroes into the one picture).
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proved something of a surprise mega hit. It hadn’t been expected to make huge numbers but it did very well and more so, proved hugely popular among fans and critics. The film had Peter Parker encountering a number of other versions of himself from alternate universes. People with no prior thought on this concept suddenly became interested. Studios took note. There’s a sequel in the works to that too.
Furthermore, we have a whole array of films dealing in the multiverse. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will undoubtedly be rife with fan service cameos. In December, Marvel and Sony deliver Spider-Man: No Way Home, which promises to pilfer from the Tobey Maguire Spidey universe and the Andrew Garfield universe, lifting villains (and as expected, those respective Spideys).
Not to be outdone are DC who will delve into multiverses with Flashpoint, the big screen ‘solo’ debut of The Flash. So solo is his solo movie, that he’s only stopping short of resurrecting Adam West to reappear as Bruce Wayne from the psychedelic 60’s Batman universe. Michael Keaton and Batfleck will be returning to don cowl and cape however. It’s all very exciting… or is it?
The answer to this following question is undoubtedly yes. Am I just too old for this shit? For sure, but has this Multiverse malarkey burned out just as it’s started? Everyone is in on the act and undoubtedly more will follow. It’ll filter down to other entities and into low budget/indie genre cinema (I do feel slight inclinations to combine IP’s on indie horror films I’ve done). Multiverse is essentially an extension of the shared cinematic universe, which by now is old hat, but what this new more focused variation means, is that a host of films will be lifting identical plot points in how these multiple universes end up intertwining. How many wormholes of potential Universe-ending power will open and need to be closed?
There’s another problem with the Multiverse plotline, which once again is an extension of shared universes. Imagine ice cream. Maybe you like lots of flavours, so you get Neapolitan. Three is an indulgent and manageable mix. Well what about some crazy sumbitch that fires in mint choc chip, banana, toffee, raspberry ripple. They’re riffing now, jazz hands and wild abandon. Out come biscuit crumbs of differing varieties. Then wafers, cones, mallows, some sprinkles, fruits? Sure, fruits…You then look down at the bowl. It’s a fucking mess. You eat. 30 minutes in and you’ve got a headache. Some times too many elements thrown in, cause nothing but mess.
It might be that, like the huge Avengers saga which ended the last phase, the messy mass of characters and diverging plot strands can be overlooked by some because of the visual spectacle they bring with it. Trouble is, Infinity War and Endgame did this in as gargantuan a way as possible, so insanely huge to become an entity unto itself. Nothing in the MCU has come close for scale and spectacle since. We’ve had just as messy, but maybe less engagingly so. It might just be a trailer, but Spider-Man: No Way Home, a particular character who has seemingly bombarded us in the last decade, looks ridiculously overstuffed and (potentially) not in a good way.
This constant battle between studios and within studios, to outdo one another, or maintain the same high peaks, is increasingly favouring spectacle, fan service and grand ideas over narrative cohesion, structure, and characterisation. Sometimes you can embrace simplicity. For all that The Suicide Squad was a little emotionally vacant, in favour of gleeful irreverence, it had a distinct simplicity, not completely hamstrung by throwing in more and more (and more). Structurally too, whilst not perfect, was at least tidy (the split of two teams within the film is nicely handled by a punchy opening, that eradicates one almost entirely). Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proved to be the most lithe and coherent comic book film this year, opting to be more 80’s Wuxia fantasy ode than strict Marvel formula, and maintaining a focus on its protagonist and his family dynamic. It’s comic book theatrics but thoroughly intimate in comparison to most others of late. Refreshingly, enjoyably simple. With Marvel fatigue that doesn’t quite match Ridley Scott or Jane Campion levels, I didn’t expect to dig Shang-Chi as much as I did (and it even has some multiverse reference) but I enjoyed it a lot (bonus Tony Leung points).
So how long does this particular sub-section of shared universes last? How long can studios keep diving into the multiverse to combine generations of the same characters in different incarnations? Are we gonna see the next Bond sharing screen with Dalton, Craig and Brosnan in a mishandled sci-fi turkey? I suppose Bond windsurfed the iceberg in Die Another Day, so it couldn’t be worse than that. The return of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark seems almost inevitable at some juncture, for better or worse. You could pick five spices to cook your dish, focused on the nuance and character of the dish or you could frivolously empty your spice cupboard into a single pot. One method is more likely to taste better.
What are your thoughts on the multiverse fascination? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/